The Idol Guy, Top 4: How Old Is This Song?
You've all heard, we're sure, of the phrase "be careful what you wish for." A week after asking for more genre-based theme, we got one: songs from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, our top 4 then proceeded to, at the very least, bobble the proverbial ball: while the performances (save for Jason's) weren't really bad, we weren't exactly blown away either. To quote the irrepressible Gordon Ramsay, star of the Idol follow-on program Hell's Kitchen, "Not good enough." (Insert hand-movement-across-the-neck here.)
The winner of the night was... well, we'll call it a tie between the two Davids. Each of them delivered one good performance and another that was mediocre. In both cases, however, even our praise of the good performances is somewhat tempered. Both could have crossed over to great, but didn't.
David Cook's Hungry Like The Wolf was a crowd-pleaser, but nothing more. Musically, it was what we'd call a nothing song - we got nothing out of it. Baba O'Riley was much better - it flowed better than its predecessor, but even then it wasn't as good as what we've seen from David before. It may be a bit unfair for David, but the truth is we do have somewhat higher expectations from David than the rest of the field. Also, the song suffered rather heavily from the cutting needed to get it down to 90 seconds.
The other David's good song, meanwhile, was his first. Unlike his other songs of late, everything "made sense": the vocals, the arrangement, even the stage presence itself came together. Well done. Our knock on this, though, was it struck us as a very safe performance. A safe performance, no matter how well-done, is not what we want this late in the competition.
His attempt at Elvis, however, was ill-advised to say the least. Our problem wasn't with the singing itself - David is a good enough balladeer that any ballad will have good vocals. However, the overall package made no sense. We could go on for a very long time, but we won't. The bottom line is: singing a song like Love Me Tender, if you have the image of David Archuleta (who is already young, and looks even younger), made no sense. To pull off a song like that, there has to be a moment where the listener at home believes the story within the song came from the heart. With an image like David's, that was impossible. The suspension of disbelief that occurs in a really good song never happened here.
Syesha was somewhere in the middle with two performances that were both just okay. She brought out all the stops for Proud Mary - and we're not exactly talking about her singing here, folks. That said, this was a good song choice for her: none of the overpowered glory notes that she is addicted to, and it made use of her non-singing abilities, namely her looks and her superb performance skills. Like David Cook's first song, this was primarily a crowd-pleaser, but it did have some musical substance. Somewhat - okay, a lot copycat-ish, but overall it was enjoyable.
All pretense of restraint, however, went out the window with A Change Is Gonna Come. Most of the song we liked; when she's not overdoing the power notes Syesha has an impressively expressive and emotional voice. With just a little restraint, this would have been a brilliant song. However, the glory notes just ruined it for us. One moment she was pulling on emotional heartstrings, the next she was trying to blow us out of our seats. We have rarely, if ever, seen a more schizophrenic performance on Idol. It was everything we loved and hated about Syesha in 90 seconds, leaving us more than a little confused.
This leaves us, again, with Jason. Urgh. We would have called it the worst final four performance ever, but a glance at the history books made us remember Jasmine Trias. That said, it was still ugly. Let's just say our immediate, visceral reactions to both songs were to wonder what kind of punishment would be appropriate. I Shot The Sheriff made us wish for a posse to take Jason into custody. Eric Clapton and Bob Marley he isn't.
As for Mr. Tambourine Man, we thought of hitting Jason over the head with a tambourine to wake him up, but that would have been a waste of a perfectly good musical instrument. Setting aside the lyric flub, it was flat, showed no range, and bored us to death. We would have loved to see the expression on Jason's face during the forgotten verse; we bet it was the same oh-my-god-what-am-I-doing-here smile we saw back in Michelle. It's the Castro Face.
Overall, we were not all that impressed with this week's performances. Setting aside Jason's double disaster, the performances of the three others left us a bit disappointed. Syesha was, on one hand, predictable, on the other hand ear-shattering. David Archuleta was either safe or completely inappropriate; and David Cook's songs were either complete fluff or curiously incomplete. Among those three, no trainwrecks, but no showstoppers either - which is what we want this close to the finale.
Someone's mixer is broken: What is it with the audio problems that beset this week's performance show? Many FORT posters were of the opinion that the band was far too loud on Tuesday night, but our experience here on the other side of the world was exactly the opposite. The backup music was on the soft side - too soft for our taste.
