Fixing American IdleWhere did 'Idol's' Mojo go?
By Bret Federigan
Don't get me wrong. "American Idol" remains one of my favorite shows on the tube. I watched last night's coronation with as much rapt attention as the next guy. But surprising as it was given the hype, David Cook's stirring victory in the much ballyhooed final didn't do much to salvage what has been a disappointing season of America's still top-rated show.
Blame it on the writers' strike. Blame it on the expected pangs that any hit show will feel in its seventh season. Heck, blame it on the over-saturation of competition-based reality shows on the viewing public. The fact remains that ratings for "Idol" have continued to sag, even despite numerous tweaks this year by the show's producers to keep the franchise relevant and exciting.
This season, more than any other, has seemed an over-reaction to the particular deficiencies of the prior one. If you'll recall, season six of "Idol" was completely underwhelming, marked by a ho-hum final pitting Jordan Sparks and Blake Lewis. But, perhaps the lasting legacy of season six is the "Sanjaya Effect" - a phenomenon that allowed a lesser talent to advance through the competition by the sheer power of his personality. Responding to Sanjaya's unexpected - and definitely unwanted - success, the producers this year made sure to secure a slate of twelve finalists with solid singing chops. The result? Solid singing performances from week to week, but a dearth of interesting characters and stories that America could latch on to. Season seven offered up legitimate vocal talents like Michael Johns and Carly Smithson, but in the end did America care?
So, what should "American Idol" do to regain its Mojo and re-secure its rightful place at the center of water-cooler and Tupperware-party conversations? I offer up a few suggestions.
Tinker with the judges
After seven seasons, the roles of Randy, Paula and Simon have become painfully predictable. Randy is sure to interject an impassioned "Hot!" while Paula reliably offers up a warm-fuzzy, whether warranted or not. And Simon? His last word is meant to be definitive - either strikingly positive or, alternatively, caustic. The problem is that the judges' canned feedback increasingly is ignored by the voting public, if this year's final is any indication. Why not shake things up by inserting a permanent rotating guest judge with music label credentials every week who has the final word? Industry insiders, such as Clive Davis, would do much to inject a sense of credibility to the proceedings. After all, if the "Idol" competition is, as Simon says, "about finding America's next singing star," wouldn't we want to hear from bona-fide record producers who have developed, coached, and packaged successful recording artists?
Lose the theme nights
It makes sense to celebrate specific genres of America's varied singing past, but not if those genres are passé or irrelevant. Nothing caused me to shudder more this season when the finalists were asked to sing from the Andrew Lloyd Webber songbook. Where's the logic in that? There just seemed something wrong about having winner David Cook singing a little ditty from "Phantom of the Opera." If the "Idol" producers choose to keep these theme nights, they would be better served choosing artists and songwriters that were more contemporary and relevant to up-and-coming singers trying to make their mark in a far more diverse musical landscape.
Force the contestants to sing challenging songs
There's no doubt that David Archuleta's got vocal chops. He can sing the hell out of a standard or a ballad. But when he actually chose to sing something out of his comfort zone (think Chris Brown's "With You"), he exposed a lack of range. And it actually made you wonder whether the baby-faced crooner's deep run to the final two had anything to do with the fact that he consistently chose songs that showcased his mellow, though inflexible, baritone. Who knows what might have happened if, early on in the season, the producers had actually forced Archuleta to sing something more contemporary, something more upbeat, more dance-friendly, or, dare I say, more his age? Especially with a group as vocally solid as this season's finalists, the producers should have forced the competitors to sing challenging songs - ones which taxed their vocal ranges and seriously pushed them out of their comfort zones. Only one competitor this season, David Cook, pushed himself to re-work pop standards into his own rock vocabulary (think of his version of Mariah Carey's "Always Be My Baby" or Lionel Richie's "Hello"). Look at where that got him. David Archuleta? In the season finale, he opted for yet another rendition of "Imagine," a song he's been singing publicly since the age of 13.
You've been there after work with your co-workers at your local watering hole when the Karaoke machine gets fired up. And certainly you've marveled at that unassuming bar-goer who completely owns whatever song that gets served up on the screen. That's exactly the type of inspiring impromptu performance that "Idol" is lacking. What better way to judge singers' abilities to tackle vocal challenges than to have them tackle a song that they are seeing and singing right in the moment? Unrehearsed performances expose a singer's vocal courage and talent, and forcing the competitors to tackle a song they haven't had a week to prepare just might be the type of thing to inject some excitement and unpredictability in the weekly proceedings.
Surely Chris Daughtry and David Cook aren't the only talented male singers out there with serious rocker sensibilities. So why don't we see more of them? It's just that the show has tended to skew toward pop performers in its seven season history. As a result, we've seen more of the same from year to year, with Syesha and David Archuleta being examples of the very type of singer that the judges love to cultivate. Why not showcase singing talent that looks and sounds like the rest of America or, at the very least, like the music recording landscape that characterizes the viewing public? Where are the R&B singers who represent the tastes of a sizable portion of the music-buying audience? Just because Jennifer Hudson and LaToya London were unceremoniously dumped from the competition in season three doesn't mean the producers need to shy away from a more diverse finalist pool.
More than anything, America wants to feel invested in the process of choosing the next solo singing star. And this season's slickly produced competition has given the impression that the producers haven't given much thought to what America wants or needs from its favorite singing competition show. After all, by not a wide margin, the audience chose David Cook, even after the judges proclaimed Archuleta the big winner on the season's performance finale. The viewing public wants to do what it wants, regardless of the not-so-subtle cajoling of the producers and the judges. The "Sanjaya Effect"? That was the "Idol" audience behaving badly, attempting to assert its importance in discovering America's next singing star. There was a time when "American Idol" pushed to the forefront of our cultural consciousness the Kelly Clarksons of the world, immature talents unsure of their own abilities but possessing the ability to grow into something big. The show needs to get back to that place. The producers need to showcase truly undiscovered talents, unlike this season where it was reported that Kristy Lee Cook, Michael Johns, and Carly Smithson previously had recording contracts. They need to give us well-defined personalities, weaknesses and all, and make the show feel less staged and more unpredictable, from week one right through to the two-night finale. Maybe then, America will start coming back in numbers to a show it so clearly wants to love.
How about just having a panel of judges who are current in the music industry (and have no other agenda) do the judging and selecting, instead of the public voting? Or do it like SYTYCD, where the bottom 3 perform again and the judges choose which one goes? I like that way better than the way it's been, even though this season was finally better than it has been in recent years.
Also agree about the theme nights. Such crap most of the time.