Let's take a cue from another Fox show and do some elementary math. This week's Idol episode was a standard, one hour show. However, when you take out all the commercials that's more like 40 minutes or so. To be precise, this week's episode was just north of 43 minutes. With ten songs this week, that meant that, on average, each song had about 4 minutes and 20 seconds of airtime. That sounds like a lot, but consider all the other fluff before and after the song: rehearsal video and commentary, the commentary from the judges, and Ryan's awkward pre-singing questions, and suddenly that doesn't sound like a lot of time anymore. Normally, we're as annoyed as anyone else by needlessly long episodes - but this was a night that cried out for more time.
On the other hand, though, maybe the shortened time was a blessing in disguise. More time would only have added to the suffering that was the first half of the show. Let's be blunt: the first five performances, collectively, were some of the worst we've ever seen.
Opening proceedings was Jason's version of Forever in Blue Jeans. Now, we're not exactly a Neil Diamond fan - we barely know who he is - but we're sure he wouldn't sell that many records if his songs were that dull. The harsh truth is, Jason failed to connect with his material. When he can't do that, his vocals are just not capable of making him interesting. What he did this time around was more of saying the lyrics than actual singing. There's a world of difference between the two.
As for David Cook's version of I'm Alive, it was better than the rest of the first half songs, but that's not saying much. It was a very average performance - the vocals were okay, but the performance itself was not particularly good. If anything, the vibe we got was... forced. At his best, David comes off as a very natural, charismatic individual - a born performer, almost. He wasn't that this time.
Next up was Brooke's I'm A Believer. We like her, but on this particular song... no. Just no. This was not her at all; she had no business choosing this song, period. Has she been taking some of Jason's, uh, stuff? She usually makes smarter song choices than this.
Not that he's legal to drink anyway, but David Archuleta would be well advised to stay away from New England sports bars. The Idol-watching portions of Red Sox Nation may not look too kindly on his butchering of their unofficial theme song. The millions of people who, throughout the years, have sung Sweet Caroline at various sports events did better than David did.
Surprisingly, our favorite act during the first half was... Syesha. Admittedly, it was a somewhat throwback performance, but save for the occasional power notes the vocal was excellent. However, the whole package just wasn't compelling. Yes, it was well sung, but it never dragged us in the way good music does. Still, considering the lousy competition, Syesha easily won the first half.
The second half, on the other hand, was a considerable improvement. Where David Cook was forced and unnatural earlier, All I Really Need Is You came off as natural and right from the heart. It's not quite as original as his other songs, but overall it was still the best performance of the night.
In the next rung below, we have Brooke and Syesha. I Thank The Lord For The Night Time was something of a lightweight song, but it was fun, entertaining, and played to Syesha's strong acting ability (even if it sometimes felt overdone). Not a bad way to end the night, in our opinion. As for Brooke, it was far, far better than her first version. I Am... I Said played to her strengths vocally, she was able to set the mood, and she delivered it cleanly - no nerves, no messed-up lyrics, no restart.
David Archuleta pulled out a page from the Kristy Lee Cook strategy page with another, ehem, calculated song choice. Again, we're not American, so it didn't affect us on an emotional level. While the performance wasn't bad, there was precious little to like either. Very, very mediocre performance. We do not understand all the praise from the judges for this song - does Daddy Archuleta have blackmail information on all the judges or something?
In the cellar - again - was Jason Castro. We're sure Neil Diamond was not a well-known singer of lullabies, but that was exactly how September Morn felt. If it had been any longer, we'd have fallen asleep. It's almost like he's not even trying anymore; no attempt at emotional connection, or creativity. It's not much better than reading the lyrics off a page.
How not to act in public: What can we say that hasn't been said about Paula's pre-judging on Tuesday night? For someone who's paid millions of dollars a year to do what any one of us sitting at home could do, Paula should be ashamed and embarrassed for her "judging". Unfortunately, Paula Abdul is beyond shame and embarrassment.
However, there's plenty of blame to go around for this week's disaster. The producers bit off far more than they could chew with the episode. Yes, the first half was terrible, but the second half was actually pretty decent. Unfortunately, any enjoyment was tempered by the assembly line pace of the show. Everything felt rushed and amateurish. (Even the videography was off. What was with the hands blocking Syesha during her first song? Hello? Did anyone not realize that might happen?)
