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Pre-Drawn And Quartered

Idol's first-ever quarterfinals were a mixed bag, but an old problem remains

It's said that anyone who enjoys sausages or the law should never watch either being made.  After sitting through the inaugural Vegas Sudden Death Post-Hollywood Quarterfinal fortnight (we're still not sure what to call it), we're tempted to add "American Idol semifinalists" to that adage.  For the first time, we viewers had a front-row seat as the producers and judges whittled the annual Top 40 down to the short list of candidates who'll compete for America's votes.  It was not a process for the faint of heart.

Don't get us wrong: we're definitely grateful for 19E's newfound transparency.  We also acknowledge that the major upside of the quarterfinals hasn't arrived yet.  That will come next week, when voters will base their Finalist picks having seen two full performances by each contestant, rather than only one.  That's huge, and whatever the downsides of the new format – and we'll get to those in a few paragraphs, don't worry – that one benefit has the potential to trump them all.  Kudos to Nigel Lythgoe, Ken Warwick and friends for coming up with the idea.

The quarterfinalists also gave the newly overhauled judging panel a chance to get their feet wet before a live audience.  No doubt it was a jarring experience for superstars Keith Urban and Nicki Minaj to be booed lustily by a crowd, but that comes with the territory if the judge is being forthright and doing the job they were hired to do.  (Besides, if you paid us even one-tenth of what 19E is paying them, you could boo us and jeer us and even throw tomatoes at us, as long as they were summer Jersey ones.)  Mariah Carey is too sweet and inoffensive to get booed all that much, but even she managed to deliver a handful of worthwhile critiques along the way.  The best news on the judging front is that the changes seem to have lit a fire under Randy Jackson, who made more sense in the past two weeks than he has in years.  He really ought to be occupying the fourth and final chair so as to have the last word.  If that means seating Minaj and Carey next to one another and praying that they don't claw each other's eyes out, so be it.

On the music front, the open format of the quarterfinals gave the contestants the option to choose modern material to sing...and for the most part, they did.  The average song age (ASA) of the four Vegas episodes was 17.5 years, and that's unprecedentedly young for Idol.  Only twice before has the ASA in the pre-finals been under 20 years:  it was 19.3 in AI2, and 19.2 last year.  The Freshness Factor (FF) wasn't so hot: only 50% of the songs were new to American Idol, which is below average.  The Repeat Factor (RF) was a disquieting 1.025; that means, on average, each song had been performed a hair over one time previously.  Season 11 was the first to "break the buck" and post an RF above 1 (it was 1.20); we hope the Twelvers don't plan to follow in their dubious footsteps.

(By the way, get used to the term "pre-finals", because we need a synonym for "quarterfinals and semifinals" that won't sprain our fingers.)

As for the web approval ratings thus far...well, they're hovering around 46, which is obviously not good.  Bear in mind though that the expanded field included a number of singers who wouldn't have been in the database at all in past seasons.  The 20 chosen semifinalists posted an average rating of 55.7.  That's about the opening norm for the set of finalists each year, and we still have ten more to let go before we reach that milestone.  So if you are royally p.o.'ed about the quality of the 2013 field, we'd suggest that you hold off on your bile for one more week so that we can make an apples-to-apples comparison.

Sausage With a Side of Sauerkraut

Now let's get to those downsides, shall we?

First, if we are being frank: those four shows were a slog to sit through.  Newcomers to WNTS might not suspect there's much of a difference between a 46 episode rating and a 54.  It's only eight measly points on a 0-to-100 scale, after all.

Veterans, however, realize that the gap between four points below average and four above is enormous.  A 54 episode rating is a Now And Then Night from last April.  It means a couple of 5-star performances like Holly Cavanaugh's Rolling In The Deep and Phil Phillips's U Got It Bad.  It means a nice selection of 4-star and high 3-star numbers, like Jessica Sanchez's Fallin'.  It's filled out with a bunch of decent but forgettable performances, plus maybe a clunker or two like Colton Dixon's September, although we still think the Idolsphere had to be high on freaking crack when they gave Dixon a lousy 27 for it...ahem, we mean, although opinions on even those lesser-rated performances may still differ markedly among viewers.  In short, after a 54 show, you turn off your TV and go to bed more or less satisfied.  After four shows that averaged 46, you turn off your TV by throwing your remote through the screen.

