Friday, February 27, 2009

American Idol Season 8 -- random thoughts following Semifinals, Part II

At first I couldn't see the reason or logic behind expanding the semi-finals from 24 to 36 competitors, only to give them one chance to prove themselves or go home. Two weeks in Hollywood, several stages of cuts, and many an agonizing decision in order to trim the pool to 36, only to toss out two-thirds of them on the basis of ninety seconds of singing in front of a live audience. It seemed unfair. At least with the old system (eliminating two guys and two girls each week for three weeks), there was wiggle room for mistakes and second chances, opportunities for dark horse candidates to emerge through slow and steady improvement, and time for the favourites to build extra momentum heading into the finals.

This week, I started to see the light and appreciate the new format. It puts the focus squarely on the strongest performers. The long odds of moving on (ostensibly 25%) make the prize that much more prestigious. It's like a sports league in which only a small number of teams advance to the playoffs, versus a league where half of the teams make it. But with the old semifinal format, the focus was on the worst contestants and the mediocrities who were barely good enough to scrape by from week to week, whereas the strong performers simply advanced each week with relatively little fanfare.

The hit/miss ratio in this year's semis have certainly helped justify the switch, as the strong singers have really stood out among a fairly sizable pile of terrible competitors who were swiftly and decisively outclassed. The people who were just on the bubble will get their rightful second chance at making the finals, provided the judges and producers are smart about choosing their picks for wild card week. They'd have to be idiots to screw up those choices, considering how much total crap we've seen from the first two groups, but stranger things have happened.

Paula Abdul is right: with four judges, the show starts to drag with 33% more chit-chat and post-song analysis. Although with two hours of programming to fill up each week (plus the even-more-stretched-out hour long results show), they've got to fill the time somehow. We'll see how they manage when we hit the one hour episodes. It's worth noting that other talent-based reality shows are able to handle the four-judge panel just fine, although it helps (such as with Canadian Idol) if they all repeat themselves (and each other) each week and make no attempt at serious criticism.

The judges sound foolish in criticizing people (e.g. Kris Allen, Matt Giraud) for "not being the same guy/girl we fell in love with during Hollywood week". I mean, what do they expect -- musical instruments are off-limits during the semi-finals, so they're in fact prohibited from being the performer they were doing Hollywood week. What a dumb rule that is. Why put them into the top 36, only to prevent them from showcasing the talents that got them there? Then again, this is the same show that encourages everyone to take risks, work on developing as an artist, and collaborate with the band on their arrangements every week, only to force the eventual final two to sing shlocky ballads for the finale, i.e. the most important show of the year.

Allison Iraheta may have advanced in a walk, but of course that's not saying much since she was the only girl whose performance didn't border on embarrassing and/or nearly unlistenable. Megan Corkrey has the look of a star but was horribly out of tune, something that the judges inexplicably failed to notice although I'm willing to chalk that up to ear fatigue and/or the need to say something halfway nice about somebody eventually. Allison has plenty of stage presence and I do love me the rocker chicks on American Idol, but the performance was nothing special. Her voice was badly strained during the chorus and the song seemed to overwhelm her. Maybe one-third of it was actual singing, the rest of it was lungs-blown screaming, and out-of-tune lungs-blown screaming at that. Still, I like the idea of a sixteen year old stoner chick wandering her way onto the set of American Idol and rocking out in hilariously bad clothes, so I'm happy she's in the finals.

If you still need convincing, compare Allison's version with Carrie Underwood's from Season 4. Listen to how her voice slams into the chorus and soars almost effortlessly above the band compared with Allison's overloaded effort. It was after this performance that Simon Cowell famously commented that Carrie would win AI and sell more records than any other Idol. His boldness was even more notable given that the finals had barely just begun -- it was the week of the top 11! Watching at the time, I was less surprised that he made that comment than I was at the fact that it was so obviously true, even at that early stage of the competition. To that point, she was the comely country singer with the best voice in the field, clearly headed to the top three or four and a serious threat to win. After she steamrolled her rock dude competition by slaying them at their own game, the it was simply a question of "what CAN'T she do??" and the other ten were simply along for the ride for the rest of the Carrie Underwood Show. Rock singers are now commonplace on Idol, but remember, that was the first season with actual rockers in the finals (Bo Bice, Constantine). The show was a lot more homogeneous in the first three seasons compared to now, sticking mainly to pop and R&B tunes, and the contestants rarely strayed outside their comfort zones. Then along came season four, with actual variety among the finalists and proper rock songs being sung among the glut of Mariah and Whitney impressions. A farm girl who had never flown on a plane or visited a big city in her life had absolutely no business pwning the rockers on their own turf and becoming the Mistress of All Genres. It was inexplicable, and yet it happened.

Speaking of Constantine Maroulis, Adam Lambert is merely his second coming, albeit with better hair and makeup. His voice drives me nuts, although I don't discount that he has the look of a star. The producers' favouritism this season couldn't be more obvious -- as it was with Danny Gokey, he's been given loads of TV time and a better-developed personal history compared to the average semi-finalist. Then he received the attention-grabbing show-closing time slot, and an inventive song arrangement that was perfectly suited to his talents, while everybody else had to settle for standard Wedding Band Muzak arrangements.

Nick Mitchell is simply the bomb, but as is usually the case whenever a new kind of performer appears on AI, he is ridiculed and dismissed as "not what we're looking for" or something to that effect. You know the drill -- Clay Aiken didn't look like a star, Taylor Hicks was a drunk uncle at a wedding, etc. Nick's closest precedent is probably Blake Lewis, who was also frequently told that he was a gimmicky performer and not a real singer. Blake had a good voice and was perfectly capable of doing straight-ahead singing when he wanted to. However, when you can showcase talents that nobody else can pull off, guaranteeing that you'll stand out from the crowd, why be conventional?

No comments: