Welcome back to the latest installment of American Idol. As we write this, we're all done watching the latest batch of
deluded psychopaths, famewhores, and lunaticsundiscovered talent from all corners of the United States. The Idol preseason is over, and unlike spring training, hopefully the only juice is in Paula's Coke cup. But first, what has the rest of the AI gang been up to?
The Terrible Trio - Plus One: As far as our judges are concerned, it's been a somewhat busy offseason. Paula and Randy have been working on her new album, which should be released sometime during the season. Everyone who was watching the Super Bowl on Fox also got a peek of Paula's music video, and while we didn't get to watch that particular bit of entertainment, we're told that it didn't go over so well with the viewers at large. (Of course, that wasn't the last bit of Idol on the Super Bowl. It was on Fox, after all.)
Meanwhile, Simon was off doing what he does best - no, not anything music-related. We're told that Simon is currently the fastest British celebrity in a Chevy compact car. In fact, we have it on good authority that he has "natural ability" around a race track. Now, if only Simon could direct his energies to not manipulating the top 24, we might actually have a good season.
And, of course, we have the Metrosexual-in-Chief, Ryan Seacrest. We have no idea what he did in the offseason, except appear a lot on the Super Bowl. Do we really need to give him any more publicity?
Idol by the numbers: Idol is almost unique in the world of reality TV in that the end "product" - the winning finalist - is judged by the whole public - not just the viewing audience - with their wallets. It's a good thing we don't gamble or buy stocks (which aren't that different), because our predictions for how our two finalists from Season Six would sell were way, way, off. Let's run it down, shall we? (First, though, the credit: we extend thanks to our own razorbacker and Cary the chart guru from carriefans.com for providing us with the sales numbers. Also, we've taken the liberty of rounding off all figures to the nearest thousand.)
Both Jordin and Blake have had their albums out for long enough that we can reasonably judge their success. Sometimes a later single can boost sales of an album significantly, but to get the needed "buzz" for later singles, you need to do well right out of the gate, period. On this account, let's just say our Season 6 finalists have been... less than successful.
The best comparison that can be made is to the other Idol finalists. Now, there are some caveats. Different genres do sell at different rates, and we also have to consider that rarely has any industry gone out of its way to alienate customers the way the record industry has in recent years. The trend towards digital sales has also hurt the sales of CDs. (An aside here: we normally like the trend towards all things digital, but not this time. Speaking as an audiophile, the quality of just about all songs sold online is horrific, compared to a properly mastered audio CD.)
Here are the sales of various Idol-related albums after four weeks:
1. Clay Aiken (Measure of a Man) - 1,092,000
2. Ruben Studdard (Soulful) - 957,000
3. Carrie Underwood (Carnival Ride) - 932,000
4. Kelly Clarkson (Breakaway) - 851,000
5. Carrie Underwood (Some Hearts) - 830,000
6. Chris Daughtry (Daughtry) - 795,000
7. Kelly Clarkson (Thankful) - 623,000
8. Taylor Hicks - 559,000
9. Fantasia Barrino (Free Yourself) - 510,000
10. Bo Bice (The Real Thing) - 454,000
11. Jordin Sparks - 285,000
12. Blake Lewis (Audio Day Dream) - 231,000
13. Ruben Studdard (I Need An Angel) - 229,000
14. Katharine McPhee - 219,000
15. Kellie Pickler (Small Town Girl) - 181,000
Now, you may ask, why the numbers for the first four weeks? For one, the numbers just aren't available for the lower-selling albums for further weeks. Also, these numbers are good for measuring the popularity out of the gate. (It's worth nothing that the two best-selling albums on this list so far, Some Hearts and Breakaway, became successful due to sheer longevity. They both had a follow-up single that became wildly successful.) Still, it's a good measure of success: for most commercial releases, you don't gradually build up numbers. A great deal of the sales come up front.
Looking at the graph, we can see how poorly Jordin and Blake started. Most artists would be happy with those kinds of numbers, sure, but for AI finalists the expectations are different. Next to their peers, they didn't do so well. That's unavoidable; and no spin on earth will get around that. That's the ultimate indictment of Season Six.
What if we limit the scope, and try to measure for a longer period? Let's make it twelve weeks, and this is what we get.
1. Clay Aiken (Measure of a Man) - 2,154,000
2. Carrie Underwood (Some Hearts) - 2,000,000 (Our estimate; week 11 total was 1.94 million)
3. Carrie Underwood (Carnival Ride) - 1,747,000
4. Ruben Studdard (Soulful) - 1,468,000
5. Kelly Clarkson (Breakway) - 1,420,000
6. Kelly Clarkson (Thankful) - 1,227,000
7. Fantasia Barrino (Free Yourself) - 982,000
8. Jordin Sparks - 494,000
9. Ruben Studdard (I Need An Angel) - 359,000
The numbers still look poor for our Season Six finalists. Blake dropped off the list altogether; and Jordin's chances of hitting one million are looking downright impossible.
The underlying point of all these numbers is actually fairly simple. With the first four Idol debut albums all going multi-platinum (Carrie's, especially so), the Idol powers-that-be became spoiled, in a matter of speaking. They began to expect that America's biggest TV show could produce, right out of the box, a multi-platinum star out of the gate. You could say they didn't moderate their greed.
