So here we are, halfway through our fateful journey on the high seas. The Season Eleven finals: Six episodes down, six more to go until a new champion is crowned. The ship's crew has just launched their one and only lifeboat of the year – wisely, for once – so the seven remaining passengers have no margin for error. And, considering that all seven are averaging 57 or better for their solo performances, that's a big deal, particularly in a season where there is nothing resembling a clear favorite.
It was one hundred years ago this weekend that the "unsinkable" RMS Titanic scraped an iceberg in the North Atlantic and, uh, sank. Score it Mother Nature 1, Marketing Dept. 0. Please understand, your noble WhatNotToSing.com staff does not wish to come off as insensitive by metaphorically equating a maritime tragedy that cost over 1,500 innocent lives with a reality TV singing competition that costs its viewers only a few hours a week, plus their collective marbles from time to time. However, we needed a theme for this weekend's editorial, and the obvious choices are either the Titanic or Tax Day. So, uh...yeah. All hands on deck, and so forth.
One thing is clear: The USS American Idol has entered uncharted waters. Normally by this point of the Finals, we fans of the show are doing our best to endure a half-dozen ridiculous outrages and irritations; including, but not limited to: Cute but struggling contestants whose fanbases show no signs of putting them out of their misery anytime soon. Comically irrelevant themes. Comically contrived controversies. The producers comically playing favorites. Shows running way late. Songs recycled for the umpteenth time. Weekly trainwrecks. Inept judging...er, okay, so maybe these waters aren't completely uncharted.
This year, however, there are few eyesores to spoil the view from the promenade deck. True, the producers went to their creaky catalog of pre-cleared songs too often in the early going. Fortunately, the blistering torrent of criticism from their not-coincidentally-shrinking viewership convinced them to change course, pronto. (Well, that and the fact that it soon became clear that the AI11 crew, unlike all of their predecessors, were far more adept at covering modern-day material than oldies.) We harbor some faint hope that from here on out, save for the weeks in which a particular mentor and his/her songbook has already been booked, all of the themes will be more or less "Open". (Ryan: "Tune in next week when our contestants will be taking on 'Songs With a Preposition in the Lyrics!' ")
One source of annoyance, alas, has been the D-word and its close cousin, the T-word. If we tell you that the S-word is "solo", you can surely figure out the rest. We'll reluctantly concede that the suits at Fox put Mssrs. Warwick and Lythgoe into a very awkward situation this year. They were obviously told that every competition night episode must run for two hours. Their mission was to figure out a way to fill that allotted time no matter how many contestants they happened to have on hand each week.
History has taught us, often painfully, that the ideal number of performances per hour on American Idol is six to eight. Five is doable in a pinch, though the amount of filler required is reminiscent of a cheap crabcake. Nine is definitely pushing things beyond their natural limits, and ten...well, when AI once tried to squeeze ten songs into an hour, Paula Abdul began speaking in tongues and critiquing performances that hadn't even been given yet. Nobody wants to go there again.
It would seem to us, all else being equal, that the only number of contestants that should cause the producers serious agita is nine. With ten, you kill time by showing baby pictures. With eight or fewer, you have them sing two songs apiece – yes, 16 performances in two hours is definitely a logistical challenge, but please don't tell us it can't be done. For years, the Final 8 show (not to mention the semifinal Group rounds of the first three seasons) ran precisely one hour. With that said, if the producers elected to stage the Final 8 show each year to comprise eight solo performances and four D-words, we won't complain...provided that they are the only duets of the season!
Whither the Final 9? Allow us to make a modest proposal to the folks at 19E. American Idol, unlike its numerous copycat competitors, is a grass-roots singing competition. The first time we meet each contestant, those odious "pimp pieces" notwithstanding, he or she is singing a cappella to the judges in the hopes of earning a golden ticket to Hollywood. We suggest that in the Final 9 show every year, let the contestants go back to their roots, as it were. Have them sing two songs apiece: one round with the usual band accompaniment and flashy staging, and the other round a cappella. Just them and a mic stand in the middle of a dimly-lit, pin-drop quiet stage. They can reprise their audition song or do something new, but one way or another, they must do it all alone.
We recognize that a lot has changed since the early years of AI. The fancy special effects alone take time to set up (witness Skylar Laine's flaming oil barrels on Wednesday, not to mention the extravaganzas that AI10's James Durbin dreamed up on a weekly basis). Plus, contestants nowadays are permitted to play instruments. As Senior Editor Brian, a former roadie back in his Toronto salad days, will tell you, wiring concert instruments for sound is a lot harder than it looks no matter how much prep time you put in. Throw in the need to wheel a variety of grand pianos on and off the stage during a commercial break (and keep in mind that Elise Testone was going to play drums last week), and we could hardly blame Idol's longtime and long-suffering stage manager Debbie Williams if she chose to fly to South Jersey and hunt us down like dogs for even suggesting the possibility of 18 performances in two hours.