Perhaps this is simply a matter of we viewers needing to adjust our expectations.  The quarterfinals are really just an extension of Hollywood Week, and we shouldn't expect finals- or even semifinals-caliber performances in the future.  That might save a lot of angst among Idol fans.

The seemingly unending parade of ballads didn't help matters.  Our colleague Ken Barnes was keeping a sad tally of the ballad-to-midtempo/uptempo ratio early on, but we're pretty sure he eventually lost count.  It was over a 2-to-1 ratio overall (ouch!), and what's worse, the judges rewarded the balladeers by sending them disproportionately through to the semifinals (double ouch!)  Depending on where you draw the line between ballad and midtempo, between 15 and 17 of the 20 advancers sang a slow song, the rest went midtempo, and zero, zilch, jack-squat, nada sang a true uptempo number.  (Breanna Steer probably came the closest.)  This doesn't bode well for the rest of the season.

As for the judges...we thought their critiques of the singers were pretty good overall, particularly Nicki Minaj's.  Minaj, however, is at best an acquired taste.  At worst, she is an industrial-sized can of Middle America Repellant.  TV ratings for American Idol this season started out poor and have tanked ever since, and the consensus inside and outside the industry is that the free fall can be explained in two words.  While polling web sites for reviews this week, we hit Yahoo.com's AI board as we often do, and we were stunned at the level of vitriol directed her way from every corner.  One scathing anti-Minaj rant had 52 thumbs-up and zero thumbs-down.  Now, if you have ever had the misfortune of reading Yahoo!'s comment section, you'll know that 52-to-0 is simply not possible under normal circumstances.  You could post "I believe that the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776" and you wouldn't come close to 52-zip in agreement.

There is little the producers can do now in terms of damage control.  Minaj is who she is.  She acts a certain way, she talks a certain way, she's not going to change for anyone or anything, and 19E surely knew all of this when they hired her.  We suspect that hardcore Idol fans like the WNTS staff and most of its readers are so grateful to have a judge that gives fair and unvarnished critiques that they'll overlook virtually everything else...including her observation that she wanted to have an 18-year-old contestant's babies (which we hope we can call "utterly appalling" without you thinking us to be prudes.)

Perhaps 19E hoped that Minaj's raw, controversial behavior would boost ratings.  If so, the early returns would suggest they seriously miscalculated.  If the Nielsen numbers keep heading south, we might be writing "fatally" instead of "seriously" before long.  We wonder if the producers are giving even a passing thought to cutting Minaj loose before the finals, an unthinkably drastic action in past years, but these are not normal times.

Pre-Cooking The Kielbasa

Which brings us to our biggest complaint thus far, and it's one we know that many Idol analysts have already written about.  The judges' individual performance critiques' were, by and large, acceptable to good.  Their choices for who earned the 20 semifinalist spots, however, were less so.  Considering that the two judges they replaced had earned the exact opposite reputation over the past two seasons – excellent casting, lousy game-night coaching – this was a major paradigm shift, and it seems to have landed with a thud across the Idolsphere.

Mind you, we fully grasp the fact that more than one final solo performance in Las Vegas determines who does and doesn't make the semifinals, and that actual singing talent is only one variable in the equation.  American Idol is still a reality TV series.  The producers need to assemble a group of contestants who will keep America entertained and engaged for the better part of three months.  We also acknowledge that the quarterfinals format is a moderately risky experiment on the part of 19E.  After 11 years of opacity and all those ridiculous "three rooms" and "elevator ride" episodes, it was our first live glimpse into the final decision-making process of the Idol machine.  We don't mean to be ingrates...but we can't help recalling what they say about sausages.