One would think that given the millions both Fox and 19 Entertainment make off Idol, one would think that they'd have the budget to hire a decent sound engineer - but apparently that isn't the case. Come on, TPTB. Grow a brain, will you? Your audience is not made up of complete idiots. Show your "employers" - we, the viewing public - some respect.
How old is this song they're singing, again?: One point of discussion of late has been how it seems this year that Idol does not appeal as much to the "younger" 18-34 market. The culprit? Many say that it's because the songs they're using this season are older than ever before. Let's see if that is the case.
Before we go any further, we'll give out the due credit. We couldn't have done this editorial without the data from the fine folks at What Not To Sing, who provided us with the statistical numbers to back our analysis up. We owe them our deepest thanks.
Calculating the age of a song is sometimes not as easy as it sounds. The trouble is primarily with covers - do you credit it with the age of the original, or the new version? For the purposes of our analysis, we have stuck with the original age, except for Over the Rainbow, for which we used the cover version's age. As these are preliminary numbers, we may adjust them later on.
Let's also introduce one statistical concept we found useful in our analysis - the median. Everyone knows what an average is, but sometimes it can be misleading. For example, say contestant A sings four songs: they are 1, 2, 3, and 50 years old. The average, in this case, would be 14, but that's a rather misleading number; no one would agree that singer A usually does 14-year-old songs.
In a group of values (in this case, song age), the median is the one such that half are higher than that value, while the rest are lower. If there are an odd number of numbers, the median will be one of the numbers in the group. If there are even numbers, it will be the average of the two "middle" numbers. For example, the median of contestant A's songs will be 2.5 - half of them are older, half are younger, and it's the average of 2 and 3. (For the full explanation, check Wikipedia.)
Because of time limitations, we haven't been able to crunch the numbers for all episodes yet. However, we concentrated on the finals of three different seasons - the current one, Season Four, and Season Five. Why only the finals? For one, the themed semis this season skewed the numbers a bit older - not that it needed any more of that. Why not Season Six? Well, to be honest, we're not up to reliving, even only briefly, last year's nightmare - and the two older seasons we chose have some interesting revelations in their own right, too. We're crunching the numbers for the other seasons right now, and may report on them in a future editorial.
In dealing with song ages, why is the median important? In every season, there's at least one theme that upsets the statistical applecart. Season Four, for example, had the mind-numbingly ancient theme known as Classic Musicals in the Top 9 - with an average song age of 46.9 years. Ouch. Season Five gave us the songs of the fifties and the Great (and ancient) American Songbook. Average age of the latter? Just shy of 64 years. Averages can be easily upset by statistical outliers; medians are less vulnerable.
With that out of the way, let's get down to the questions. First: are the contestants singing older songs than before? The answer, unequivocally, is yes. The overall average song age ranged from 22.9 (Season Two) to 27.19 (Season Three). The running average for this season so far? 32.4. Ouch.
Things don't get much better if you consider only the finals and the top 12 contestants. The average for Season Four was 24.86, median 27. Season Five averaged 28.71 with a median of 30. As it stands right now, the current season average is 30.33 with a median of 34. Oh boy. This spells one word: trouble.
If you look at the shows on a per-episode basis, the blame becomes clear. Fully three episodes have crossed the magic forty barrier - the two Beatles weeks, and this week's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame theme. That wouldn't be a problem by itself (although a worrying sign), but there haven't been any "young" episodes to balance it. The youngest episode was Idol Gives Back week, but that averaged "only" in the teens (15.5, 13 median). Mariah Carey week was not too far off at 17.3 average, 15 median. In contrast, both Season Four and Five were able to deliver episodes averaging in the single digits, thanks to "songs of the 2000s" themes.
As one saying goes, everything in moderation. While the younger side of the 18-34 demographic may be useless when it comes to older material, most (including ourselves, age 24) are willing to give those a shot. At the same time, however, neither do we particularly care for a near-exclusive reign of older material. Idol has hit that well very frequently this season. Just as bad, of course, is when a theme is younger on paper but absolutely irrelevant in terms of a singing career. Hello, Andrew Lloyd Webber.
We're now of the opinion that while the talent this year has been, by Idol standards, quite exceptional, the producers ruined what could have been a classic season by churning out themes that baffled not just the contestants, but viewers at home. Age was just the most visible sign, but even the younger themes weren't always all that interesting, to be honest. It's a fair question to ask: are the Idol PTB really of the opinion that there's no good music in the past two decades? It would seem to be that way, after the past two weeks. Neil Diamond averaged 31.3 years old and a median of 29. The Hall of Fame had an average of over 40 and a median of 37. We're sorry, but that's too much.