"Amateurish" is the word we'd use to describe Fox executive Mike Darnell. We're told that apparently, it was his idea to ask how the three judges felt about the first round - and word got out to Ryan Seacrest just as Syesha was singing her first song. Oh. My. God. Mr. Darnell, please. Improvisation is strictly for comedians. Yes, we know it's live TV, but this isn't exactly a news event where you have to fly by the seat of your pants every second. A show like Idol can be planned to some degree: the video segments and songs are of known length, and how long the judges and Ryan will talk can be planned for as well.
Last night was unfair to everyone involved: the contestants, the judges, Neil Diamond, and, most importantly, us at home. Most of us, we're sure, watch Idol to be entertained, and hopefully catch some interesting music along the way. In all respects, the show failed this week. Both the contestants and us at home deserved better than that travesty we received on Tuesday.
A cure worse than the problem: Carly's exit last week led to a bit of talk around the Idol punditocracy how the current voting system is broken and needs to be changed. This week, however, should give some pause to at least some of the proposals we've heard floating around.
In theory, the Idol judging panel should be capable of producing a well-rounded critique of any performance. Randy is a successful producer, Paula did have a decent singing career, and Simon does have a fairly good idea of the commercial potential of any contestant. In between the three, they should be able to address any problems with a performance.
In practice, however, the judging are a nightmare. Paula doesn't make sense far too often; Randy's comments are largely well-worn, but meaningless stock phrases ("dawg", "da bomb", and "aight" come to mind); and Simon is the closest thing this show has to a decent judge, but he too has a tendency to rely on overblown comparisons (try "cabaret" and "Portuguese nightclub".) It's nearly a miracle we get anything useful out of this panel. This is not exactly the judging panel of, say, Dancing with the Stars, which, while sometimes having a tendency to be over-technical, is generally sensible, honest, straight to the point, and good at balancing criticism with encouragement.
The idea of giving more power to this trio is something that has to be considered very carefully. Their track record is not exactly one that can be relied on; if we were on the show we'd take our chances with the public and the hordes of hormone-driven tweens rather than a precognitive Paula Abdul. (An aside: we agree, however, that the show does need an encouraging judge, as Paula is, to balance out Randy and Simon. We just wish, however, that the encouragement was, well, coherent.)
One more proposal that seems to be making the rounds as well is voting for a person to send home, instead of voting to keep someone safe. This would be an even bigger mistake. The trouble is that many otherwise successful singers don't necessarily have more fans than detractors. In the real world, that's perfectly fine anyway. The only thing that would result would be "ultra-safe", non-controversial people doing well. Unfortunately, that is not a formula for success in the real world. Besides, this would make for dull TV as well.
While we're on the topic of supposed problems hounding Idol, let's talk about themes. Neil Diamond was considered an "ancient" theme by many pundits, and there have been many cries for more "contemporary" themes, befitting the younger demographic that Idol supposedly aims for.
We agree that Neil Diamond night may not have been the smartest of ideas, but we say: be careful what you wish for. There have been a few episodes with very contemporary themes, but they haven't all turned out very well. Season Four did the 1990s at Top 10 and 2000s at Top 6, and came out with mixed results. A mixed theme night for Top 5 included songs from the Billboard charts at the time went somewhat better, but couldn't avoid subpar performances from two out of five people remaining - only above-average performances from Carrie, Bo, and Vonzell saved that half of the show.
Season Five also tried out the 2000s theme, with poor results: only Taylor and Elliott did quite well, with the rest of the night consisting mainly of disasters like Kellie's Suds In The Bucket and Chris shouting, not singing, What If, or downright mediocre performances. It was, without a doubt, the worst finals episode of that season.
The basic problem with a more "contemporary" theme is that you can't do the single-artist themes that Idol is so fond of. Most artists that fit that label don't really have the depth of material to pick from. Consider: most artists today can take anywhere from two to four years to record a new album. How many hit songs can each album produce? Let's be generous and say four.
