It was mere weeks ago that I (and many other Idol pundits) were heralding the triumphant return of American Idol. In fact, during Final 11 week, I even went so far as to write the following:
"After a teetering dark period filled with lost judges, predictably mundane filler and Michael-Lynche-level talent (remember him? Don't bother), American Idol is back-- and with a bang, baby. We've got 11 wildly different (and equally interesting) contestants, renewed energy behind the judges panel and some serious mentoring (someone (aka Jimmy) has been reading the fan blogs this time around, huh?). Season 10 of Idol has not for one second let us forget that they are searching for a superstar, and for the first time in a while, I think they're really going to produce one (if not more)."
Now, one month later, I'm singing a very different tune (and I'm most assuredly not alone). All the air seems to have been let out of the tires of the great American Idol tank, and all I'm left to wonder is: why?
I've given it quite a bit of thought and have compiled the following list of reasons why American Idol Season 10 is currently floundering (and perhaps may be beyond repair...)
5.) The Risk-to-Elimination Ratio: Something is wonky with the American Idol voting public, as evidenced by the string of all-female eliminations for the first 5 weeks (damn you landlocked tweenage girls). But no elimination has been more henious (and damaging) than Pia Toscano's ouster, which was the linchpin turning point this season, for two reasons: Pia's polished presence genuinely raised the collective talent bar of the contestants, and in the post-Pia era, everyone seems vaguely more amateur. Secondly, the switchup in Pia's performance style that got her booted (going uptempo) signals a dreadful Idol trend: that contestants who take risks (like Naima and Stefano did) get the boot. The result? Expected song-choices that craft a contestant's musical persona and advance them safely week-to-week, but do not infuse them with starpower.
4.) Great (Unmet) Expectations: Going into the Top 13, we all had very high hopes for this particular band of contestants, all of which have been systematically dashed. Pia was going to bring diva-pop back and all the way to at least the Top 4 (nope, booted Top 9). Stefano was going to wow us all with his emotional conviction, strong voice and potential superstar wattage (nope, he flailed along awkwardly, never recreating the magic of his Wildcard moment fully). Casey was going to be a refreshing breath of jazzy air, marching to the beat of his own humble & unique bass (nope, he resorted to indulgent growly face antics). Lauren was going to be the second coming of Kelly Sparks-Underwood (nope, she hasn't proven yet she understands how to weild her wickidly-amazing voice). Paul was going to woo us with soft, acoustic, emotionally earnest artistry (nope, he pranced around the stage like a laughing-gas-stricken chicken). Jacob was going to learn to restrain his ridiculously rare voice and channel some earnest emoiton (nope, we got straight Lusky Stank). Scotty was going to mature into a genuine country powerhouse (nope, he's done nothing but flip on the country cruise-control).
Practically no one has delivered what was promised early on (aside from James and Haley, who really didn't have many expectations placed on them early on anyway). But seriously, what has happened to all this potential?
3.) Lame Duck Judges: I do enjoy the more unabashadly positive, dream-making focus of Season 10, but not when it's forced down my throat. The viewing public can tell when performances don't go well, no matter how hard the judges try to convince us otherwise. Earlier in the season we were all-aboard the positivity-train, especially when JLo included some astute constructive criticism for a change. But since then, we've got nothing but blanket-complements--and it's getting really, really stale. The lack of reality-checking from the judges has forced us all to focus on the more gimmicky, reality-schtick sides of Idol and has not helped the audience differentiate the good from the bad.
2.) Jimmy Iovine's Artisty-Crushing Band of Producers: Sure, Jimmy does have many astute and constructive insights to offer the contestants, not to mention the fact he's introducing the hopefuls to many A-List producers. But the tradeoff has been overly-produced, single-centric song choices that don't always translate well to the Idol stage (nor do they really create relevant music-- these Idol recordings sound really chinsy anyway)! And I'm sure the contestants are petrified to speak up and do what their instincts tell them (with some welcome, notable exceptions-- Casey & James!). American Idol isn't about having industry professionals craft packaged singers, it's about letting natural talent bloom organically into radio-worthy artists. Can I get an Amen?
So what does all of this add up to? The #1 Reason why American Idol is floundering:
1.) A Complete Lack of Idol "Moments": Even the notoriously underwhelming Season 9 snoozefest was able to cook up some genuine Idol Moments (courtesy of Siobhan Magnus' "Paint It Black," Casey James' "Jealous Guy" and "Don't," and many Cystal Bowersox/Lee DeWyze showings). But the only genuine Idol Moments we've had during Season 10 have all happened in the Top 24 round (Pia Toscano's "I'll Stand By You," and most of the Wildcard performances). Since then, most performances have fallen solidly in the middle: neither spectacularly bad nor good. Is it any coincidence this is when the contestants have fallen more heavily into the clutches of Jimmy Iovine, the Idol producers and the tepid Judges?
I beleive all the reasons above have attributed to the lack of genuine Idol Moments, which in fact, aren't all that difficult to analyze. All Idol moments include an unexpected/unconventional song choice, an interesting (and mostly unplugged) arrangment, a sincere emotional message and a well-timed/rarely executed judging swell.
But this season, contestants have chosen very expected/safe songs (and why shouldn't they? If they don't, they're labeled unfocused artists and their chances of getting the boot skyrocket). They also have very little freedom to arrange a song, because what amateur wants to piss off a "seasoned" producer professional? This season's contestants (with some notable/eliminated expceptions) can't seem to embody these limited/over-produced songs emotionally. And with the judges offering blanket positivity (and only criticism when someone performs at a higher level), the audience has trouble discerning potentially Moment-worthy performances (Pia's "All In Love Is Fair," James' "Maybe I'm Amazed," Lauren's "Candle In The Wind," Haley's "Bennie & The Jets"). You can bet your bottom dollar that if Simon Cowell were around, these performances would sit squarely on our "Best Idol Performance" lists, thanks to his trademark pause-then-praise.
With so little time left in the season, I'm not sure that Idol will be able to self-correct (though I'm placing all of my hope in the predestined Scotty-Lauren boat, because they're both the closest to breaking through the current Idol mediocrity-barrier).
So what do you think? Are there any reasons I missed? Or are you seriously loving this season and thinking I deserve to eat some bitter-betty humble pie?
Let me know, because this Idol fan feels at a serious loss!