Why does this season suck?

Sean Kates and I have been tossing this subject back and forth for a few weeks. Today I had a thought: It’s all Kara’s fault.

Well, not exactly. I submit that the largest problem, the largest cause of the “suckiness” of this year’s finals, is that they replaced the only stage performer on the judging table with a studio producer and a stand up comedian.

The Idol judges this season ended up placing way too much emphasis on “artistry” and “being current” and being able to sound radio friendly over being able to sing and have some versatility. Because of this too many of the semifinalists were niche type singers, and too few of them were singers, period. I am going to list the final 24 below, and take a few words to give my opinion on their basic singing talent. In some cases, like Joe Munoz, my opinion is based on very little evidence. For others, like Lee and Casey, I’ve been listening to them for months so I feel like I have a pretty good idea of what they are capable of.

The singers, the styles, the tools-

Females:

Didi Benami– Singer/songwriter

Didi struggled with her intonation and rhythm when she had to sing outside of her comfort zone. She struggled with song choice, trying to do songs that she didn’t have the tools to pull off. Her lack of stage experience left her trying to learn how to move on the fly, further impeding her ability to sing her songs freely.

Paige Miles- No set type

Paige struggled mightily with vocal issues, partially because of illness but mostly because she wasn’t used to the workload that Idol puts on the contestants. Her voice broke down under the strain, because she hadn’t been using it very much before the show. She wasn’t a professional singer; she was a schoolteacher who occasionally sang karaoke. I am not bothered that they picked her, though. She was one of the few who could sing multiple styles, and when she was healthy she had one hell of a voice.

Lacey Brown– Singer/songwriter

Lacey has a pleasant voice and a very cool accent, which can work in a couple of formats, but she has no real range and even less vocal power. Because of this she was severely limited in her song choices, and she struggled to fill up the big stage.

Ashley Rodriguez– Pop singer

Ashley left after only one week, but she did demonstrate some power and range in her clips along the way to the semifinals. She was a very good choice for the semifinals, and one of the mistakes that the voters made early on. She was capable of multiple formats, and she had shown that she can sing tough songs. One “sort of” bad week and then she was gone, after being one of the front runners going in. It didn’t help that Simon basically told the voters to dump her.

Kaitlyn Epperly– Singer/songwriter

Kaitlyn’s voice wasn’t the strongest or the most polished, but she was well slotted as an almost final 12 contestant. She gave us a moment with “The Scientist”. While she wasn’t an obvious voter mistake, she was one of the last performers left who could take a chance and get out of her zone without looking silly.

Michelle Delamore– Diana Ross type, soul/pop/gospel singer

Michelle wasn’t the best choice for the show, mostly because she isn’t all that good of a singer. I can’t say for sure that she couldn’t do multiple formats. Hell, she can sing out of tune on just about anything, can’t she?

Katie Stevens– No set type

Katie was a proper choice for the semis, but she was too young and inexperienced to take advantage of her versatility. She probably should have been sent home, and told to try out again in a few years. This would have allowed Idol to get another, more experienced singer in there.

Haeley Vaughn– No set type. A self proclaimed country singer

I should just type “see Katie”, but Haeley had a different bag of tricks. She isn’t nearly polished enough to sing a full performance without making a gazillion mistakes, but she has a soaring, bright, energetic voice that can probably handle several musical styles. Still, she was a poor choice for the same reasons that Katie and a few others were. She wasn’t ready for the big stage yet, and it was obvious in Hollywood. Again, give that spot to a more experienced singer and tell Haeley to come back in a few years.

Siobhan Magnus– No set type

Siobhan was the last contestant left in the competition who was a pure singer instead of a niche artist. Her nerves and inexperience took her out later, but she was amazing for the first month of the live shows. She was exactly the type of performer that Idol should have been looking for, and who knows how many Siobhans they missed in their search for “current” and “radio friendly”?

