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The Sum of All Parts

With all the improvements to AI in 2014, why is this season stuck in neutral?

We're two months into Season 13 of American Idol, and there is definitely much to like.  Unfortunately, there is something to dislike as well, but as this is the first editorial of the new season, let's start with the positives.  We are Misters + Miss Brightside.

The judging panel is terrific, if a little bit long-winded, and they have a chemistry that last year's panel famously lacked.  Harry Connick Jr. has been so good, in fact, that he's featured on this week's cover of TV Guide.  The caption is way over-the-top ("How HCJ Saved American Idol"? Really?) but the story itself is on-target: Connick is very tough but fair and sensible, a veritable Simon Cowell without the cruel streak.  It turned out that Keith Urban's folksy style is a perfect counterbalance to Connick's tell-it-like-it-is tone, and even Jennifer Lopez has been a solid contributor rather than the cheerleader she was in her previous tenure.  The turnaround from 2013 is spectacular, and AI's new head honcho Per Blankens, along with co-executive producers Jesse Ignjatovic and Evan Prager, can take a bow.

The themes are sensible, focusing primarily on the content and mood of a song rather than any specific genre.  We're still of the opinion that five genres are fair game for themes: Rock, Country, R&B, Folk, and Classics, because quite honestly, anyone who can't sing at least one song superbly from each of the USA's five basic song groups doesn't deserve the title of "American Idol Champion".  But, the near-open themes of the first few weeks have given the contestants a chance to select material that fits themselves, rather than what an executive producer happened to have on his iPod.

And, there's more.  The contestants are all talented singers, and if some aren't ready for the big stage, that's part of the Idol allure: fans of the show weed out the players who cannot be stars until we're left with just one who (hopefully) can.  The numerous new ways for fans to vote are welcome, and the limit of 50 votes per method is only 12 years overdue.  Losing the iTunes studio versions is unfortunate, but the upside more than makes up for it: the need now only to acquire one-time performance rights for a song, rather than the far more difficult recording and distribution rights, has brought a veritable revolution to the world of Idol music.  S13 has the highest Freshness Factor (78%) and lowest Repeat Factor (0.36) for any season since S1 and S2, which we don't even count for these comparisons anyway.  And, at 12.5 years, it's already virtually guaranteed to shatter the all-time record for Average Song Age unless the new producers have a Roaring Twenties theme up their sleeves.  Ryan Seacrest is doing a solid job as host (again), Rickey Minor is back leading the band (though we still can't understand why, after 13 years, the sound mix is still wildly inconsistent from performance to performance), and the swaybotting has been reduced though, alas, not totally eliminated.

All of which begs the question:  So what the hell is wrong with this season, anyway?

Σ[1..13] < 91 ?

From what we can tell from a quick spin around the Idolsphere this weekend, the majority of the blame is being laid at the feet of the thirteen finalists.  We'll get back to them shortly, but first let's bring up a couple of other issues.

First, the episodes haven't been paced terribly well thus far.  If there is one thing that Nigel Lythgoe did extremely well, it was run a tight ship on a competition night.  Things aren't nearly as bad in S13 as they were during, say, Season Eight, after Lythgoe's first exile from the show and when any given episode might wrap up five minutes too early or ten too late, but never on time.  (Did you watch Mad World live, or on YouTube?)  From where we sit, the pre-performance promos and interviews are much too long, the actual performances are much too short – 98 seconds on average for 'Home' Night, which is really kind of silly – and the judges' critiques are about right bordering on too long.  We think that a rebalancing is needed; an extra 15 to 20 seconds of performance time might help the songs seem not so rushed.

Second, there's the issue of new perma-mentor Randy Jackson, who is also coming in for his fair share of fan criticism.  Though the Dawg has been a frequent target of ours over the years for his live judging skills, we are inclined to give him a pass here.  Jackson is a producer by trade and, save for his propensity for big notes (which may or may not have anything to do with the unfortunate second half of Majesty Rose's performance this week), has had a very successful career.  In his pre-performance clips, Jackson often expresses mild worry that a contestant will misfire on a key aspect of the presentation ("If so-and-so can avoid such-and-such this week..."), and his concern often turns out to be well-founded.  We're a little reluctant at this stage to shoot the messenger.

Third, although this is nit-picking a bit, the new stage is a bit off-putting and the graphics that have been displayed behind the contestants during many performances have been, in a word, dreadful.  If the producers are going to give the Idols only 100 seconds of singing time, it's probably not a great idea to have the audience spend 20 seconds wondering out loud, "What the HELL is that??"

Fourth, there is that old chestnut, the one factor that has caused more American Idol performances over the years to come off the rails than all others combined: song choice.  We're pleased that the songs have been fresh and recent so far...but, that certainly doesn't mean they've been great.  In too many cases, they haven't...though for whatever little it's worth, the WNTS staff unanimously prefers unwise and new to unwise and way-over-rehashed.  "What Makes A Good Song Choice?" will be our theme for editorials this year, and we'll get back to that shortly too.

But, yes, at the end of the day, it all comes back to the contestants.  Idol fans had (and to some extent still hold) very high hopes for the AI13 cast.  Most turned in at least one very fine moment during auditions and Hollywood Week, so we know that, under the right circumstances, each can have a moment.  Yet, five episodes into the new season, there have been just three 5-star performances, and one of those, The Crow and The Butterfly came in at basically 79.500000001 and might not hold its fifth star after our end-of-year normalization.  The fourth-highest performance was a 75, and here even in the second week of March, an approval rating in the 60's is still strong enough to hold down the tenth and final spot on the AI13 Leaderboard.  That can't be good.

