Major league baseball has the World Series. The NFL has the Super Bowl. Reality TV has... the American Idol finale.
Okay, comparing the finale of a reality TV show to major sports events is a bit of a stretch. But there are some similarities. They're all the culmination of multiple weeks of hype built up by some of the best PR people known to man. They bring out the biggest names in their respective fields. Unfortunately, there's another thing in common: the event itself is something of a letdown. Look at the Super Bowl: sometimes the halftime show is more entertaining than the game itself.
As far as the actual performances on Tuesday night were concerned, we were left somewhat underwhelmed. Some of it was to be expected; as we said last week the traditional coronation song is never any good, but even with that knowledge we still cringed at just how bad it really was. The replay songs were fairly well done, but they didn't have the same effect they had the first time around. The new performances were not outstanding, but they were at least reasonable. The final performances reflected the whole season in a way: it was completely, and thoroughly, average. Average a successful singer does not make.
If it weren't for the "winner's" song, Blake would have had a so-so night. With it, though, he was pretty bad. You Give Love A Bad Name was classic Blake. The singing was nothing to write home about, but the performance itself was superb. Did it win him any new votes? No, but that was an uphill struggle in any case. We said back then that opinions on this song would be sharply divided; that was even more apparent with this go-around.
As for She Will Be Loved, it was just okay, but it could have been far better. We can't exactly blame Blake for doing a Maroon 5 song again, but we don't think doing songs by the same artist that close together is a good idea. That said, the performance should have been a lot better. This should not have taxed his vocals - operative word, should. Even with the limited demands the song placed on his vocals, it was still weak in a few - heck, a lot - of places. We weren't a fan of the way Blake did this song either; it seemed to us that it was just that slower and more subdued than the original. The difference? Blake turned what should have been a fairly lively song into a rather dull one.
Blake singing This Is My Now was cruel and unusual punishment - both for him and the viewers at home. It wasn't quite as horrific as You Should Be Dancing, but it was hands-down the most cringe-worthy performance of the night. The song itself was woeful - more on that later - and it fit Blake about as poorly as you could imagine. Blake can be downright awful if he's forced to rely on his vocals alone; that's exactly what happened here. Still, given that he would never even touch something like This Is My Now in any other circumstances, we won't ding that many points from him.
As for Jordin... her reprise performance was good, although Randy went a little bit overboard with his praise. Like Blake, it was more of the same. Fighter was an interesting choice, and in some ways it's a perfect illustration of everything Jordin is and isn't. On the bright side, the vocals were pretty good (remember, Jordin can foul up a fast song very badly), but that wasn't the problem. It's believability. Anything except sappy, tear-inducing ballads from her just doesn't work that well. Fighter needs someone who can be edgy; unfortunately Jordin is as edgy as a bowling ball. Well-sung, but completely unbelievable.
Jordin handled the crappy "winner's" song rather better. Of course, that was to be expected, given that it was right in her comfort zone. Like Fighter, we have no complaints about the vocal. The performance was good, but the song itself was still awful. Jordin was able to ram in more power notes than we cared for, but then again that was probably how it was meant to be sung. Either way, we still weren't impressed.
How to win American Idol - or, at least, get to the finale: Congratulations go out to Jordin for her victory. It makes for three straight seasons where the winner was never at risk of exiting all season long; we wonder if it's a streak that will go on for much further.
Both Blake and Jordin did some things right. They were able to separate themselves from the rest of the field fairly early on - Blake right from the top 24, and Jordin a few weeks later. It's one of the things you really have to do to ensure a good chance of winning - every winner and most of the runner-ups did exactly that in their respective seasons. That's step one in the path to Idol success.
The other part is more subtle: now that you've stood out and separated yourself from everyone else, the key is to build a fanbase. We harp on that fact frequently enough, but there's no one easy way to do so. For Jordin, it was a mix of her youth, abundant talent, and standout performances like I (Who Have Nothing). For Blake, it was the beatboxing, good looks, and a healthy dash of charisma.
Save for their occasional bouts with disaster (Living on a Prayer, You Should Be Dancing), it was a well-executed run to the top for both of them. The ultimate difference was simple: Jordin could appeal to a broader mass of people since she was not perceived to be a one-trick pony. We acknowledge that Blake is a good performer and has above average music knowledge (his remixes are not exactly child's play), but he just doesn't have a very good voice. Take away the beatboxing and Blake is very ordinary, at best.
Of course, the question now becomes, what happens to their debut albums? Jordin's will be easier to do; she will probably get a mix of fast, upbeat songs and slow power ballads. There's a good chance that it might sound overly generic and manufactured, but that's almost traditional. If they pick the right songs for her - i.e., Jordin actually starts to sing songs that a 17-year-old can credibly sing, not, say, emotionally overladen songs like Woman in Love or I (Who Have Nothing) she'll be fine. Assuming they don't completely foul up her album (and that includes its release date, it has to be out before the Christmas shopping season), we have a hard time believing it will do anything less than the total numbers for Ruben or Fantasia's debut albums - which are somewhere between the 1.5 to 2 million mark.