Janelle Wheeler– Singer/songwriter

Janelle doesn’t have a strong voice, and it was obvious all the way back at her audition. She wasn’t the best choice to make it through because of this, but the judges were emphasizing all of the things that Janelle does well during Hollywood week (guitar playing, “artistry”, “musicianship”, “current”, etc.) over basic vocal skills. The person that told her to sing a Heart song in the semis, with her voice, was clueless of what Janelle is capable of. That might have been the worst song choice in the history of Idol.

Lilly Scott– Cabaret type singer/songwriter

Lilly was so good that it would have been pretty obtuse to keep her out of the semis, but she should have been maybe one of a couple, not one of about ten singer/songwriters. This would have allowed her a niche on the show, instead of reminding us that there were too many niche singers.

Chrystal Bowersox– Singer/songwriter

We’ve all heard Crystal enough to be able to credit her with more of an artistic range than just singer/songwriter, but her basic persona is still just that. She sings and plays her guitar, she can add piano and harp, and she can sing harmony. Crystal is the very best of the type from this year’s crop, and she has the capability to branch out of her comfort zone and not look ridiculous.

Todrick Hall- No set style, but heavy leanings towards modern pop

Todrick was one of the better choices for the semis because of his creativity, but he was also a proper dump late in the semis because he doesn’t have a strong enough voice to compete with the best of the group.

Tyler Grady– Retro rocker

Tylerwas sooooo bad when he got on the big stage that he was an obvious dump, but I think that he was a decent enough choice for the semis. He was capable of better than that, based on his previous performances. He just stunk it up at the wrong time. He was kind of a niche artist, but he was the only one of his type.

Aaron Kelly– Country crooner

Aaron was the only one of his type as well, so he was a decent enough choice. While most of the kids really should have waited until they were older, Aaron was polished enough to make it to the top 5 mostly on merit. If it was me I would raise the age limit to 18, but Allie made it deep last season at 16 and carved herself out a career. Some kids, while not as ready as they would be if they waited, can compete at 16. Aaron did just fine.

John Park– Deep voiced crooner

John got zero airtime in between his famous audition and the semifinals. Because of this he kept his status as a frontrunner for several weeks. Once we got to hear him on the big stage it was pretty obvious that he wasn’t good enough to compete. Did they just “fodder” him because of the Shania angle? I think so. As long as the Idol producers only do this for one or maybe two singers, I think that this is ok. They get their storylines, the public gets to reject them, and by the semifinals we have all forgotten about them. Not everyone can win, so a couple of semifinal sacrificial lambs are ok with me. In a year like this, though, they might have wished that they had sent someone with a real shot through in his place.

Andrew Garcia– Singer/songwriter

Andrew was a fine choice for the semifinals, but his limited range of styles and his horrible phrasing kept him from contending. Having Andrew wasn’t a bad idea so much as having so many other similar types was.

Lee Dewyze– Post grunge singer/songwriter

Lee was also a fine choice, and it’s not his fault that he is now in the uncomfortable position of needing to act like a trained monkey to carry the show. Lee should be a change of pace, a physically quiet but vocally potent counterpoint to the theatrical types. Siobhan was the only theatrical type left by the final 12, if not the final 24.

Joe Munoz– Who knows?

Picking a guy like Joe, who is basically a decent karaoke singer, was pointless without some back-story to give him an identity. Idol screwed the pooch on this one, wasting the slot completely.

Tim Urban– Singer/songwriter

Yes, before the slide and all the talk about his smile, his hair, his abs and his Teflon-like ability to brush off the constant critics and survive to the final seven, Tim was a singer/songwriter. He was given the spot when another contestant was disqualified, over a huge kid with a huge personality and a huge voice (Thaddeus Johnson). That kid was only 16 himself, so I can see giving him another year or three, but if they were going to give that spot to a teenager he would have been a lot more interesting than still another singer who relied on artistry over vocal ability.

