American Idol, once the nation’s most popular television show and a major force in the music industry, has been reduced to a footnote on a theoretical map of pop culture significance. And yet it chugs along, struggling to maintain relevance even as viewers vote with their remotes for NBC’s The Voice, which is younger, hipper and ostensibly more reflective of modern music tastes and trends.
After watching last night’s show (the first time I watched a full episode of season 13), it’s not hard to see why viewers have been tuning out. Even as some aspects of the show have improved, and intentions are largely in the right place, American Idol remains out of touch with the audience it clearly wants to reach.
The eleven remaining contestants largely lack personality or distinctive musical styles. Judges Harry Connick, Jr., Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban frequently dinged them for trying on musical personas that clearly didn’t match their strengths, as when fresh-faced Majesty Rose tackled Idina Menzel’s hulking anthem “Let It Go.” (Rose has neither the vocal range nor the gravitas for such a tune, but she sparkled on Pharrell’s “Happy” a few weeks ago.) By the end of the show, I’d already forgotten some of the performances from the first hour, and I had no sense that any of these eleven contestants were remotely capable of sustaining even a modest career in the music industry after their Idol tenure ends. Some – Caleb Johnson, Jena Irene, Alex Preston – have potential, but none distinguished themselves as uniquely thrilling.
Perhaps a bigger issue is that the song choices and the arrangements lacked originality. They felt like American Idol covers and karaoke joints, but hardly the stuff of high-profile entertainment. Last night’s show included numerous songs that have been done to death on the Idol stage – “Bennie and the Jets,” “Come Together,” “The Sound of Silence,” “Sweet Home Alabama” – with predictably tired results. By contrast, Caleb Johnson’s risky decision to contort Adele’s “Skyfall” to his hard-rock tendencies yielded one of the night’s few electrifying performances. Unfortunately, even the best performances were marred by the unfortunate decision to reduce each song to a 90-second cutdown. Eliminating the insipid, mean-spirited montages of the contestants imitating each other would have let the contestants build to their climactic moments without rushing to the finish line.
The show’s tentative dip into the pool of social media felt like your 90 year-old grandma getting her first cell phone. “For the first season ever, you can text your vote using any carrier!” Ryan Seacrest exclaimed, leaving out the fact that this is only the case because AT&T no longer sponsors the show. Even worse was the baffling decision to reveal half-formed Facebook voting results throughout the show. Without fail, the person in last place was the person who had just performed, and no wonder – they had only a few minutes or seconds to acquire votes from people who wait to see the performance before voting.
Everything feels a little stale, or like it’s trying too hard to win you over with noisy distractions. The theme music is robotic, the theme night (Songs from the Cinema) pointless, the graphics cheesy, the direction clunky. (I shouldn’t have to spend half of each performance watching the judges and the audience watch the performance. I can look with my own eyes!) By contrast, it was a refreshing jolt to hear Keith Urban talk about his daughters’ love of Frozen because it felt spontaneous and reflective of something happening in pop culture right now.
Too often, American Idol seems to be striving for the type of impact it’s no longer capable of. Connick repeatedly described this year’s contenders as the best crop since season one, a declaration that’s both untrue and telling. The show is nostalgic for the days when 20 to 30 million people would tune in every week, when Sanjaya’s hair and Adam Lambert’s wail would be the talk of the nation, and when the contestants were genuine contenders for mainstream pop stardom. None of this is true anymore. The show is still a ratings asset for Fox, and the new production team has made some encouraging leaps this year. The judges have demonstrated that they’re more willing than ever before to provide constructive feedback without attacking or demeaning the contestants. (In particular, Connick seems attuned to helping the contestants improve without needling them for the sake of a Simon Cowell-style beatdown.) The song choices, while stale last night, have not been quite as musty overall as in recent years. Seacrest continues to be a consummate professional. And the possibilities of live programming remain fruitful, as the recent uptick in awards show ratings have demonstrated.
The main concern for American Idol, and other singing shows as well, is adjusting to its new role in the pop culture ecosystem. If pop superstardom is out of reach, why pretend otherwise? The competitive structure of the show is still appealing even if the stakes are lower. The challenge is for the show to embrace its lower stakes: a few months in front of a large television audience and a possible shot at a decent living making music for your core fans and maybe a few post-show converts. Instead of shackling the contestants to the same themes and performance styles every week, why not employ take a few of Michael Slezak’s innovative suggestions to provide more entertainment value and a bigger platform for originality? Instead of letting Randy Jackson roam the American Idol studio like that piece of roast beef that you can’t get unstuck from the roof of your mouth, why not let industry professionals Connick, Urban and Lopez conduct weekly workshops so that they can assess the contestants’ progress on a more intimate and consistent level? These changes aren’t antithetical to the core mission of the show, but they prevent American Idol from sinking further into irrelevance.
The format remains viable, but the presentation is falling short. If American Idol has any chance of staying afloat, it needs to stop chasing the days of Kelly Clarkson and start doing right by the contestants – viewers – it has left.