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"American Idol": Same As It Ever Was

By admin Published: April 24, 2008

(Update: Next week is the music of Neil Diamond.)


Every year there comes a point when the "American Idol" votes favor an undeserving contestant over better singers. You can trace the line from Nikki McKibbin to Sanjaya Malakar. And every year, when that happens, someone mutters about the show having turned into a popularity contest instead of a singing competition, even though popularity is crucial to mobilizing voters. Every year, we see someone who suffers from a passion gap -- being good but not exciting enough in some way to make people believe I absolutely must vote for this person every week as many times as possible.

So it was on Wednesday night. Carly Smithson went home even though she was good while Jason Castro gave a truly horrible performance and Brooke White had to stop and start her song a second time. (And let's put aside this "Idol" nonsense of saying that's the first time it happened. I've rewatched the video of "Every Breath You Take." It's not as a big a restart as she had on Tuesday, but it's a restart nonetheless.) For the second week in a row, a good performance was not enough to save a singer.

So, if this is the way "Idol" goes, why am I still ticked off?

Well, for one thing, because I become as invested in this show as any other viewer. I want to hear good singers, and I want them to succeed, and I don't want to sit through garbage. To a lesser extent, I also come to care about the people, at least as far as I can gauge them from the events on the show.

So I listen again to Carly and Syesha Mercado, who was in the bottom two with her, and am far more impressed with their performances. (And I'm wondering who backstage was responsible for that tacky switch to a shot of Carly and Ryan talking to each other while Syesha sang.)

Neither has had a perfect run, and this still feels like a competition that's headed toward a two-David final. But if you judge people on a given night's performance -- instead of on the cume of a season's worth of songs -- no way did either deserve to go home before Brooke and Castro. Of course, Kristy Lee Cook did not deserve to go home a week ago based on her performance, but that's how "Idol" works.

Then there's the personal thing. Brooke at least had the good taste to look stunned when she was safe and Syesha was in the bottom two. Syesha, for that matter, shared a final hug with Carly that went on so long, it wasn't just for show. But it seemed that Jason's surviving while Carly went bottom two had no more emotional effect on him than, well, anything else in life. The guy's not getting by on personality, because he barely has one. He's getting by on a cuteness that appeals to some young and speed-dialing demographic that will vote for its guy no matter how inept he proves to be.

Of course, there's a Sanjaya parallel to be drawn here. Sanjaya was notorious for going his own way even when it didn't make musical sense, and on Wednesday night Andrew Lloyd Webber made clear that JC didn't listen to any advice Webber gave. Neither is much of a singer, although I might rank JC a little ahead of Sanjaya. But, while I'm not in the habit of giving Sanjaya any praise, he had a personality. I don't know what JC has. He can barely speak. His song selection for Webber week made clear he's no thinker. He's no more than a passable singer -- putting to lie all that nonsense about this being the most talented "Idol" crop ever. He has the goofy smile (Jeff Spicoli redux), the dreads, the big eyes -- maybe it's that he's the most relatable contestant for voters who aren't all that articulate or adept themselves, or who dream of being with someone who looks pretty on the couch but will never challenge them, or himself.

OK, so now I have ranted. I hate myself a little for doing so. In its seventh season, "American Idol" should be viewed with cool detachment. But I get invested. And, after a week like this, I feel cheated on my investment.

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