So, Idol fans, how are you feeling today? Tired? Exhilarated? Excited? Anguished? The road to the finale has had its ups and downs - but, finally, like all journeys, good or bad, it came to an end. But first, on the last night of competition, how did the two Davids do?
Clive Davis tossed David Cook an extraordinarily difficult song in I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, but he did very well with it. Like too many of his songs of late, however, it suffered from too many cuts to cram it into 90 seconds. An above average performance, yes, but it didn't quite take off for us. (Considering the degree of difficulty involved, however, it wasn't too bad. We'd love to hear from anyone with the studio version.)
In contrast, Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me played well to David Archuleta's strengths, and was undoubtedly the easier choice. Heresy as it may be to Idol fans, U2 is a far bigger mountain to climb than either Elton John, Clay Aiken, or Bo Bice. The song also possesses plenty of the glory notes and power runs that Archuleta specializes in. It was a well-fitting song choice, with a not-too-large learning curve to boot. David did well with this. First round did go to Archuleta, but by a narrow margin at best.
As for the winner's song, well, we have no desire to remember them any more than we have to. Let's just say that both Davids did the best at absolutely ridiculous songs. We give Cook credit for at least not drowning us at home in cheese and sugar. Largely on that basis, we gave this round to Cook, again by the narrowest of margins. Simon was off his rocker on this one.
When it came down to the contestant picks, David Cook did not make life too easy for himself. Perhaps doing a reprise of Hello or Billie Jean was the safe option, but it would never be as good as the first time - there's no surprise involved anymore. However, if there's one thing people should have learned about DC, he never takes the safe option. Never. That said, our feelings about this are similar to his U2 cover: above-average, but didn't feel right done in just 90 seconds.
On the other hand, "safe" has defined David Archuleta. Reprising Imagine was a safe bet; it was sure to win plaudits. However, it didn't have nearly the same impact it had the first time around. Not only had we heard the song done before; we'd also heard David do months of slow message ballads almost non-stop. It was a well-executed, but uninspiring choice for Archuleta. It was good enough that we'd give the round to Archuleta as well, but again with a relatively small margin.
Overall, while David the Younger won the night, it was a narrow victory at best. One also has to consider degree of difficulty: across the board David Cook's songs had a higher degree of difficulty. Clive Davis handed him a harder song, and because he chose to rearrange the coronation song and not do a reprise he made things harder for himself. By contrast, Clive's pick for Archuleta was simple, his coronation song needed no rearrangement, and he did a reprise. It's not hard to see which was harder to do. Still, Archuleta won the night - though, to use the boxing analogy, it was a split decision at best.
In the end, though, it was neither David who got knocked out - it was the judges. Even though he lost the night, voters rewarded David Cook for his more consistent and creative performances all season long. Well done DC.
How to win American Idol 101: David Cook's road to victory this season is as flawless as any in the history of the show. If anyone who plans to audition for Season Eight will study past contestants, one could do no better than DC. We may have gotten many - even most - things wrong over the season, but we got this one absolutely right. Right back when the Top 12 was revealed, we put him atop our Power Rankings - and he stayed there all season long.
Winning Idol is all about fanbases - building them, and broadening them. The secret to building a strong fanbase? Sing well, but don't forget to have a consistent musical identity. And that was something DC was very, very good at. He followed up Hello with other standout performances, such as Eleanor Rigby and Billie Jean, the latter being his finest song in the whole season in our opinion. Even his "ordinary" performances were consistently above-average (save for his one off week, a run-in with an Our Lady Peace song.) There's no better way to build a strong fanbase than to knock it out of the park early on, and keep delivering consistently all season long.
However, a strong fanbase is not enough to make you win. It'll get you to the finale, sure, but to win that's not good enough. You need to be able to draw upon a wide fanbase as well. Remember, because of the unlimited number of votes people can send one can have a powerful fanbase but not necessarily a wide one. (This is particularly true, for example, if a fanbase has plenty of power voters.)
