American Idol for this year is over, at long, long last. Aside from a couple of too-rare bright spots, this season was generically disappointing from the start right up until the end, when -- for the first time in my experience -- Idol crowned the wrong person. And not just a little bit wrong, but staggeringly wrong.
Lee DeWyze was utterly, utterly inadequate, no matter how much the judges inexplicably adored him. He's got a pleasant enough voice, and he can strum a guitar in relatively convincing fashion (although that's about all he did with it), but he showed, time and time and time again throughout the show's run, that he had zero real musicianship. He showed it when he failed completely to sell the song "Beautiful Day" in the finale; he showed it when he did an awful one-half of a duet with eventual runner-up Crystal Bowersox in "Falling Slowly"; he showed it in his jaw-droppingly awful rendition of "Hey Jude"; and worst of all was his wholesale slaughtering of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah", which he turned into a Queen-style arena rock anthem. There have only been a couple of times in all the seasons of Idol I've watched (all but the first) in which someone I really disliked made the finale (Diana DiGarmo and David Archuleta), but this was the first time that the person I really disliked actually won, and he did it despite near unanimous opinion that his performances on the Finale were seriously subpar.
What was odd was the judges' reaction to Lee all year. Until the finale, Lee received zero criticism. None. He was slathered with praise every single week until the finale, when at long last he seemed to receive some mild critique. It's true that the judges can't eliminate or keep anyone around solely by virtue of their criticism, but they can certainly shape opinion, and Lee had them in his back pocket right to the end, even to the point where he'd give warbling performances in which he would literally sing wrong notes and start shouting the song as soon as he possibly could, and yet, no one would point it out; Randy Jackson, famous for using the word "pitchy" as much as "dawg", would merely shout out things like "Oooooh, someone is in it to win it!" The judges' devotion to Lee DeWyze was absolutely mystifying.
What about Crystal Bowersox, then? Well, it's pretty obvious that I loved her. Absolutely loved her. Not everything she did was perfect; on "Movie Song Night", she did some song from Caddyshack that nobody much remembers, for example. But she was such a smart, capable, intelligent performer. She thought her songs through in a way that Lee couldn't even conceive. After Simon Cowell criticized her for the way she had performed a particular song, she was actually able to look at him and say, "Well, the lyrics say this, so I had to sing it in a way that made that meaning clear" or some such thing. That kind of musical intelligence is rare on Idol, which is tailor-made for vocalists like Lee DeWyze and Siobhan Magnus who approach a song as though it is a vocal jungle-gym.
Crystal also had tremendous stage presence, which Lee did not. During the Season Finale (the results show, not the individual performances), both Crystal and Lee showed up on stage occasionally to perform with various famed pop and rock artists. Crystal did a number with Alanis Morissette in which she held her own with the star, making the moment something special. A short while later Lee did a number with Chicago, and he couldn't even stand out as a 20-something kid amongst a group of aging, has-been rockers. Lee just melted into the stage; Crystal looked like the stage was her home. And it was. That the Idol voters didn't consider this is...well, it's not very shocking, actually.
Crystal's dominance over Lee in the final performances was so undeniable that not even Lee could deny it. At the very end of the show, just before the final fade-out, there they were on stage, Lee and Crystal, with Ryan Seacrest in between. The look on Lee's face was the look of dismay on the face of any person who has been thoroughly beaten by a superior opponent.
So why, then, did Lee win? I've heard some theories:
Lee is more marketable, more current, more contemporary, more [insert intangible here] than Crystal.
I don't buy this. First of all, I have no idea what's "current" or "contemporary" and neither does anyone else. It's all BS, really -- Crystal stands in the tradition of Melissa Ethridge and Sheryl Crow, both of whom are still very much present on the music scene. Plus, Idol viewers aren't record producers. It's not their job to pick people who sell tons of albums, even though that's the hope. Ruben Studdard, Fantasia Barrino, Taylor Hicks -- all have had fine music careers since winning Idol, but none have lit the world on fire. But more importantly, none were "current" or "contemporary".
Crystal doesn't really need to win. She's virtually guaranteed a great career.
I'm not so sure about this. Everyone loves to talk about the Idols who didn't win and who went on to some kind of stardom -- Clay Aiken, Jennifer Hudson (didn't even make the finale), and Adam Lambert are prime examples here -- but there are others who disappeared. Justin Guarini, Kat Stevens, that beat-boxing kid from a few years back: where are they? Nowhere that anybody knows. Some non-winners have had good careers. Many more have not.
Lee's backstory is more compelling than Crystal's.
Well, this is all opinion, I guess. I, for one, am more attuned to the single mother struggling to make it as a singer than the paint salesman trying to be a singer, but that's just me.
A related theory:
America's a pretty puritanical country, so a single mom isn't going to win IDOL against a good-looking guy. Same was Adam Lambert lost.
Don't know about this one. I hope it isn't true, but I'm sure that for a few voters, it was.
Teenybopper girls robotexting their votes carried the day for Lee.
There may be something to this; I suspect it's at least part of the reason Lee won. You can't overestimate the sway held by the "cute" contestants, whether they can sing or not. It's why Aaron Kelly and Tim Urban lasted so long, despite their relative lack of plausibility as Idols. I saw this theory advanced somewhere to explain the fact that men have won Idol four of the last five years (Taylor Hicks, David Cook, Kris Allen, and now Lee DeWyze). However, looking at who lost some of those years, the theory looks a little less convincing. There's no way anybody's going to look at David Cook and decide that he's going to have the "teenybopper girl" vote sewn up when he's up against David Archuleta, and Jordin Sparks beat out...that beatboxer kid who looked like he should command the "teenybopper girls" segment of the Idol electorate. I'm sure this is a factor, but a determining factor? Maybe not.