Michael Lynche– Luther Vandross type balladeer

Mike was a fine choice for the semis. He might not have a ton of style options, but he was at least the only one of his type and he has added plenty of charisma to the show. While Idol shouldn’t care about the chemistry backstage, Mike hit them a homerun there as well. I never really care about his performances myself (he’s not all that good, frankly), but he has my respect as a worthy competitor on the show. Final four is a reach, but you have to take that up with the judges. We voted his happy butt out over a month ago.

Casey James– Southern Rock singer/guitarist/songwriter

Casey carved a nice niche for himself as the only one of his type to make the finals since Bo Bice, several years ago. Casey is nowhere near as good as Bo was, but his style is so pleasing that he survived fairly effortlessly to the final month of the show. I was very happy that he was chosen, because I love this style of music. I wonder how many similar types have been getting tossed over the years. There are literally tens of thousands of these guys around the country. It would be the upset of the millennium if Casey was the best of the type who auditioned, even this year alone. If it was up to me I would pick the best of this type each year and let that one, and ONLY that one, through to the semifinals.

Alex Lambert– Singer/songwriter

Alex was another newbie to our attention at the beginning of the semifinals, having received more airtime during Hollywood backstage drama than for singing. He was starting to develop some buzz for his terrific voice when he was surprisingly ousted just before the finals. Alison will probably get mad at me for saying this (she loved Alex), but Alex is one of the best examples of a singer who was passed to the semis that really should have been rejected and told to come back next year, with more experience. He has an amazing voice, but again he was a niche singer in a field of several similar types. He had no second tool. His spot could have been filled by a singer with more versatility, and Alex could have come back in a year or two with a real chance of going deep.

Jermaine Sellers– Rangy vocal athlete, church type singer

Jermaine was a decent enough choice for his versatility and upper range, but it turned out that he wasn’t nearly polished enough at using his large bag of tricks to pull it off. He was the Jermaine that they kept, and most of the Idol critics have said that they chose the wrong Jermaine. Me, I think that they should have kept both of them. The other Jermaine (Purafory) was more understated and a much different personality type. He was also a polished singer who demonstrated in every aired performance that he could change gears and sing multiple styles.

Idol chose their 24 contestants. Of those 24, 10 were singer/songwriters. 11 contestants played the guitar in Hollywood, and another played the piano. While I like the idea that the next American Idol can play an instrument (and sing harmony, hopefully), I think that too much was made of talents that are only tangentially important to the goal of finding the best singer.

I’ll re-list the contestants who were not singer/songwriters, the ones who weren’t “current” and “radio friendly”:

Paige Miles- Voice gave out, inexperience was also obvious

Ashley Rodriguez- Dumped first show, didn’t really get a chance

Michelle Demamore- Couldn’t really sing

Katie Stevens- 16 year old talent who struggled to sing at this level

Haeley Vaughn- see Katie, dumped early

Siobhan Magnus- Lost her way while under pressure to be “more current”

Todrick Hall- Weak voice betrayed terrific creativity

Tyler Grady- Different niche, terrible performance doomed him early

Aaron Kelly- Inability to do anything outside of his own niche

John Park- Fodder choice, not good enough for this level

Joe Munoz- Pointless waste of a spot, poorly packaged karaoke singer

Michael Lynche- Own niche, no competition and he’s in the top four

Jermaine Sellers- Lack of polish and diplomacy doomed him early

Now the singer/songwriters:

Didi Benami- Lost her way by trying to sing outside of her comfort zone

Lacey Brown- Early punching bag surprisingly survived to the finals

Janelle Wheeler- Dumb song choice got her ousted immediately

Lilly Scott- Too many chicks with guitars watered down her effect

Crystal Bowersox- Standout talent who would succeed under any conditions

Andrew Garcia- Similar types blunted his novelty; he had no other tools

Lee Dewyze- Asked to do more than he should, because nobody else can

Tim Urban- Ummmm…..