Even in this regard, however, Cook did very well. How? His performances were more than just well-sung; he always showed that he was an extremely well-rounded musician - just as almost all successful, real-world artists are. Not only did he succeed in capturing the rock vote, he also captured non-rock fans with his all-around ability. This is, of course, a topic we've talked about before. In more ways than one, David Cook really is the new American Idol. More than just a good singer, David Cook showed he was a musician, and a gifted one at that. Brilliant run all season long, it's hard to do any better. Well done. Well done.
What about David Archuleta? He was proclaimed to be the front-runner all season long, sang fairly well, but ultimately came up short. You don't get to the finale if you make many mistakes, but was there any that derailed his campaign?
Once again, we go back to the new/old American Idol theme we talked about many weeks ago. He sung fairly well all season long, but never showed the kind of overall ability that Cook did. To make matters worse, for basically the entire season he was Mr. Slow Inspirational Ballad. Again, this was something that had, to be blunt, zero crossover potential. Fans of that genre of music might like it, but non-fans ran as fast as vampires from sunlight. Up against a broader fanbase, the tween votes found themselves outnumbered - and all the power voting in the world couldn't make the numbers up.
To be fair, we're not sure there's anything Archuleta could have done differently. DC was infinitely more experienced and could stretch himself musically to a degree that Archuleta could only dream about. Considering the gap in age and experience, that's expected. Also, consider just where Archuleta learned his musical craft: the youth talent show circuit. As far as music is concerned, that circuit is as remote from the real world as could be. Their definition of "a good singer" is almost exclusively one who can hit the glory notes. That's not singing; that's vocal gymnastics.
Let's give David Archuleta the credit he deserves, however. When doing ballads, he does quite well - especially in songs that require either purity (Imagine) or a lot of vocal power (Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me). There's a lot of talent there, but it requires a lot - an awful lot - of refinement, and not all of his previous "experience" to date will be useful. We hope that he does well, and finds himself in better hands than he has up to this point.
It's the theme, stupid!: Quick question: what's the difference between a member of the Idol PTB and a politician? Answer: one constantly panders to audiences, makes promises he can't keep, and is generally an untrustworthy piece of work. The other runs for public office.
After the forgettable season that was last year, TPTB there would be changes. We were promised the "most talented Top 24." If anything, the pre-season theme could be summed up in one word: redemption.
One year later, and the situation is better - but not that much. David Cook may have been the popular winner - 71% of respondents in a USA Today poll wanted him to win - but the season's journey to get there was rocky, to say the least. His win won't stop the articles crossing our browser detailing, in exquisite detail, what has to be done to save the "flagging Idol franchise."
Some - even most - of these proposals have some merit to them, but they come from a fundamentally flawed perspective. The Idol system, while having flaws, is not fundamentally broken. Just two seasons ago, the show unearthed a boatload of talent. Three seasons ago, the show produced the best-ever debut by a solo female country artist. Not much has fundamentally changed since then - same PTB, same voting system, same contestant selection process. Sure, there's been changes in the bigger musical world - as we noted in our preseason roundup - but looking at Idol as a competition, the core is identical.
This suggests that - as with Season Six - the flaw is something specific to the season. It wasn't the contestants; the top 12 had an above-average mix of vocal talent, artistic direction, and personality. Just on that level alone, this year was infinitely better than the previous one. There was no Sanjaya-like character whose role in the top 12 was to be, alternately, cannon fodder or a walking punchline.
However, what did we blame last year's disaster on? One of the factors that got the finger was last year's restricted themes. If anything, in that regard, this year was even worse. Some themes can be described as open, where the contestants have a relatively wide range of choice of songs to choose from. (A good example is a decade-centric theme; given ten years of music there's probably at least one song to suit a contestant.) Most themes, however, are fairly "closed" - there's a limited library to choose from. It can be due to the songs being from a specific artist, a very specific year, or other considerations.