Blake has a more difficult job. He rose to the top on the strength of his performance skills and beatboxing... which may or may not translate well when it's just audio. Also, because Blake's uniqueness is part of his appeal, they have to be careful not to produce an overly generic sound, otherwise it could be a failure. (See: Bo Bice.) The best situation may be for Blake to hope Clive Davis concentrates his energies on Jordin's album, leaving him a freer hand to record his.
The Grammar Police are calling: What in the world was that utter disaster that was the Idol single? Sure, it follows in the long line of trash that started with A Moment Like This, but that's not an excuse. There's such a thing in the world called improvement, which the geniuses who pick the singles seem not to be familiar with. I'm half surprised that the people who wrote it actually showed their faces, given how poorly received it was. (To be fair, the lyrics are not as silly as classics like Inside Your Heaven or My Destiny. But only barely.)
Here's a suggestion: stop insisting that the song has to be on some level about the Idol journey. Good music comes to songwriters from all sorts of inspiration and trying to shoehorn a theme into it usually doesn't work very well. We're not sure if the song-writing contest actually made for a better song or not, but in any event we doubt there'll be any changes in any case. From their point of view, it's not "broken" - sales are always good - so why bother?
Speaking of cruel and unusual: The two-hour finale was, as far as those go, pretty good. The guest performances were good, all four of the previous winners were even better, and overall it was better than anything we expected. Some parts, however, left a pretty foul taste in the mouth.
First off the bat, this Golden Idol nonsense - and anything like it - has got to stop. An increasing percentage of the bad auditionees are there just for the 15 minutes of TV fame - and the benefits that come with that. A little of it is entertaining as comic relief, but we're way past that. Why the heck should this kind of behavior be encouraged? Is that the kind of message they really want to send - intentionally act like a complete and utter moron, an embarrassment to humanity, and we'll give you your 15 minutes?
Of course, it's another issue if mental illness is involved. We wouldn't be surprised if it was. If that's the case, then they're an attraction the way circus sideshows were many years ago. There are good reasons why those are no longer considered acceptable. If somebody tried to replicate those today, he would be met with nothing but scorn. Why should we treat Idol doing essentially the same thing any differently?
Then of course there's the replay of You Really Got Me, courtesy of Sanjaya. I'm sure that somewhere JFK, Gandhi, and whoever got mentioned in that montage are rolling over in their graves. We know it's a joke, but we're not laughing. We've wasted enough space denouncing Sanjaya in this column, so we'll keep it short. Seeing Sanjaya was not much better than seeing Big Bird back in action. 'nuff said.
The teenyboppers rise: Frequently there's a trend in one season that carries over to the next. For example, Carrie's success in Season 4 led to more country singers trying out for Idol, giving us the likes of Kellie Pickler and Bucky Covington last year. Similarly, Bo and Constantine were followed by Chris Daughtry.
The trend to watch for next year is: look for contestants who have younger, more contemporary fanbases to do very well. Both Jordin and Blake had rather young supporters - Jordin because of her age, and Blake because of his image (we called him last week a one-man boy band). No other finale has had someone who so obviously chased the teen/tween age bracket, yet this time both of them did. Earlier in the season, you can also consider Sanjaya's prolonged survival courtesy of his young voters another bit of evidence.
Conversely, this means that older, more skilled but "throwback" singers will face an uphill climb next season. Taylor's win last year and Melinda's run this year may well be critical moments in history: they could be the last time we see contestants with a style that is old-fashioned become really successful. In a way, this is a return to Idol's roots: neither would have been allowed to audition had it not been for the raised age limit after Season 3.
The reason for this is simple. The teen audience has become more powerful this year, because text messaging is easier and cheaper than ever before. They've always embraced text messaging as a preferred means of communication, but in seasons past cost was a factor because unlimited text messaging was not always common. With widespread unlimited text messaging plans, however, that's not a problem anymore - and if anything, the technology has become even more common among teens. With teens already having an advantage in other factors (such as, for example, the amount of effort they're willing to invest to vote), it's not looking good for anyone much over the age of 20. The 30- or 40-something mother tossing in a few votes for her favorite is being overpowered by her 15-year-old daughter voting for her latest teenage crush using her cell phone for two hours on end, without much in the way of rest.
The flipside is the teen bracket is the likeliest to vote for someone based on reasons that have nothing to do with singing. Let's face it; everyone's capacity for musical discernment is not that strong at that age. If the producers really want a good, talented singer to emerge then it becomes important to ensure that the top 24 really is the best talent they can find. You may not be able to expect America - or at least, the Idol voting populace - to "get it right" every time. Then again, however, who decides the top 24? Randy, Paula, and Simon. That's not a group that inspires confidence, either.
Only one more thing left to do. The Idol Guy Year in Review! For comments and suggestions, send us a PM right here.