Casey James- Niche as the Southern Rocker separates him from pack

Alex Lambert- One of the best voices, but no other useful skills yet

By my count Idol flat wasted three spots among the non-niche singers; Michelle Dellamore, Joe Munoz and John Park. With 10 spots given to singer/songwriters, they can be said to have wasted at least a few of those simply by the sheer number of them. When half of your pool mostly just stands up there and sings, you lose way too much of your flexibility in your attempts to entertain an audience for the 14 weeks that it takes to get from 24 down to the final 2. Let’s pick 4 from that list, contestants who can come back next year:

Lacey, sorry girl, but there are too many strong chicks this year.

Janelle, we love you but your voice is just not quite strong enough

Tim, good luck with your life. There are other things besides singing.

Alex, get some experience, come back in a couple of years – and win this thing.

This leaves us with these singer/songwriter contestants:

Crystal Bowersox

Lee Dewyze

Casey James

Didi Benami

Lilly Scott

Andrew Garcia

Three girls, three guys. Crystal is the Janis type, Lilly the jazzy cabaret type, and Didi the Jewel type. Casey gets his Southern rocker niche, Andrew the cool Bruno Mars niche, and Lee is the grunge/pop growler. Nobody is redundant.

With seven more spots up for grabs, Idol can find more pure singers to fill out the roster. At least a couple of them might end up being serious contenders. Ashley Rodriguez would maybe get a couple of weeks to establish herself, and Siobhan would have someone else on the show to be compared to, instead of always being compared to established artists.

Why didn’t this happen?

Idol made a couple of moves, fairly trivial on the surface, that completely changed the paradigm of the show.

First, they added Kara to the judging table last season. Kara is a worthy judge, and I have mostly liked having her on the show. She is an outstanding songwriter, and she knows the business very well. She was fine last year, a rookie who mostly deferred to the veterans on the panel, but she also spent the year slipping an “artistry” in here, and a “current” in there, and a “package artist” in once in awhile while calling certain performances “radio friendly”. The cumulative effect of this was as insidious as Simon’s own brand of left handed “compliments” and outright hammering when he doesn’t understand what the contestants are singing. When Idol began the season, Kara’s opinions took a foothold. The search for a singer became a search for a studio artist. Kara can’t really be faulted for this. She is all about the studio, because that is her experience; her comfort zone.

Second, they dumped Paula and replaced her with Ellen. Ellen is funny as hell, and everyone likes her. I like her. She is fine as a judge, in peacetime. She adds some fun, and she doesn’t really hurt anything. In wartime, though, Idol needs someone who can be useful in a foxhole. Idol is losing a ton of audience share right now, for several reasons. Having Ellen saying “you look great” and telling jokes is fine when you are sailing along, but when you are struggling to maintain respect as an honest competition her lack of musical knowledge stands out like an open sore.

Losing Paula got mostly snickers from the online critics, and a lot of it is well deserved. Paula is a ditz, and she has some issues with her box of prescriptions pills and her love of Cosmopolitans. She wasn’t much for saying anything negative, so her opinion wasn’t respected much. She was the show’s buffoon, most famous for her intoxicated ranting, relentless shilling, and an alleged sexual relationship with a contestant.

Underneath all of that, though, Paula was the one judge who most consistently got it right in the early rounds. Paula called Adam “the best singer, in any city” the first time that she saw him. Paula fought Simon to keep a young singer in the competition in Hollywood, after Simon told her that he didn’t like her. The singer was Kelly Clarkson. Paula chose correctly over and over, and she was rarely wrong even when she looked like she wasn’t all there. She picked singers, not “artists”. While Randy and Simon are basically producers, Kara is a studio hound and Ellen is a stand up comedian, Paula is a performer. What Idol is missing this year, as much as anything, is a performer at the judging table.

Not having a performer on the table might have been the one small mistake that snowballed and buried Idol this season. With no Paula to blunt the producers, Idol’s judges chose a top 24 that was top heavy with studio type singers and other contestants who filled a niche, instead of finding contestants who could put on a show. Paula was that person in the past. If Idol wants to reclaim their own niche as a respected talent show, they desperately need to fix this. Whoever takes over for Simon, this person has to be a performer.