Most seasons at least try to have a reasonable balance between the two kinds. (The exact number depends on whether on classifies genre-specific themes as open or closed). However, this year the situation was unprecedented in Idol history. Only one theme could be called anywhere close to open - and that was Idol Gives Back. Ouch.
The end result, of course, was near-disaster. The restricted - and ancient - themes - resulted in often poor song choices. It wasn't so much that the songs were bad; it was that they weren't relevant to the stated goal of Idol as a show - which is to produce an artist who will record and sell the music of today, not that of three decades ago. It's perfectly possible to make music that fits is contemporary, high-quality, and will sell well.
So just why were the themes so restricted this year? One popular bit of speculation is that this is due to the increased difficulty (and cost) in licensing that Idol encounters due to the performances now being sold on iTunes. If so, then the praised iTunes sales should be reconsidered. Fox and 19E are unlikely to consider this, however. Failing that, then Idol needs to reconsider how it clears songs. There's no reason in the world the #1 show in America should have any difficulty in clearing songs. Even the artists themselves won't object - once they find out Idol increases the sales of their originals, which it does.
In any event, though, it's a tribute to the talent of this season that, most of the time, they did an okay job with what they had. However, it's safe to say that most of us viewers at home were sometimes underwhelmed by the material they had to work with at times. In particular, David Cook was excellent at turning the lemons that passed for themes at lemonade. Still, given the talented cast, we can't help but wonder - what if they had good material to work with instead of the crap that got shoved down our throats?
Here's our theory. The fundamental problem is that TPTB are under the impression that to win viewers, they need to bring something "new" every season. So they keep bringing in the "bigger" and "better" guests and themes. Unfortunately, that mentality means that what Idol is supposed to be about - the music - gets short shrift. Our modest little proposal? Back to basics. Cut down on these over-hyped "mentors", or bring them on in such a way that they actually help, not cramp, the contestants. Pick good contestants, give them songs and themes worthy of their talent, and the show will take care of itself. This is a simple formula, but TPTB seem to be incapable of this. Why? The one thing that TPTB can't resist: manipulation.
Ignore those puppet strings: Manipulation has always been part and parcel of the experience for us Idol fans. However, the two seasons we've covered have also had, to us, an increase in subtle (and not-so-subtle) meddling by TPTB. We won't rehash all that happened last year, but as for this year... let's just say that the subtle and not-so-subtle attempts at manipulation have worn thin on Idol viewers.
Last week and this week represented new lows in attempts to manipulate the results. Syesha was a long shot, at beast to make it into the finale - but it was the height of sabotage to give her a song like Hit Me Up. I mean, a song like that? Seriously? Because it was an anonymous "producer's pick", no one had to stand there and say with a straight face that this was a good song for Syesha. It was the Idol equivalent of tossing an anvil to a drowning man.
As for the judging this week, the judges were complete and utter idiots. There's no other way around it. David Archuleta was consistently over-praised - even if they were good, the over-the-top praise was uncalled for. To add insult to injury, the criticism heaped on David Cook was, to our ears, more than a little unfair. If the agenda was to make it look like David Archuleta won in the media reports, well, they succeeded: most reports carried the "knockout" headline, and reported that the coronation of David the Younger was all but imminent.
The thing about manipulation is, it's dependent on people being idiots. In this particular case, because it assumed that voters would put more stock on the judges than their own first-hand observation, it required an even greater amount of idiocy. Unfortunately for TPTB, people weren't complete and utter idiots. We're reminded of the infamous saying: you can fool some of the people all the time, all of the people some of the time, but not all the people all of the time. In this case, they fooled no people for no amount of time.
The reaction to the blatant pimping and manipulation was nothing short of amazing. We had predicted a close finale along the lines of Season Two - but that was before the Cookie Monsters came out in full fury, angered at the slighting of their Idol. Remember what we said above about DC having a fanbase that was broader than Archuleta's? They suddenly had the impetus to vote harder than they ever had before.