This illustrates the power of the judges to sway opinion, given how relentlessly positive they were about Lee.
This is, for me, the likely big factor here.
So anyway, Lee's the winner and Crystal's not. I predicted Lee to win the whole thing weeks ago, mainly because of the way the judges were pushing him so hard in their critiques. In fact, I predicted that Crystal wouldn't even make the final, so I was partially wrong on that score. But this also demonstrates something else: that the judges' critiques in the final don't determine much at all. The judges treated Lee with reverential fervor all year until the final, when they gave him criticism that was mild at best while highly praising Crystal. It's a far cry from two years ago, when in the final, the judges declared all three "rounds" for David Archuleta, who ended up losing by what was apparently a pretty sizable margin. By the time of the final, I think most people who are going to vote have their minds made up.
Lee's victory had an air of inevitability, but it was a weird kind of inevitability: the kind where you know you're getting forced to do something, so you go along with it.
OK, enough about the Worst Idol in the History of Idol. What about Idol in general? I found this year generically disappointing. The level of voices selected for the Top 24 was surprisingly bad, with only a handful of standouts among them. And one of those standouts, Lilly Scott, whom I loved in the early going, didn't make the Final 12 in what was probably the most surprising single elimination of the entire season. There are always bad contestants who do confoundingly well -- John Stevens? Sanjaya Malakar? Tim Urban? I read one article somewhere, early in the season, that suggested that Idol is having more troubles lately because they've "depleted the talent pool". That notion is, obviously, idiotic -- are we to believe that Idol has worked through all 50 million or whatever number of people there are in the permitted age group? That's just silly. But the judges drop the ball on their selections, at least once every year.
Simon Cowell is also leaving, which has a lot of people predicting the show's swift demise. Maybe, but if so, I suspect it would be because Idol will be in its tenth season and it's getting old. Like any self-respecting fan of American Idol, I have some thoughts on directions the show should take:
1. Cut back on the filler and focus on the music.
This season, the filler material got ridiculous, to the point where Idol had to schedule two hour shows so that nine contestants could sing. That was ridiculous. There's only so much anybody wants to know about the contestants, and all the song previews are now going on way too long. Time was when the show would have each contestant sing twice as early as six or seven left in the group; this year they waited (I think) until they were down to five left, just because the show was so full of filler material.
2. Move "Country Music Week" back to where it used to be, early on in the Final Twelve.
This year, they didn't do Country Week until very late -- again when there were only five or six left -- and they focused it on songs by Shania Twain. It should come a lot earlier. Not that I'm a country music fan -- I like some of it, dislike most of it -- but it can't be denied that Idol's Country Week tends to produce a lot of good performances, especially from the contestants who may not be totally cut out for the Pop stuff they want so badly to feature. Country Week can give dark-horse contestants a new lease on life on the show, and it addsa helpful bit of variety to the show.
3. Change the voting.
This will never happen, but I'd like to see voting changed so that people are voting for someone to be eliminated rather than to see someone stay. Failing that, I'd at least like to see the show limit the number of votes from one person, so that someone can't robo-text fifty votes for someone who isn't very good. Never gonna happen, obviously -- they love that Ryan Seacrest can say things like "Out of a record 190 million votes cast", as if that many people are watching the show to begin with. But this would fix a recurrent problem with Idol, when every year lesser contestants thrive whilst worthy ones are sent packing.
4. Back to three judges.
OK. So Simon Cowell is leaving. I'm not of the general view that he is unreplaceable asset whose departure will spell doom for Idol -- Simon is flat-out full of crap a lot of the time, and he only manages to not seem full of crap by virtue of being articulate and having a British accent. But he's leaving the show. Who to replace him with? Someone with personality and intelligence. I'd like to see him replaced by someone with knowledge of the industry, but really, not another record producer. I'd like to see another actual musician on the show, someone who isn't concerned with what's going to sell and be marketable and rather what's actually good.
I saw the suggestion made somewhere else -- can't remember where -- but it's a good one. Bret Michaels! It's perfect. After watching him on The Celebrity Apprentice, he's got smarts and he can be blunt when he needs to be and nice when that's called for.
And get rid of Kara Dioguardi. I suppose Ellen Degeneres can stay, but she needs to work on her critiquing. Kara, though, is useless.
5. Get rid of the "bad singers".
When the show starts up in January, they always show lots of stadiums full of Idol hopefuls. Only a tiny percentage of these are allowed through to audition for the judges; five thousand might show up, but only 150 might get through to sing for Randy, Kara and Simon or whomever. And of those, a certain percentage are the terrible singers sent through just so we can see the judges rip into people who suck.
The problem is that this is all boring. The annual weeks-long tour of laughing at sucky singers is old, old, old hat by now. It might help the cause of upgrading the talent level sent through to Hollywood if the show abandoned the sucky singers. Let the judges pick from 150 good singers, instead of only 75 good ones and torturing them with 75 bad ones.
That's about it. All in all, a really disappointing year on American Idol. We'll see if it can get its groove back next year or not.