For a while, it could. Even Fantasia, a flawed winner in her own right, managed healthy sales. But then the music industry changed without Idol noticing it. CD sales started coming down, downloads started coming up, and all of a sudden it became a lot harder to sell millions of albums. It's popular in the AI pundit community to regard Taylor Hicks as something of a commercial flop, but what if that wasn't the case? Perhaps, he was a sign of things to come: more niche-oriented singers, selling well in their field but not quite reaching million-album sales, putting more energy and resources into touring.
The upshot is, it's clear to us that we have to lower the expectations of our Idol winners post-season. Gone, probably, are the early days when merely winning could give you a platinum album right out of the gate. One should note that if you take Carrie out of the equation, sales have been falling since the days of Fantasia. This is something that has been brewing for a long time; it just so happened that in between you had one winner who bucked the trend and another who could be excused away. With Season Six, however, the drop was just too big to be missed, and the trend became obvious.
A more reasonable expectation, therefore, would be around Taylor's sales: half a million within four weeks, to about 750,000 within months. Given the current shape of CD sales, that's not such a bad goal. Most artists would probably love to have success like that even once in their whole career. Of course, Jordin and Blake still sold below that figure, but that's no surprise. Blake wasn't going to be able to go far beyond his small niche audience, and Jordin, while exceptionally talented, never really figured out where she was musically. More than anything else, Jordin represents a cautionary tale of what happens when you thrust a 16-year-old into the music industry. It may or may not work. (We'll probably return to the always controversial Idol age limit in a future article.)
If you don't mind, we'd like to cancel this deal: Speaking of Taylor, he was one of several Idol alumni who lost their contracts during the offseason. Off the top of our head, he was joined in that club by Ruben and fellow Season Five alum Katharine. What the hell happened there?
The one person who we dare say is probably better off without a big-label deal is Taylor. Even though he was undoubtedly talented, he never seemed to "fit" all that well with a big record label. His "poor" sales gave the labels an excuse to ditch him. Given that we have a feeling he may not have been all that happy with the limits that ended up being placed on him artistically, he's probably better off now.
As for Ruben, his case is proof that Idol can only take you so far. He stumbled a bit with his second album, and his third fared even worse. It may be harsh, but the truth is he's made a mess of his career post-Idol. We can't blame the labels for that decision. Kat? Well... we think she has a future in the entertainment industry, but not anything having to do with singing. A carrer as an actress is probably better for her - and, we have to admit, she has the looks to pull it off.
And, finally: Enough of the past seasons. What about this one? The process so far has been... interesting to say the least. There have been some changes, but that's not unexpected. Season Three's poorly received finale led to the adoption of the current top 24 format, as an example. The Idol powers-that-be are not as clueless as they sometimes seem to be.
On the purely ridiculous level, the much promoted decision to allow people to use instruments ended up being... pure hype. How many auditions with instruments did we actually get to see? (And no, blink-and-you-miss-it ones don't count.) Just as important, what was the point if the contestants aren't allowed to use them in the top 24?
Much more importantly, though, is the elimination of the early eliminations in Hollywood. It should be obvious that the more data you have, the better your decisions should be. Before, though, people were getting eliminated because of, essentially, one song. In addition, the group songs were more an exercise in psychology than singing. (We should also note that if we ever hear the words "sugar pie, honey bunch" again, it will be far too soon.)
The one thing that struck us about the top 24 is the degree to which the producers have selected a "safe" grouping. What do we mean by "safe"? It's simple: no more Sanjayas or Antonellas to muck things up, as far as we can see. After the way that scandal, not singing, dominated most of Season Six, the producers have decided: we can't go back to business as usual; we need the focus to be on the singing (and that should be good, too.)
Note, also, that a lot of the top 24 seem to be sort of in the mold of successful Idols from before, or idiot-proof commercially: lots of rockers and/or quasi-rockers (Chris Daughtry, anyone?); quite a few country types; a few more to cater to the tween audience. No persons who got there because they'd be talked about, or had a sob story, or makes good TV. (Either Josiah or Kyle, for example, would have made the top 24 in any other season.)
For once, Ryan Seacrest may be right: this could well be the most talent-loaded top 24, but not for the reasons the producers would probably like us to think.
Of course, there may well be a reason for that top 24 being so good: the phrase "undiscovered talent" comes with disclaimers. Carly Smithson is the poster child for this, but she's far from alone. Now, this doesn't bother us that much. There have always been some contestants with more experience than the rest, and they usually do well. Kelly had a demo tape; Carrie had a development deal that fell through; and both Blake and Taylor were fairly well-known regional acts. While I don't think it would cause a stir in the general public, this is something that has the online Idol punditocracy a little riled up. We predict major howls of protest if one of these semi-pros win. As far as we're concerned, if it makes the singing better, it's good.
In the end, though, it'll be up to the voting public to decide if all of us prognosticators are right or dead wrong. One thing's sure: if we ever did a Bad Predictions roundup at season's end, we'll have to include ourself. Multiple times.
All predictions correct or your money back! For comments, send us a PM.