The result was not only the verdict going the other way the judges had said it would, but in such an emphatic way there could be no denying how the voting public had spoken. TPTB's plans went about as well as Wile E. Coyote's: with the American public wagging its tongue and running away (with DC on their shoulders in triumph), and Dumb A. Producer left either with a face full of soot, falling off a cliff, or squashed under a giant rock - depending on which visual you prefer. Watching Simon backtrack Wednesday night was almost as amusing as David Cook win.
We have to ask, though, just why have we seen two straight seasons of such unsubtle manipulation? For that answer, we have to go back to what happened just about two years ago: the victory of Taylor Hicks.
The history between Taylor Hicks and the Idol PTB is the stuff that legends - or books - are made of. (Now there's a thought. If you're a rich fellow willing to help us bankroll a book - or someone close to Taylor, Fox, or 19E willing to talk, contact us!) Whatever the behind-the-scenes happenings then, the effect on future seasons is clear.
Since then the Idol PTB have been far less subtle at manipulation. They do not want any repeat of Season Five's situation, not if they can help it. Last year, it was obvious they wanted an R&B star to capitalize on J-Hud's Oscar success. The ham-handedness all season long resulted in the Idol punditocracy being most enthusiastic not in supporting contestants, but in taking potshots at TPTB. (One wonders, in fact, if Sanjayamania could be considered an indirect act of rebellion.)
This year, the goal was different. Whether it was this year or last, at some point 19E has decided that it wants a piece of the tween market, currently occupied by musical luminaries such as Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers. (We'll deal with this pursuit itself later.) In David Archuleta, they thought they had their ticket to that market. To make sure he got the finale and try to give him the crown, TPTB resorted to increasingly blatant attempts that fair-minded people found absolutely revolting.
We all saw how blatant manipulation - both in the form of obvious bias and (probably) the selection of ridiculous themes - came this close to destroying this season. Fortunately for us (and the Idol franchise), the public had other ideas about who deserved the win - and voted with their calls and text messages.
Unfortunately, this year showed that the producers have an Ahab-like obsession with capturing the tween market. If they fail with David Archuleta (as they, in our opinion, probably will), they're going to try even harder next year. Be warned: we have a feeling that like Season Three, Season Eight will be stacked with younger contestants. This may have its good and bad points, but it's something to look out for next year.
Doomed to failure: Idol seems determined to chase the tween market. Here's a warning, though: we think any such attempt is doomed to complete and utter failure.
The thing about acts like Miley Cyrus and Jonas Brothers is that for all their success in selling albums, they're not really musical acts the way all Idol winners are. They're much more like actors who all just happen to play singers on TV. The albums are more properly interpreted, then, as highly successful pieces of merchandising.
In that light, then, the linchpin of their success is not their music. That's a good thing for them - because, if the guest performances by both Miley and the Jonas Brothers on Idol this year are any indication, they're dreadful. Instead, the core of the success is the Disney name - and all the marketing mileage that brings. In between the Disney shows, the DVDs, and everything else - it's an immensely powerful, and comprehensive, marketing machine, that's aimed so precisely at the tween market. If someone wants to go after tweens in the same way, they need to replicate that kind of infrastructure.
The Idol marketing machine is powerful, but not where it counts for tweens. They don't have a Hannah Montana that can plug Miley Cyrus essentially 24/7. Without that key element, any attempt to create a successful tween star is doomed to fail. With tweens it''s all about what's popular; and without a Disney Channel equivalent... it just won't work. The alternative, then, is to win them over with the music alone... which is difficult, as we all saw with David Archuleta this year.
TPTB are obsessed - obsessed - with bringing a tween star to fruition. They've got it in their heads that they need one to complete their repertoire - as it stands, they have R&B, country, and rock already covered. They think they need a tween to "complete" the connection. All they're displaying is an ignorance of why these tween stars sell music. The music has little to do with it. We just hope that they don't end up causing more damage to the show while they take us along for the ride for this misguided quest.
It's been a long road...: The road to the Idol finale has been a long, arduous one filled with plenty of ups and downs. And that's just for us viewers at home. Here's a chance to jog the brain cells and have a little fun in the process... it's the Official Idol Guy Season in Review Quiz!
