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Up To The Mountain

The three-year jinx continues, but there's a road forward in 2014...

Finalist David Willis knew that he needed to change things up, pronto.  He'd been solid since the Quarterfinals, of course, when he introduced himself to America with a solid pop reworking of Fever.  But, he was having a difficult time getting much notice next to the five very strong girls.  The novelty of his being a "BGWG" had worn off, and though most viewers agreed he'd sung pretty well, he looked slotted for a sixth-place finish; fifth place at best.  Sitting alone in the rehearsal room one evening, he pondered how his forerunners like Kris Allen and Lee DeWyze had faced this predicament as well.  They too needed to keep pace with much stronger technical vocalists, and they chose to pick boldly and let their creativity do the talking.  Knowing that everyone else had chosen Motown songs for Detroit Night, Willis crumpled up the sheet music for the Stevie Wonder ballad he'd picked.  It was time to take a chance, he thought, by rocking out to an old blues classic from Bob Seger....

American Idol is at a crossroads.  Pretty crappy opening line for our Season Twelve summary, isn't it?  But, hey, it was a crappy year...and, cliché or no cliché, it's the truth.  The producers, who were concerned about slipping ratings the past two seasons, now know what a free fall feels like.  Despite the decent 51.2 average approval rating and the arguably the most deserving winner since a certain Texas waitress (and we think we have the stats to back that up, too), AI12 was nothing short a disaster.  Any attempt to sugarcoat it serves nobody's interests.

Yet, some across the Idolsphere are indeed inclined to pour some sugar on thee.  One of the better Idol blogs features a pair of analysts whose give-and-take conversation is almost always worth reading.  Except, last week, one asked if the hell of the first three months of Season 12 was "worth it" based on how strong the Final Four, and especially the Final Two, happened to be.  Their conclusion: yep, it was.  A few other sites have been putting forth the same argument.  More than a few, in fact.  Too many for our tastes.

And now...a physics brain teaser.  It's relevant, trust us.  You are driving a mountain road that goes essentially straight up for one mile, then straight down for another mile.  You want to average 60 miles per hour (or km/hour if you prefer) for the two-mile trip.  But, it's a steep mountain, and when you reach the summit you see that you've only averaged 30 MPH thus far.  How fast do you have to travel on the downslope to meet your 60 MPH goal overall?

While you ponder that poser, we'll go back to AI.  Quite frankly, we pretty much said all we needed to say about AI12 a few weeks ago.  We wrote, "American Idol stinks right now," and we meant it.  Have we softened our position in the past six weeks?  You really don't need to ask that question, we trust.  We'll concede that one out-of-the-blue performance truly served as the turning point of 2013, and it ushered in a five-week stretch run in which the S12 ladies averaged nearly 57...but even if it were 67 or 77, it wouldn't have been enough.  Five weeks of triumph can't overcome twelve weeks of misery.

Which brings us to the answer to the brain teaser.  The speed you need to achieve on the downslope isn't 90 miles per hour.  It's not 120 MPH, either.  It's...infinity.  To average 60 MPH overall, you need to traverse the two-mile hill in two minutes.  At 30 MPH, it already took you those two minutes to get to the top.  No matter how fast you finish, you can't average a mile a minute.  Similarly, no matter how well those five girls sang in the past month, they couldn't pull this season up to par in our estimation.  Your mileage may vary.

Although Juliana Chahayed had narrowly earned her spot as the season's 11th finalist, she too was slowly slipping further and further behind the five front-running women.  Chahayed's song choices had been original, but her singing style was clearly a love-it-or-hate-it proposition.  Heck, Skyscraper had a 28 s.d., and it'd been all downhill...er, uphill...from there.  Her octave-leaping vocals came off as breathtaking to some and unnecessary to others.  Like Adam Lambert or Siobhan Magnus before her, that style of singing was hardly everyone's cup of tea.  Unlike her fellow midcard competitor Willis, her problem wasn't needing a thunderclap moment to get noticed.  Rather, she knew she had to find a song like The Tracks Of My Tears or Paint It, Black - something that virtually everyone knew and liked, and which still came off as fresh to Idol, but one in which she could put her unusual vocal skills to good use.  And so, for Rock Night, she decided to go off the beaten path and take on some Sonic Youth....

If we can believe the reports coming out of Fox, American Idol is about to get the Extreme Makeover full spa treatment.  Randy Jackson is already out.  It's beyond human comprehension that Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey will be back.  We have friends and colleagues who will be heartbroken to see Minaj go, and three months ago we might have been right there with them.  Minaj has been (at times anyway) the most perceptive, occasionally refreshing, and spot-on judge since Simon Cowell.  But, she's also been an unmitigated disaster from a franchise standpoint, and to deny this any longer would be simply irresponsible.  Rapper feuds and incessant self-preening might work in some corners of the music industry, but the Idol judges' table is not among them.  Surely somewhere out there is an established artist who can deliver honest, laser-sharp, unflinching commentary without being so off-putting as Minaj.  If not, then it's time to fold the tents.