Moreover, maybe this year's crew isn't quite as excellent as we originally thought, or at least not as good as the sum of its parts.  We publish 'Batting Statistics' for each contestant, indicating how they fared in head-to-head approval rating matchups against other Idols, past and future, when singing the same song.  We don't publish aggregate data for seasons yet, but we will soon.  If you're wondering, Season Two currently leads the way with a win-loss percentage of .593 (123 wins, 84 losses, 2 ties), followed by AI4 at .540 and AI10 at .531.  Dead last is Season Six: 62 wins, 109 losses, 5 ties, and a dismal .366 winning percentage.  Whoops, did we say last?  Actually, that unenviable position for the moment is held by AI13: 5 wins, 13 losses, and a Detroit Lions-esque .278 percentage.  Yikes.

Beyond the song choices (soon, we promise), the biggest problem seems to be a pretty stunning lack of stage command.  Only Caleb Johnson and, sometimes, Jessica Meuse seem fully comfortable in their skins.  The rest range from awkward-ish (Alex Preston) to noticeably nervous (CJ Harris, Kristen O'Conner) to trying much too hard (Malaya Watson), to play-acting (Emily Piriz) to total deer-in-headlights (MK Nobilette).

A good performance, on the AI stage and everywhere else, involves not just singing well but also 'selling' what you're singing.  Dexter Roberts just posted the highest rating of the week despite his usual enunciation difficulties.  Many reviewers wrote, in essence, "I have no clue what he was singing, but I know whatever it was, he meant it."  If you're of the singer-songwriter vein, effective storytelling is much more important than insane vocal prowess – see the careers and bank accounts of Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, Taylor Swift, et. al.  So far, the Thirteeners have come up scary short in that category, and that, we think, is the biggest issue thus far.

There's still plenty of time for improvement, of course, but there's not a whole lot of time left for AI13's eleven remaining contestants to soothe viewers' concerns and to make them believe that improvement is indeed on the way.  Our correspondant Phan observed last week that Season Thirteen could play out like Season Nine with its midcard restored.  We still hope he's right, because the alternative is that AI13 will be remembered as the Year of Only Midcard.  That can't be good, either.

Good = n > 1

As we Idol analysts can't help the contestants one iota in improving their stage presence, let's instead concentrate on one area where we may be of assistance: choosing songs.  Rule #1: Choose a good one.  Rule #2: See Rule #1.  (Actually, we've identified eight rules; however, they boil down to just those two.)

But...what exactly is a "good" song?  Isn't that entirely subjective?

Yes and no.  Certainly, taste matters.  A song that you consider sublime might be anathema to the person sitting on the next barstool over, or at the other end of your couch.  Similarly, there may be songs that most people find outstanding that you utterly abhor (like, ahem, this one) and others that will elicit groans of agony from everyone in earshot but which you will assert to your death is brilliant (we don't have a hyperlink for it, but, ahem, the Village People's "Macho Man".)

Let us state that the opinions in the preceding paragraph are solely those of WNTS editor Nick.  Should you find Nick's assessment of those two songs horrendous, and you probably do, editors Amy and Brian must be absolved of any blame.  So yes, to some degree a "good" song is a purely individual matter, and coming to a universal consensus on what makes a good song is impossible.

But...and this is important...we're not trying to come to a consensus on what makes a good song.  We're trying to agree on what makes a good song choice for a reality TV singing competition.  That distinction is not a subtle one, either; we believe it can be objectivized and quantified to some degree.  Nick will wholeheartedly agree, for example, that anyone who tries covering "Macho Man" on Idol needs their head examined, preferably by their personal physician back home, ASAP, as in the morning after the results show.  For a less silly example: What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted is a lovely and superb song...so long as Jimmy Ruffin is singing it.  Inside and outside of American Idol, however, it covers horrendously – it always has and probably always will; see Kai Kalama and Didi Benami for details.

Covers.  Yeah.  That's the ticket.

We'll be back either next weekend or perhaps the one after with the first installment in our "Song Choice" Idolmetrics series.  And, yes, it will be based on the notion of covers.  In the meantime, try this exercise, which is where we'll begin our study with the assistance of our longtime colleague, noted music critic Ken Barnes.

Go through your 'all-time' MP3 playlist – not just tracks that you own, mind you, but ones that you would put on your MP3 player of 'Favorite (say) 2000 Recordings Ever'.  What songs appear more than once, sung by two different artists?  (Live and studio versions by the same band don't count.)  Begin with the postulate that by having two different versions of the song, you are implicitly stating that the song covers well, or at least that it has one time.

Now...what are those songs?  Why do they cover well?  Why do other songs you may like much more, and which you might even believe are far superiorly-crafted songs, not cover well, like "Brokenhearted"?  Why does NARAS award two separate Grammys for "Record Of The Year" and "Song Of The Year"?

Theorems: songs that a lot of people believe cover well are the ones that contestants ought to be choosing.  More succinctly: choose great songs, not great records.  Think about that for a bit as we wait for AI13, hopefully, to evolve into more than the sum of its 13 original parts.

- The WNTS.com Team

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