1. Which of the following was the most painful to watch this season?
a. Jason flubbing Mr. Tambourine Man
b. David Archuleta flubbing We Can Work It Out
c. Renaldo Lapuz 'singing' Brothers Forever
d. The Idol producers making Syesha sing Hit Me Up
e. All of the above
2. Who would the producers prefer not to see backstage?
a. Bear Stearns CEO Alan Schwartz
b. Former New York Knicks head coach Isiah Thomas
c. Rev. Jeremiah Wright
d. Jeff Archuleta
e. Sanjaya Malakar
3. Name the best psychic/clairvoyant/prophet among the following:
b. Laura Roslin
c. Sylvia Browne
d. Paula Abdul
4. Which of the following would you not want to upset?
a. James Bond
b. Chuck Norris
c. David Archuleta's Arch Angels
d. David Cook's Cookie Monsters
e. C and D
5. Which does not belong?
a. Carrie Ann, Len, and Bruno
b. Larry, Curly, and Moe
c. Harry, Ron, and Hermione
d. Randy, Paula, and Simon
6. Clive Davis is:
a. One of the biggest names in the music industry
b. An inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
c. An irrelevant old bat who should just retire
d. The villain in the next Indiana Jones film
7. Jason Castro will probably be having a chat after Idol with:
a. His family
b. His friends and supporters
c. The hair care product industry
d. The DEA
e. All of the above
8. Which of the following is proof that Idol looks for undiscovered talent?
a. Carly Smithson once had a record deal with MCA
b. Michael Johns once had a record deal with Maverick
c. Syesha Mercado appeared on the canceled reality show The One: Making a Music Star
d. David Archuleta won Star Search at age 12
e. None of the above
9. If their music careers don't pan out, what will the following former Idol contestants do after the show?
a. Brooke White will write a book on child care
b. Carly Smithson and David Cook will open their own nightclub/pub
c. Danny Noriega will start offering workshops on Manners and Public Speaking
d. "I'm Kyle Ensley, and I approve this message."
10. When Nigel Lythgoe said "the biggest star in the world" would appear at the finale, he was referring to:
a. George Michael
b. ZZ Top's beards
c. The giant elephant on the stage - producer manipulation
d. Simon Cowell's ego
11. What was the only redeeming thing about bringing Renaldo Lapuz back for the finale?
a. Seeing Paula "dance" again
b. Watching Simon's reaction to Paula's dancing
c. The USC Song Girls
d. Just C
1. FDR, Churchill, Stalin : Hitler
a. Brooke, Jason, DavidA: lyrics
b. Carly, Amanda, Michael : good fashion sense
c. Kristy and Ramiele: the Beatles
d. All of the above
2. Randy Jackson : "Yo, dawg..."
a. Paula Abdul : "You look beautiful tonight."
b. Gordon Ramsay : *bleep*
c. Simon Cowell: "Hideous."
d. David Archuleta : "Gosh!"
3. Simon Cowell : Archuleta knocked out Cook in the finale
a. White Star Line : the Titanic
b. Paris Hilton : The Hottie and the Nottie
c. Microsoft : Windows Vista
d. Bear Sterns : sub-prime mortgages
4. Penn Jillette : dancing
a. Congress: saving money
b. Drunken sailors : saving money
c. Randy Jackson : being literate
d. Paula Abdul: singing
5. Jason Castro : not knowing Memories was sung by a cat
a. Barack Obama : "I've now been in 57 states - I think one left to go."
b. Imperial stormtrooper : "These are not the droids we are looking for."
c. Detroit Lions employee : "F--- 'em until next year," 'them' being a (former) season ticket holder
d. The Idol Guy : predicting Syesha's exit for weeks on end
Recently Simon Cowell said Idol might consider lowering the minimum age to 14. Discuss whether this is a) child abuse, b) proof that Simon is suffering from mad cow disease, or c) accidentally drinking from Paula's Coke cup.