Diary of a Sinking Ship, Not Yet Sunk: The Highs and Lows of “Idol” Season 12

Idol

Although American Idol appears to have completed its descent from anointed otherworldly juggernaut to beleaguered earthbound hit, the show continues to provide plenty of fodder for conversation. Here are some of my thoughts on Thursday night’s finale, season 12 and the show’s future.

*For the first time in at least five years, the most talented and deserving finalist ultimately won the season. The show didn’t deliver nearly as many watercooler moments this year as it did previously, and many of the ones it did deliver involved judges’ spats, but the few noteworthy musical moments all came from Candice Glover: her searing, minimalist cover of The Cure’s “Love Song”; the a capella introduction to “I Who Have Nothing” on the performance finale; her ecstatic response to surprise guests Paula Abdul and Drake. How ironic that in a season plagued by so much manipulation and criticism, the best singer won what is ostensibly a singing competition. Oh, the irony.

*Speaking of manipulation, I understand why Nigel Lythgoe and Company stacked the deck against the male contestants. I was one of the many Idol fans crying foul when year after year, exciting female contestants fell prey to the show’s sizable teen girl demographic, who voted heartthrobs like Scotty McCreery and Phillip Phillips to the win while leaving more versatile performers like Haley Reinhart and Jessica Sanchez behind. But I’m not convinced that the only way to stem this tide of WGWG’s (White Guys with Guitars) was to send only the weakest, least musically contemporary male singers into the final rounds of the competition, as they did with such wipeouts as Lazaro Arbos and Curtis Finch, Jr. After all, it’s not like women don’t win singing competitions anymore as a rule: Melanie Amaro took the crown on the first season of The X Factor and Cassadee Pope grabbed the title on the third season of The Voice. Of course, those are different shows with different audience demographics, but they’re not fundamentally different from Idol in their goals.

(Side note: I found the jokey “Sabotage” segment on Thursday’s finale, in which the show “revealed” that the show’s female contestants had been plotting to get the guys eliminated first by crossing out their lyrics and offering fake fashion advice, more than a little bit insulting. It’s one thing for the producers to blatantly finagle the competition and pretend that the guys just didn’t have it this year, hoping we wouldn’t notice. It’s quite another thing to then poke fun at our complaints about the manipulation.)

*Sometimes I ask people why they don’t watch Idol anymore, and I get a wide range of responses: it’s no good without Simon Cowell, I’m sick of singing competitions, the songs aren’t “cool.” Those are all valid, arguable complaints! But I don’t agree with the people who say that there’s no more talent left. Look at the finale. Fifth-place finisher Janell Arthur performed a rousing duet with The Band Perry on the hit song “Done,” holding her own with one of the most choreography-driven bands in country music. Belting balladeer and second runner-up Angie Miller let her vocals soar with powerhouse Adam Lambert and diva Jessie J. Runner-up Kree Harrison, who was frequently dinged throughout the season for being too stiff despite a lovely voice, commanded the stage with two of her harshest critics, judges Keith Urban and Randy Jackson.

And don’t tell me you can watch Glover rip up the stage with Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson on Natalie Cole’s “Inseparable” without pumping your fist.

*There have been rumors that Fox will fire the show’s current and long-standing production team in an attempt to re-energize the commercially flagging former Death Star. Although the show’s season without producer Nigel Lythgoe was perhaps its worst qualitatively, I’m not sure I disagree with this strategy. Whether they choose to admit it or not, the producers tampered quite a bit with the show’s momentum this year, seemingly forcing the judges to aggressively push for certain contenders whether they deserved the praise or not, and limiting the contestants’ song choices to the most uninspired, cliched offerings on a given tired theme week. Maybe a shakeup with a new team would allow the show to move into the present the way that The Voice, for all of its flaws, has done.

*I have a theory that the good elements of American Idol combined with the good elements of The Voice would make for the perfect singing competition. The Voice has the chemistry between the judges, the varied song choices, the engagement between the contestants and the celebrity artists, the fresh approach to the audition rounds. American Idol has the excellent host Ryan Seacrest (as opposed to the drab Carson Daly), the proven ability to launch successful music careers, and in many cases, the best talent. (The two seasons of The Voice I’ve seen had many different kinds of performers, but they didn’t necessarily have consistently great ones. Maybe I was just worn down by the coaches’ hyperbole.) I call this hybrid…The American Voice! Take it to the bank.

*As for this year’s Idol judging experiment, the only one I’d consider keeping around for next year is Keith Urban. Mariah Carey was verbose, pompous, seemingly uncomfortable and often incomprehensible. Nicki Minaj was sharp and refreshingly critical but frequently distracted by outfits and, by the end of the season, bored. Randy Jackson is confirmed to be leaving, but I would have advocated for his exit either way: his inane catchphrases and incessant name-dropping have lost their charm. (Open question: did they have any charm to begin with?)

Urban was far from perfect; he too frequently relied on platitudes like “beautiful” and “quality” to describe contestants who might have preferred some constructive advice. On the other hand, out of the four judges, he was by far the most capable of delivering succinct, accurate, musically knowledgable criticism, and he also seemed to be enjoying himself more than the other judges. His likable personality and obvious intelligence could theoretically buy him another season if Fox is interested in keeping him around. If not, we’ll always have the YouTube clip of his delightful response to Frankie Valli’s surprise appearance on the finale.

*Here’s my actual suggestion to improve the quality of the show and the ratings in the future. Three judges. Keith Urban and a record-label executive or someone with knowledge of the business side of the music world (though not Jimmy Iovine – I’ve had about enough of his shtick) would appear every week. The third seat would be filled by a different superstar artist each week. Abandon the tired theme nights, and take a cue from The Glee Project (rest in peace). Each week should be focused on a different aspect of performance, and the guest judge should be an expert or authority on that aspect. Bring in Justin Timberlake for a lesson on stage presence, P!nk for vocal (or physical!) acrobatics, Ne-Yo for choreography, Lady Gaga (or even Nicki Minaj, frankly) for costuming and visuals, Kelly Clarkson for the art and science of generating an Idol moment, Little Big Town for harmony in groups.

Let the contestants sing whatever they want, and encourage them to pick unusual or creative songs. Per Annie Barrett’s suggestion, nix the results show, and adopt the So You Think You Can Dance model, with a sing-off at the end of each two-hour show. Use the pre-performance packages to show us the creative process throughout the week leading up to the show: how did they narrow down their song choices? What problems did they run into? How did they make the choices they did?

Oh, and one more thing: no more bad auditions. We’re sick of it.

(Note: This blog post, while long, is probably still shorter than an average Mariah Carey critique this season.)

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