Also out, it seems, is a good chunk of the 19E and Fremantle production crew.  That too is fine by us.  The show is dying and needs new blood, and whatever good Nigel Lythgoe has done for Idol – and it's been quite an enormous amount over the years – it's clear that he, like Jackson and Minaj, is set in his ways and has no intention of changing in the face of any level of criticism.  Again, we have correspondents we respect who disagree strongly here, but to us Lythgoe's die was cast on Burt Bacharach Night:  a perfectly great idea for a change-of-pace theme, had golden oldies not been the "pace" all season.

Other rumors are promising as well:  an end to theme nights, individual mentors to work with the Finalists, a return to a three judge panel, and a focus on industry experts rather than big-name stars.  (The fact that Jimmy Iovine has had to serve as a de facto judge the past few years shows how poorly Idol has done at hiring judges.)  Hollywood/Vegas weeks are apparently up for revamping, but auditions, alas, are not; Fox wants to keep them as-is.  We hope they reconsider.

We also hear that the music on the show will change, thank God.  We need newer songs, fresher songs, more diversity, and fewer ballads, not necessarily in that order.  One worry is that the past two weeks might be emblematic of where Fox is headed: with the exception of choosing a reprise, the Final Three had no say whatsoever in what they sang.  We really don't like this trend one bit, but we agree that something has to be done to keep the contestants from going this Ballad Happy ever again.

But there's still one change above all that must be made, or else American Idol will never get over the hump...or the hill, as it were.

It was 3 AM, and Josh "JDA" Davila was lying awake in bed in his hotel, his mind racing.  The outgoing transvestite from Chicago understood that his spot in the quarterfinals was intended as a one-shot affair: essentially a thank-you gesture from the producers to the gay community, in which the show is (or, at least at one time, was) enormously popular.  So, he vamped it up to Rumor Has It and had a blast...but what he didn't expect was that he'd make it through to the Semifinals, largely because most of the other guys that night were awful.  Should he put on another over-the-top performance in two weeks' time?  Surely that's what the producers expected of him...but JDA was having other ideas.  Maybe he couldn't outsing some of the girls, but he'd seen the other nine guys he'd be competing with for a spot in the Finals.  Dammit, he knew he could outsing most of them.  And, that could make all the difference in having a successful career as a professional entertainer vs. being the answer to a trivia question.  America's attitudes had changed in a few short years, but he recognized that, straight, gay or anything in between, nobody was going to vote for him if he put on more cabaret numbers.  No, he decided, this was too golden of an opportunity to waste.  He would try to toe a fine line between who he was and what he wanted to be.  He'd surprise America by starting with some James Brown....

Historically, American Idol is different from other reality singing competitions.  Most of the other shows like The Voice and X-Factor are all about the judges.  There is an enormous irony that a guy who spent nine years calling singers "indulgent" (usually deservingly) left AI to start his own show in which the quarterfinals take place at...the judges' mansions??  Similarly, once the current season is over, most contestants on other series disappear as fast as they arrived.

Idol, however, is about the contestants and their journey and their development as artists.  For that reason, their contestants had much more staying power and real careers than those of rival franchises.  The judges were co-stars but never the stars...at least, that was true until this year.  In fact, it was never more true than Seasons Ten and Eleven, in which two-thirds of the judging table was so completely hopeless that they couldn't do anything but cheerlead.  But, as we've said before, we have the utmost respect for Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler in one regard: they cast the seasons well, then stepped back and let the contestants battle it out.  That, ultimately, is what Idol should be all about (though occasional half-competent critiques ought to be part of the job description, too.)

This year, the producers tried to script the journey.  To quite one Rocket J. Squirrel, watching Bullwinkle trying to pull a rabbit out of his hat for the umpteenth time: "That trick never works!"  But, Mr. Lythgoe and friends forgot about that.  They wanted a girl to win.  They wanted a heartthrob or two whose battle against adversity would provide drama.  They wanted carefully controlled story arcs.  They got a trainwreck.

The three little vignettes you read above, however, are the sort of decisions and drama that American Idol is all about.  Getting noticed.  Showing you could put your talents to something crowd-pleasing on occasion.  Being true to yourself while trying to survive as long as possible.  That's what fuels this show.  Had the three quarterfinalists whose names we borrowed been advanced to the Semifinals (as, ahem, we think they should have), they would have faced those sort of decisions.  And no, we wouldn't have been in the rehearsal room or the hotel suite with them, but we wouldn't need to: as Idol fans, we'd know they had those tough calls to make, and we'd get to see what they decided every Wednesday night.

And that...is American Idol!!  Or at least, it should be.  If whoever steers the ship next season keeps those principles in mind, and understands what the show is truly all about, then the journey has just begun.  If not, it's over...and furthermore, it deserves to end.  The journey of a thousand miles, or just two miles up and down a mountain, begins with a single step....

- The WNTS.com Team

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