If it looked to you like most of the Top 20 selections were preordained...well, duh!  Of course they were.  This is still the Producers' Republic of Idolvania, where marketing manipulation is the national sport.  Every season we tag the candidates based on how much early TV exposure they receive, and we've shown and re-shown that the producers largely decide before the first audition episode airs who they want in the finals.  Then they promote the hell out of them for weeks.

As they generously do every year, correspondents Phan and Julie kept careful notes of who earned what level of airtime during the Audition and Hollywood rounds.  Their consensus assessments can be found on each contestant's WNTS page.  If the Vegas rounds were truly sudden death, in the sense that only that night's performance determined who advanced and who didn't, then we might expect the three major exposure groups to produce a comparable percentage of semifinalists.  Even if you assume that the producers gave "pimp pieces" to whom they objectively felt were the strongest singers, then perhaps the Promo group would have a higher rate of advancement but a substantially higher average approval rating as well.

Table of quarterfinalists by exposure

The nearby table shows the actual numbers, and once again we observe sadly that first seven weeks of the season were, as usual, just another dog-and-pony show.  Of the 14 most heavily promoted quarterfinalists in the early shows, 10 are still alive.  Yes, they did outsing their lesser-featured counterparts, but not by a margin that would seemingly justify that gap in advancement percentage.  Same old, same old, woof and neigh and all that.

In the end, the AI12 Top 20 looks suspiciously like a throwback to "Epoch One".  (If you're not familiar with The Idol Guy's theory of Idol epochs, think Seasons One, Two, and Three.)  Lots of divas.  Theater and gospel veterans.  Heavy on R&B; virtually devoid of rockers and country.  Big-voiced boomers of torch songs.  Did we mention the divas?  Playing an instrument of any sort during the quarterfinals turned out to be an almost foolproof way to get sent home.  Remember, based on the "pimp piece" distribution, this was all largely decided in advance.

We understand the fact that the producers are so desperate for a female winner, or at least a non-WGWG winner, that they'd sell their souls to the Devil and still give him change.  But in casting the 2013 field, they stacked the deck in the other direction to the point of absurdity.  Like it or not, for five years running the people who watch the show, sit through all the sponsors' commercials, and vote have chosen a male pop singer/songwriter/musician type as their champion.  To give them nobody in that vein this year is a mighty arrogant way of doing business.  If the TV ratings so far have Fox concerned, they may not have seen anything yet.

In every season, there are contestants cut before the semifinals who we wish had made it through.  We cope and move on.  This year, however, one quarterfinalist's dismissal has us particularly irked.  David Willis's singing may not have blown the roof off the Mirage, but his vocals were certainly passable, and his novel, bouncy, semi-acoustic twist on the old standard Fever was the most intriguing musical excursion of the past two weeks.  By a lot.  Willis's appearance had hundreds of Idol veterans smirking and simultaneously coining the acronym "BGWG."  But, he was one of the very few quarterfinalists who had our staff wondering out loud, "Gee, I wonder what this kid'll do next week?"

That expectant question almost singlehandedly drove the past five seasons among the show's core fans.  Many of the most successful Idols of Epochs Three and Four (Seasons Seven through Eleven) crafted their strategy to leave viewers asking it.  Not all of them were white, or guys, or guitar players.  There was Brooke White, and Carly Smithson; Chikezie and Jason Castro; Allison Iraheta and Siobhan Magnus; Haley Reinhart and Elise Testone.  And yes, David Cook and Kris Allen and Lee DeWyze and Phillip Phillips, too.  Even if we personally didn't care for all of those contestants, we always appreciated their creativity, particularly in the early stages of the voting rounds while we viewers were busy weeding out the undercard.

We understand the producers' obsession with crowning a different sort of winner this May...but Willis's dismissal suggests strongly that the first "W" in WGWG wasn't the part that was irking them.  Rather, it appears that they felt the "GWG" was the problem.  If so, we strongly and vocally disagree with their sentiment.  For the time being, all we can do is hope, for the sake of the show and the remainder of the season, that they didn't just send the next Kris Allen home.

- The WNTS.com Team

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