We're not even going to put any of the blame on the contestants, because in general, given a time-neutral theme, they tended to try and right the ship themselves. Consider the previously mentioned Idol Gives Back week: that week's songs featured a healthy spread from two-year-old songs (KLC's Anyway) to 37 (Brooke's You've Got A Friend). Dolly Parton week also illustrates this: while most of the field went for the old material (median song age: 31), both Davids, Ramiele, and Jason went for the younger material: Ramiele in the twenties, and the rest in the single digits. The result was a relatively more balanced night (average: 23.67). Given a chance, this year's Idols do a reasonable job of selecting a good mix of contemporary and classic material.
The most interesting data to come out of our analysis, however, isn't so much the season-and-episode numbers. That merely confirms what most people already knew intuitively. However, looking at the numbers, we found an interesting correlation: all other things being equal, a contestant who picks younger songs will do better than another who picks older songs - both on and off Idol.
Take note, however, the big caveat - all other things being equal. Just because someone picks young songs means they will do well. For contestants with over 10 songs performed, Chris Richardson and Blake Lewis were both unmatched in picking younger songs, but neither has exactly set the charts on fire. However, in a matchup where the overall package on both sides is reasonably competitive, then song age makes the difference.
The trend is most clearly apparent in the previous seasons. After the Season Four finale, not everyone would have anticipated the wide gap in sales between Carrie and Bo. However, the following numbers may tell the tale:
Carrie Underwood Song Age Median (Finals only): 18
Bo Bice Song Age Median (Finals only): 31
If one includes the three songs each performed during the semis, the disparity becomes even starker:
Carrie Underwood Song Age Median: 14.5
Bo Bice Song Age Median: 31.5
Take note that in both cases, the song age averages were not too far off. However, Bo lowered his average mainly by picking a handful of songs that were quite recent - two 2004 songs, plus two new songs in the finale. By contrast, Carrie's song selection was generally younger, even if a few songs more than 40 years old raised her average age to the mid-20s.
What about the Season Five numbers? We can find two lessons in those numbers. First of all is a validation of the lesson learned in Season Four: younger songs can be a sign of post-show success. Consider:
Chris Daughtry Song Age Average (Finals only): 23.82
Chris Daughtry Song Age Median (Finals only): 28
Chris Daughtry Song Age Median (All songs): 17.5
Taylor Hicks Song Age Average (Finals only): 31.41
Taylor Hicks Song Age Median (Finals only): 33
Taylor Hicks Song Age Median (All songs): 33
The lesson is clear: while Chris Daughtry turned out to be less appealing to Idol voters, with his younger songs attracting a similarly younger fanbase he did quite well in actual record sales. However, as anyone will clearly remember, Katharine McPhee surprised most pundits by getting into the finale. How did she do it? Again, the numbers tell the tale.
Katharine McPhee Song Age Median (Top 12 to Top 4): 22
Chris Daughtry Song Age Median (Top 12 to Top 4): 28
Katharine McPhee Song Age Median (Top 12 to Top 3): 21
Elliott Yamin Song Age Median (Top 12 to Top 3): 33
Song age was clearly the difference in the McPhee-Daughtry matchup, but probably less so with McPhee-Yamin. That was the week we got Over The Rainbow, after all. Still, it's enough to prove the point. Song age does matter.
The question is - why? It comes from a simple fact. Younger voters do prefer songs that are closer to their own musical coming of age. There's some room for leeway, but only so much. It's pretty much a given that the Idol voting audience skews young and female; how can you expect people to like songs that may well be twice their age? It's a stretch by any standard. Most contestants know this, of course, which is why, style permitting, the smart ones pick younger songs when they can.
Case in point: the Season Four Final Four, given the task of picking country songs, all checked in with songs under a decade old. In Season Five, during country night, only two out of the nine left opted for songs over twenty: the rest all used more contemporary material, resulting in a season low average of 13.89 and a median of 9. Consider this, too: both Carrie Underwood and Chris Daughtry used two songs less than a decade old in their respective semifinal stints.
What does all this mean, in turn, for our remaining three contestants? Lets look at their numbers so far:
David Cook Song Age Average (All songs): 26.21
David Archuleta Song Age Average (All songs): 30.43
Syesha Mercado Song Age Average (All songs): 32.5
David Cook Song Age Median (All songs): 25.5
David Archuleta Song Age Median (All songs): 32
Syesha Mercado Song Age Median (All songs): 36.5
No wonder Syesha's been treading water for so long: with songs of that vintage, she was never going to appeal to the young power voters. She's had to depend on an awful lot of luck to get to this far, along with at least trying to sing her heart out. Barring a major disaster from one of the Davids - I Shot The Sheriff-levels would be appropriate - she isn't going to make the finale. And even then it's a longshot, at best.