But a cappella performances, if done sequentially, require no special hassles or hoops-jumping on anyone's part. All nine of them, with brief and appropriate critiques by the judges, could easily fit into the first 45 minutes with commercials. That would leave a leisurely 75 minutes for the nine "regular" performances. Plus, it would bring a new and (we'd dare to venture) far better-liked yearly tradition to American Idol than, say, the silly annual "Huff-ing" of a hapless contestant during the Final Seven results show. You're welcome, folks.
A great many readers have written to ask if the latest round of duets would cost three of the remaining contestants their perfect games. Laine, Colton Dixon, and Jessica Sanchez hadn't dropped below a 50 approval rating all season until this week's group performances tanked...probably because web reviewers had grown sick to death of them.
We'll be frank: we still haven't decided what to do. Several readers have urged us, some more politely than others, to drop all duets from the database. The problem there is threefold:
Indeed, one of the high-water marks in AI history was Adam Lambert and Allison Iraheta cranking out a spectacular 88 for Slow Ride. On the same night, and despite singing partner Kris Allen's valiant salvage operation, Danny Gokey helped torpedo his Finale aspirations with Renegade. In short, those two performances mattered. A year later, the AI9 Final 4 produced a pair of approval ratings in the 70s on their duets, and in our humble opinion Falling Slowly absolutely deserved a fifth star. We are very reluctant to throw out these babies with the fetid bathwater that Season 11 produced, just because the producers elected to overdo what was a once-a-year novelty.
To quote the immortal Yul Brenner in The King And I: "Is a puzzlement!" We'll keep you posted. For now, in keeping with the baseball metaphor, consider Laine, Dixon and Sanchez to have lost their "perfect games" on a defensive error...but, they still have a shot at a "no-hitter" if all of their solo performances remain at 50 or above.
This week's voting results weren't terribly well received across the Idolsphere, needless to say. Still, when reading the blogs and boards this weekend, it was easy for us to separate the people who've been watching this show since its early days from the Johnny-come-latelies. The latter were appalled and angry and ready to ascribe every sinister motive under the sun to the outcome. Some were plausible (e.g., the unfortunate but longstanding biases of race, sex and geography, which we covered in our previous editorial). Some were not, particularly the suggestion that the producers contrived a phony result in order to inflate their TV ratings. Evidently these greenhorns have never seen Quiz Show or heard of the Twenty-One scandal, or else they believe that Ken Warwick & Nigel Lythgoe are just itching to spend a few years in a federal penitentiary with two thousand of their closest felonial friends.
Veteran viewers, however, seemed to take the unexpected near-ouster of Sanchez in stride. As we said on our home page this Thursday, this sort of thing has happened before, and it'll undoubtedly happen again. Often. It's a simple consequence of the American Idol voting system, which has been broken for eternity and a day and which the producers have never really made an adequate effort to fix, the Judges' Save nothwithstanding.
Here's what we think happened. Of the seven remaining contestants, two – country gal Laine and throwback R&B crooner Joshua Ledet – have no natural competitors remaining in the competition, giving them a huge leg up. Dixon and Phil Phillips are in a mini-competition for the Rocker Boy vote (i.e., the "WGWG"/"WGWP" bloc), while Sanchez and Hollie Cavanagh have been vying for the Cute Pop Girl With Insane Pipes vote, a season-long battle in which Sanchez has pretty much been declared the consensus winner. Contestant #7, Testone, is an odd bird – she is partly on her own little island, but also partly competing for the Rocker and Pop Female votes too.
If everyone were simply to vote for their favorite contestant each week, Sanchez would have been safe. However, as we discussed many years ago in Misery Loves Company, where we first introduced the so-called "Mighty Mouse" and "Sesame Street" Effects (MME and SSE respectively, see the original article's addendum in particular), there was more at play this week. Jimmy Iovine explicitly mentioned the mini-boss battle between Dixon and Phillips, stating sooner or later America would have to make a decision between them. Ryan Seacrest helped matters along by asking Phillips about it directly in his pre-performance interview. We're certain that this produced an unexpected but strong SSE: voters feared that the decision could be imminent, and they wanted to have their say in which of the two guys deserved to outlast the other. (Lesson to Jimmy and Ryan: sometimes silence is golden, and this was one of those times.)
As for Cavanagh, she benefitted from a phenomenon that has also plagued American Idol since time immemorial: a voter backlash brought on by a crappy critique from the judges. No doubt the T-Word at the front table went into the evening with good intentions. They recognized that natural competitors Cavanagh and Sanchez were in a mini-boss battle of their own. They believed, and we suspect a majority of viewers would agree with them, that if the decision had to be made that night, Sanchez deserved to advance based on her full body of work. They might even have reasoned that after a couple of rocky weeks in such a strong field, it was Cavanagh's "turn to go". All well and good, but when the perky Brit-turned-Texan went back to her balladeering strong suit and produced a Perfect-ly respectable 59-rated performance, the judges were caught flat-footed. Jennifer Lopez, after some awkward hemming and hawing, did finally manage to get a few complimentary words out, but Steven Tyler and Randy Jackson never got past the hem/haw phase.
