As I said in a previous column, I watched “American Idol” since they whittled down the contestants to the Top 6 or so in the summer of 2002. I then tried to catch every episode since. As a radio writer for Dick Clark, I felt the need to be aware of up-and-coming artists, and it was sometimes inspiring to discover the unknowns who potentially could become the next radio stars.
But as years went on, tuning in felt more and more like an obligation. This year, I realized I resented having to keep up with the show. When it got up to the Top 6, I finally gave myself permission to stop watching. And you know what? I felt great! Three more hours of life were suddenly returned to me each week. I only jumped back on the train when it got down to the Top 3 because Jessica Sanchez (who’s half Filipino) had still survived.
She made it to the final two with Phillip Phillips. Despite clearly being the stronger singer, nobody really believed the 16-year-old had a chance of winning the crown. Why? Because the majority of those who vote repeatedly (as is allowed) for their favorite contestants are screaming, hormonal teenagers who have more passion to devote to a guy than a girl. In fact, the female to win “Idol” was Jordan Sparks in 2007.
Last year, after the Top 13 were announced, the audience voted off women (including vocal powerhouse Pia Toscano) five weeks in a row, allowing many weaker-voiced men to continue.
Another problem is the preponderance of singers from the South, where the show is watched more than any other region. “Southern pride” seems to account in large part for the fact that nine of the show’s 11 winners hail from that part of the country. Blogger Rodney Ho (“Radio TV & Talk”) calculated that, since the show’s inception, 40% (47% if you count Texas) of the 131 finalists have Southern ties. Of this year’s Top 13, six contestants had lived in the South and amongst the Final 6, only Jessica Sanchez had no affiliation with the South.
Over the years, the combination of teenage girls — and Southern ones at that — accounts for some truly bad decisions: Taylor Hicks over Katherine McPhee (Season 5), David Cook over David Archuleta (Season 7), Kris Allen over Adam Lambert (Season 8), and Lee DeWyze (Season 9) — who always looked so disconnected with everything around him, I thought he was socially retarded — over Crystal Bowersox (though she was just as boring — more on why she got that far later). And last year’s Top 2 were bland country singers Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina.
Not helping is that the producers have gone to Atlanta five times and to Hawaii only once, even though it gave the show two of its Top 10 contestants in Jasmine Trias and Nicole Velasco.
Another annoying factor — beginning in Season 7 — was the effect of allowing singers to perform with instruments. Somehow, those with guitars were seen as artistic while those who just stood there and sang had to do more to impress the judges (that’s why the boring Crystal Bowersox became runner-up then couldn’t sell any albums). And it led to the acronym WGWG — white guys with guitars — and them winning every single year since.
Especially maddening this season was the judges’ inexplicable support for Phillips, who usually changed the melody of songs so much they were almost unrecognizable. Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler hailed his “artistry” and told him, “You know who you are!” Hell, to me, if you repeatedly don’t sing the melody, that means you’re not a good singer. In fact, when Phillips actually stuck to the melody of Bob Seger’s “We’ve Got Tonight,” Jackson called it his best performance ever. I wonder how everyone else — who’d been singing the proper melodies of their songs all along — felt.
Sanchez’s voice was so pure she sounded like a young Michael Jackson when she took on the Jackson Five’s “I’ll Be There.” But that wasn’t good enough for Randy Jackson, who expected her to go all melisma out (turning one-syllable words into multi-syllable contortions) to impress him or to give it “a moment.”
Beyond those I’ve already mentioned, here’s a list of the many reasons I’ve come to hate “American Idol”:
The auditions: I’m tired of seeing the freak shows — the talentless people who nevertheless feel a sense of entitlement believing in some unseen talent they don’t have — people who often turn violent when rejected. The fact that most of them are black has become predictable and depressing.
Most of the contestants can’t sing verses. How many times has Jackson critiqued a performance by saying it started off shaky in the beginning, but by the time the singer got to the end, it was OK? Rewind. Why aren’t these kids able to sing the verses? Because they’re usually lower notes, which require more subtle navigation of their voices. By overlooking the importance of the verses, the judges are enabling singers who “save” their performance by belting on the choruses, but still aren’t all-around adept vocalists.
The judges encourage histrionic singing. I never liked Whitney Houston. Besides being one of the most insincere interview subjects I ever heard, her success with power ballads inspired millions of wanna-be stars to imitate her by overusing melisma. She influenced Mariah Carey, who took it one step further by trying to hit high notes only dogs could hear. This, in turn, informed Christina Aguilera’s musical style and perspective. In fact, when watching the first episode of “The Voice” last year, I noticed even after a contestant had demonstrated vocal chops, this judge didn’t give her stamp of approval until the singer used melisma towards the end. As if that was the only basis on which Aguilera could judge talent.