As for the two Davids... we shouldn't be surprised that David the Younger is singing so above his age - or his fans, for that matter. The "winner's" song will lower it a bit, but it's possible that he could trot out plenty of old songs to keep it right where it is. A replay of Imagine is probably in the cards and that won't help his numbers either.
Clearly, both this year and last, 19E wants a chunk of the tween market. The poster child of this market segment is Miley Cyrus, whose two studio efforts both went triple platinum. (You have no idea how much it hurt for us to write that.) However, we are not convinced that someone singing songs that old is the answer. For all the voting power of his hormone-driven fans, will this really drive sales? History - Chris Daughtry's and Carrie Underwood's record low numbers in their seasons - suggests otherwise.
If anyone needed proof of David's intelligence, the numbers prove it. Unlike his two other competitors, he has been able to find younger material and (usually) make it work for him. For example, in Dolly Parton week he found Little Sparrow - circa 1999. Tellingly, both this week and last he has had the youngest song in the mix - All I Really Need Is You (1991) for Neil Diamond, and Hungry Like The Wolf this week. David knows that it never hurts to have a younger fanbase, no matter what the genre. Accordingly, he is picking younger songs to aid him in this cause. One wonders what we would have gotten had the semifinals not had themes. While his numbers are not yet as low as Carrie and Chris, he'll get some help in that department. As of this writing, we've found out that his personal song choice for the next show dates to 1995. At 13 years, it will probably not be beaten by either David the Younger or Syesha. Well done.
One more thing about this song age analysis. It also partially explains the early shocking boots that anger the Idol punditocracy so much. We've offered our own explanations, of course, but the numbers offer a possible glimpse. Consider:
Nadia Turner Song Age Median (Top 12 to Top 8): 30
Michael Johns Song Age Median (Top 12 to Top 8): 32
Nadia's median, at the time, was second only to Bo Bice... who, coincidentally, also ended up in the bottom two. Michael, meanwhile, was behind a three-way tie for first, all armed with a median of 37. These were Kristy, Brooke, and Syesha. However, Brooke had already established a strong fanbase by this time (insulating her from the "shock boot"), while Kristy chose the top 8 to deliver Anyway - a song so new, its original artist, Martina McBride, did it on the Idol stage as a guest performer. Only Syesha failed to help herself out of the age hole, and Michael went home while she ended up in the bottom group - something she has done since then.
The message for contestants is loud and clear: if you can, do newer material. It will win you more fans (particularly the power voting kind), and it helps protect you from the "shock boot". There is plenty of good music out there, no matter what the era. It may well be a harder thing to do, but the rewards are worth it.
Chilling out - permanently: It's safe to say that the Idol stage has never seen the likes of Jason. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, well... let's just say opinions on that differ widely.
Like Brooke last week, Jason had to do something right to get into the top four. Like her, Jason was able to build a large fanbase very early on. He had good performances in the semifinals - Daydream was a solid start to his campaign, and Hallelujah was the high-water mark of his entire Idol tenure. However, from then on, it was something of a rocky road for Jason.
The phrase we'd use to describe Jason's ensuing trip was consistently inconsistent. Sometimes, Jason could be very good (Over the Rainbow, although many people might not see it that way), but other times he could be pretty mediocre. Fragile comes to mind here. Again, like Brooke, this made building a fanbase that much harder. With a love-it-or-hate-it style, so-so performances were not going to help Jason out. On the flip side, however, his laid-back manner and general likability did win him votes that his vocals might not have otherwise.
Eventually, however, Jason ended up subjecting his fanbase - and the rest of the Idol audience through three weeks, and five songs, of utter torture. For some reason or another, Jason essentially lost all of the magic he had had in previous episodes. What was left was a voice that was, at best, so-so, and downright poor standing next to the likes of Carly, both Davids, and Syesha. His strong fanbase was able to bail him out twice, but a third time was too much - even for them.