As we polled websites for approval ratings, it became very clear to us that Cavanagh wasn't going anywhere near Texas this week. Her fans (and even quite a few of her non-fans) were angry at what they felt was a classic American Idol "bussing". We'd suggest to Miss C. that she not unpack her bags too eagerly, because a backlash of this sort seldom has a shelf life of more than one week. Nonetheless, we'd even more strongly suggest to the judges – for (*sigh*) what is approximately the two billionth time – that no matter what your pre-show plans happened to be, when a relatively weak contestant turns in a better-than-expected performance, critique it fairly for the love of God! This is a hell of a lot easier than having to rip the microphone out of a shock eliminee's hand the next night. It's also more tasteful than whining to America that they need to, and we cringefully quote Randy Jackson here, "Vote for the best!" (Incidentally, if our friends at VoteForTheWorst.com popped champagne corks at the Dawg's ill-advised comment as the closing credits rolled on Thursday, all we can say to them is: "Cheers, lads!")
Consistently fair critiques from the judges would help reduce unjust voting results, though (a) they'll never prevent them entirely and (b) this is about as likely to happen as if we requested that all future icebergs equip themselves with flashing lights and flares before breaking off from the mother glacier. Still, it's particularly essential here in Season Eleven, when even the "relatively weak" singers are comfortably in the top quartile of all finalists in the show's history! Arguably, none of these contestants would deserve to finish outside the Top Five in any previous season. Every elimination from here on out is going to be painful – very painful. Now that the judges have used their Save, all they can do is to "do the right thing"...then keep their fingers crossed that the voters will do the same.
As for avoiding future SSE's and MME's...well, we can't. Not unless the producers overhaul the voting system, that is, and they've shown precisely zero inkling to do that. The Judges Save, even on the off-chance that it's used wisely, is a one-time-only fix. There will always be subplots to every vote that skew the results, such as whether one bad performance should send a previously decent contestant home (that, incidentally, is what triggers the Mighty Mouse Effect), or which singer in what should be a two-contestant decision deserves to be eliminated (the Sesame Street Effect.)
What's necessary is a means by which the current voting system is more or less preserved, but one where the best singers each week are safe from elimination. And, we think we have just the ticket.
Now that online voting at AmericanIdol.com is well established, perhaps its time for the producers to expand its scope a bit. Rather than choosing one contestant, why not have web voters grade all of the contestants that night, similar to what we do here at WNTS each week. Simple statistical methods can be used to normalize different voters' evaluation scales (e.g., the kindhearted soul who can't bear to give even the worst train wreck lower than a "B-") and to weed out biased ballots (e.g., someone who gives his or her favorite an "A+" and everyone else an "F", along with far subtler ploys.) One can then decree that, say, contestants in the top 20% of the ratings are immune from elimination, which is otherwise still based on how many fangirls and fanboys each can coax into dialing/texting for them. If you need help with this, 19E, please drop us a line. A lifeline, as it were.
Complaints about the themes/format, the judges, and the voting system aside – and let's be honest, what would an Idol season be without them? – this has been quite an enjoyable year. Full credit goes to the AI11 Final Seven, who we're confident someday will be thought of in the same league as the AI2 Final Three, the AI5 Final Five, and what we still feel was, at least until now, the franchise's high-water mark: the AI8 Final Four. Certainly it's possible that the pressure and some ill-fitting themes will yet cause them to generate a train wreck or three, but even if they do, they did a superb job just getting to this spot.
These are heady days for AI fans, even if there are only half as many of us as there were five seasons ago. We all spent years begging and pleading and – yeah let's stay honest – ridiculing Simon Fuller and company for their exasperating, self-defeating strategy of choosing contestants with great backstories over ones with excellent singing skills. The producers are still paying for all those years of pissing all over their franchise, of course. Try telling a former fan of the show that they really ought to tune in this year, because the kids are all honest-to-goodness terrific for once, and see what sort of response you get. Ours has typically been a snort of derision and a quick change of subject to sports or politics.
Still, we fans should be allowed a moment of smug satisfaction. Simon Cowell once cynically observed that were he merely to cast the semifinals with the 24 best singers he found, then American Idol would be "boring." Today, a backstory-free, personality-challenged (we, uh, mean that in a nice way) septet is making Cowell's pronouncement sound as foolish as if someone were desperate enough to pay Britney Spears $15 million a year to judge a televised singing contest. Oh, wait....
Seriously: sorry, Simon, but while we still fully respect you as the man most responsible for making Idol the success it is today, this was one area in which – pardon the expression – you missed the boat.
- The WNTS.com Team