It’s affected many of the young black singers who grew up singing in church. Today, they overdo it. Every time I heard this year’s Top 3 finalist Joshua Ledet perform, I felt he was screaming at me. Gladys Knight came out of the church. I love listening to Gladys Knight. I can’t stand listening to Joshua Ledet.
Likewise, the judges have encouraged contestants to over-sing it or it doesn’t feel to them as if they’re really trying. What performance doesn’t end simply with the final lyric vs. the clichéd “Ohhh yeaaaahhhh!” If most of these finalists had any color to their voices, they wouldn’t have to resort to so much melisma to impress the judges. Which leads to another issue:
Many of the best-sounding vocalists get voted off too early. I especially began noticing two years ago that women with unique voices (but who didn’t belt the choruses) kept falling by the wayside while singers with characterless voices continued on. I keep asking this: If Karen Carpenter had tried out for “American Idol” singing as she did on the Carpenters records, would the judges have marveled at her once-in-a-lifetime instrument or told her she wasn’t trying hard enough because she didn’t go over the top and use melisma in her performances?
Repetitive comments: Throughout the years, Jackson’s vocabulary has been limited and repetitive. He burned out “dawg,” “pitchy,” the redundant and unnecessary “for me for you,” “in it to win it,” and now, we have to suffer through “I feel like I’m at a ______ (fill in name of current contestant) concert!”
The judging: Jimmy Iovine, chairman of Interscope Records, is the only person brave enough to say a contestant did a terrible job. In one show, the three “real” judges gave six standing ovations. Yet when one of them, Heejun Han, received the lowest number of votes and was in danger of leaving the show, did they use their “save” to keep him on for at least another week? No. So much for their standing ovations meaning anything (truthfully, though, he didn’t deserve the save, and I’m glad they later used it on Sanchez).
The double standard. Certain judges favorites can do the same kinds of songs over and over again (e.g. most WGWG, Scotty McCreery doing country each and every week without varying his tempo) and receive praise for “knowing who you are” while others perform ballads every week (e.g. Thia Megia and Jasmine Trias) and get criticized for doing the same ole thing.
The female judges can’t perform live. When Paula Abdul finally got around to recording her first new song in 12 years (and that’s all it was: not a whole album but just one song), she taped her “Idol” performance ahead of the live show and lip-synched to it. Same with Jennifer Lopez when debuting her new single last year (I’m assuming she did it again this season because her voice didn’t seem out of breath from all that dancing around). In other words, what they expect contestants to do every week — sing live well — they themselves can’t even on rare occasions.
The drawn-out results show and the contorted double negatives host Ryan Seacrest uses to make singers believe they’re in the bottom three when they’re actually safe. Another example of drawing out the tension: “After the nationwide vote, I’m sorry to say … that you’re going to have to pack your things … because you’re going on tour!” Besides, you don’t need an hour to reveal who’s going home.
Most of the winners don’t have successful recording careers anyway. Lately, non-country artists who score recording contracts make one album that doesn’t sell well, then get dropped by the label affiliated with the show. Even Season 7 winner David Cook just lost his deal with RCA. Most don’t even get any of their songs played on pop radio.
The overload of commercials. Most programs give you 44 minutes of actual “show” and 16 minutes of commercials per hour. Last time I counted, “Idol” was only 38 minutes of show. As if the product placement of Coke glasses at the judges’ table and logo on the back screen on stage aren’t enough to make them money. Or the contestants appearing in Ford music videos within the show itself. Or mention of AT&T (the show’s texting sponsor) or iTunes (where Seacrest keeps reminding us viewers can download the night’s performances). Or the movie they usually pimp by forcing the finalists to see a pre-screening of it …
Going past its time slot. If the two-hour finales aren’t bloated enough, “Idol” usually goes seven minutes over just to show its arrogance and risk pissing off those who record the show then don’t get to find out who won!
Music show fatigue. I already watch the musicals “Glee” and “Smash.” I checked out the initial episodes of “The Voice” (NBC) and “X Factor” (Fox) and couldn’t bring myself to continue on. I now feel the same way toward “Idol.”
It’s Worn Out Its Welcome. “American Idol” became television’s No. 1 most-watched show in its third season (2004) and remained the top program until this 11th season when it fell to No. 2 behind “Sunday Night Football.” Whereas last year’s finale was watched by 29.29 million people, this year’s fell to 21.49 million (an all-time low), or a drop of 25%. The season was down 23% in overall viewers (19.8 million, the first time it fell below the 20 million mark since the first season) and down 30% in the all-so-important 18-49-year-old demographic. It’s in biiiiggg trouble.
Furthermore, the winner used to be guaranteed $500,000, but it’s now down to $300,000, and for the first time, the runner-up — Sanchez — is not guaranteed an album deal and could get as little as $30,000.
Farewell, “American Idol.” It’s been a long time coming.
Till next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.