In the end, Jason got the boot because he just didn't bother to show up, performance-wise. In all our years of Idol-watching, we have never seen any other songs that were delivered with less effort than the five songs that Jason delivered from Memory onward. It was almost like he didn't care anymore. Was he ready to go home, as some have said? Maybe, but whether he was or was not didn't matter. The fact of the matter is, Jason delivered five successive bad performances in a row. Five. That was never going to fly with the Idol voting audience for very long, and I Shot The Sheriff was the last straw. The remaining three fanbases heard that miserable performance and decided that their respective champions were not going to be beaten by Jason.
Calm, cool, collected
Maybe a little too much
Call the DEA?
Re: The Idol Guy, Top 4: How Old Is This Song?
Great analysis, Leo. I found the median age comparison very interesting.
have they ever tried to give the final 4 or five singers longer times in which to sing their songs? it seems to me that most of them would benefit from an average song length rather than half a song length. well, excepting Jason - his were too long this week. :laugh
Re: The Idol Guy, Top 4: How Old Is This Song?
Leo, this article should be required reading for all future Idol contestants. I think Simon Cowell would be very interested to see these numbers as well. :nod
Originally Posted by Leo;2981277;
Excellent, excellent analysis this week, thank you for a fantastic job. :up :up
Re: The Idol Guy, Top 4: How Old Is This Song?
Absolutely fascinating. You are my hero for crunching all those numbers. It would be very interesting to know what someone like Simon Cowell would make of them, as he seems to have his head on straight about the importance of post-show marketability. (And back in Top 24 of AI 6, he did specifically praise Blake for being the only person to choose a song from the current decade.)
I've often wondered if they've lost track of how old they are in relation to the prized 18-34 demographic. If they're in the industry, they shouldn't get fixated on the music of their 20s being hip forever (as ordinary people often seem to), but that's sure what it starts to look like.
It's a fair question to ask: are the Idol PTB really of the opinion that there's no good music in the past two decades?
Re: The Idol Guy, Top 4: How Old Is This Song?
Very interesting analysis, and, to a great degree, quite accurate. Like others have said, thank you for taking the time to crunch the numbers.
"It's a fair question to ask: are the Idol PTB really of the opinion that there's no good music in the past two decades?"
As one who is rapidly approaching my sixth decade on this planet, I can easily see where this becomes a legitimate question. Also, as a saxophonist, I've played music from the late 1800s (think Sousa marches) all the way thru 2008 in various gigs, and I would have to say, for me, personally, that the answer to this question is a resounding "NO".
However, let me qualify that statement:
If you're talking about general, mainstream pop music, there is some really, really good stuff out there that has been done recently. You can also find some great music in the country and gospel areas, too. But when you deviate from the mainstream, into some of the hip-hop, heavy metal and alt-rock genres, the resounding "NO" becomes an "??" - for the overall, average listener. The "median listener", if you will.
I think, if someone were to take the time to do the research, that you'd find the most popular songs of each decade, starting from 1900 right thru until now, all have some very common characteristics:
1. A catchy melody - for example, think of a song that when you hear it, you can't get it out of your head.
2. An oft-repeated chorus - that part of the song repeated often enough to make the song memorable. You might forget the verses, but the chorus is burned into your brain. . .
3. Lyrics that frequently tell a story. Might be about finding love, losing love, drinkin' (country) or salvation (gospel), but generally, if the lyrics tell a story that's closely wrapped around a good chorus, the song's going to have a long shelf-life. Covers, anyone?
As someone who's been somewhat involved in music nearly my whole life, if I were to give advice to Idol hopefuls, it would be my suggestion to thoroughly do their homework far in advance. They've now got seven season's worth of theme weeks to work from. Take a look at each theme, search out the most popular songs for each, and familiarize yourself with them. Not necessarily songs YOU like, but those that were the most popular in their time - and NOT previously done on Idol, too! Learn the story behind the song so you'll understand the lyric's meaning, then learn to "sell the story" in the song with the right emotional context - like an actor staying in character. This type of research and preparation is the kind of thing that separates the artists from the wannabees. . .
In closing,here's a couple of lines from a song called "Thank You for the Music" that sort of wraps up this whole line of thinking:
"And I've often wondered, how did it all start
Who found out that nothing can capture a heart like a melody can
Well whoever it was, I'm a fan"
FWIW. . .
Re: The Idol Guy, Top 4: How Old Is This Song?
Thanks Leo! That is really interesting. I think you are definitely on to something. The boomers may know and like the oldies but I would bet they don't put the time in to vote like the younger people. Thanks for a great analysis.
Re: The Idol Guy, Top 4: How Old Is This Song?
Thank you for another great article, Leo! I love the bye-kus more and more each week. :up