Now, what's the absolute minimum for, say, a top 12 field to actually have some songs to choose from? We know that TPTB gave the top 12 exactly 25 songs to choose from the Lennon-McCartney songbook. So using that as a lower bound, we can see that it'll take around six albums to get that much material to, realistically, choose from. Assuming a new album every three years, we get... eighteen years of songs from debut onwards. (Coincidentally, Mariah Carey made her debut in 1990.)
This computation, of course, uses something of a "worst case" - single artist night only, but it makes the broader point felt. A "contemporary" theme tends to restrict song choice more than any other. There are many reasons for this (difficulty in getting song clearance, for one), but the end result is the same. TPTB know this, of course, which may offer one reason they don't do those themes. When they do try, they at least try to broaden the available material - picking "decade" themes, or even using half-baked abortions like "Songs By Gwen Stefani Or Those That Inspired Her" last year.
Our proposed solution? Move away from artist- and era-specific themes to more genre-based ones. Now, this may be a strange suggestion coming from us, but it's becoming quite clear that nowadays, because the theme is one specific genre no longer means it has to be sung in that genre only. In particular, contestants in the New Idol mold we keep talking about - are excellent at taking a theme and making it fit their own musical direction. No longer does, say, "Country Week" mean every song have to be done like a country song. Contestants are now free, and able, to pick a song from any genre, and turn it into their own in a degree unprecedented before.
The advantage? Genre-based themes have better song selection possibilities. With no restriction based on artist and era, a smart contestant will be able to find something that fits him or her well - something that may be harder with the artist or era themes that are the norm.
The Idol Power Rankings: The last time we saw a final two shape up with this kind of inevitability was Bice-Underwood in Season Four. Strange things can happen, of course, but right now that's the way things look. These will also be the last Power Rankings of the season; after next week it'll be obvious who's heading for the finale, and it's sort of pointless to rank just three people.
1. David Cook (Last week: 1)
I'm Alive was a mis-step, but his second song made up for it. The kind of consistency David is able to show is remarkable.
2. David Archuleta (Last week: 2)
Two non-ballads... with rather significant quantities of fail. Yes, he's 16, but that does not excuse the fact that he is the most over-praised contestant in Idol history.
3. Jason Castro (Last week: 3)
Under normal circumstances, Brooke's exit would help him, but her fans might not take well to the grin he sported while she was saying goodbye. Still, you can't argue with a fanbase that put him through last week and this week's dual trainwrecks. That might be what saves him next week.
4. Syesha Mercado (Last week: 5)
Syesha's appearance in the bottom two must be some sort of record. She's been in the bottom group five times in a row. How much longer can this last?
Down goes the nanny: Early on, we had Brooke plugged in as a front-runner. Somewhere along the way, though, things went very wrong for her. So what did happen?
Let's be fair. Brooke did make it to the top five, so she was doing something right. The secret to her success was building a fanbase, and doing it early. She established her musical identity - that of the folk singer/songwriter - very early on, and backed that up with top-notch performances. She got off to what can only be described as an excellent start.
The trouble was, though, after that excellent start she was unable to maintain the pace. From the Top 9 (Jolene) to last week's You Must Love Me, she delivered a full month of performances that ranged from the bad to the merely okay. Admittedly, some of that damage was due to ill-fitting themes, but most were self-inflicted: a bad case of nerves during Hero, and the infamous false start last week. Whatever the causes, that spelled trouble: you can't go that long without a genuinely good performance and keep building a fanbase to vote for you. When Brooke was good, she was as good as anyone else. Unfortunately, when she was bad, she was very, very, bad.
In many ways, Brooke's exit is under the same circumstances as Carly's last week. I Am... I Said was Brooke at the top of her game, but it was also her last performance. Just like Carly, Brooke's fans remembered the good performance, and slacked off just a little from the two previous weeks. Again, like Carly, this was a mistake against two energized fanbases - Jason's (due not just to his weak performances, but also aggravation at Paula's pre-judging) and Syesha's (courtesy of Simon's comments). However, if she had managed to build up a stronger fanbase during that month of coasting, chances are she would have likely survived.
The lesson future contestants must learn: you have to bring your A-game every week. An off week (so long as it's not in the late stages of the show) will generally not cause permanent damage, but an off month will. Brooke didn't, which is a pity - we would have loved to see her go further.
And now... the bye-ku.
Nanny from Arizona
Sent home, short of four