Anyone who’s a critic these days has to contend with a steady anti-mainstream-media drumbeat, one that sounds something like this: Critics don’t matter! They’re out of the touch with The People! They’re snobby hacks whose opinions carry no more validity than anyone else’s! (Memo to haters: Have I left out any of your complaints?) If you accused me of being defensive on this issue, you would probably be right. It’s how I make my living, so of course I’m bound to get a little touchy about it. Yet I also think that I’m capable of setting my personal bias aside to talk about why critics, at their best, really do matter. And offhand, I can think of no better illustration of why they matter than what happened on American Idol last week, when the golden-throated songstress Pia Toscano got booted off before her time. The audience voted, presumably with their hearts, but where were the judges, the tastemakers — the critics! — when we needed them?
One can natter on about the usual voting-idiosyncrasy conspiracy theories (not enough of Pia’s fans bothered to call in for her!). Or one could argue that the vote last week was as democratic an expression of viewer wisdom as it is any week on Idol, and that there was nothing outrageous about it at all. I concur, to a small degree, with the excellent case made by Ken Tucker about the Achilles’ heel of Pia as a singer: She’s so seamless in her technical and emotional perfection, her voice so controlled a vessel, that the ultimate effect of a Pia performance, no matter how good, is always a little staid. Personally, I have one additional theory about her rejection that I haven’t heard floated yet. The song that Toscano chose for her fatal week, the Tina Turner/Phil Spector classic “River Deep – Mountain High,” is an anthem of volcanic power, but it’s also one of the oddest songs in rock & roll history. It boils and roils, it crescendos, it gets all breathless and frenzied and ecstatic, but it doesn’t quite have what you could call a groove. When it first came out in 1966, public reaction to the song was so negative that Spector effectively ended his own career in response. I’ve known and loved “River Deep – Mountain High” since the mid-’70s, but it’s a track that takes a bit of getting used to. I imagine that if you were hearing it for the first time (as probably 90 percent of the Idol audience was) on the night that Pia embossed it with her usual amber perfection, it might have made you go “Hmmmm…”
But look, all of this rationalizing — and the spin control from Idol executive producer Nigel Lythgoe, who was clearly out to save face — misses the forest for the trees. Pia may still be learning to cut loose, and perhaps her Celine Dion-on-Xanax vibrato-machine smoothness is a touch too imperial, but even if she wasn’t meant to go the distance, she got kicked off way too early, and the more you think about it, the more obvious it is who the culprits are. As Dalton Ross, Kristen Baldwin, and Annie Barrett eloquently argued in their podcast last week, it was, more than anything else, the judges’ fault. They’ve become the equivalent of movie-ad quote whores, greeting each performance, no matter how mediocre, with the equivalent of air kisses, pelting each contestant with little bouquets of ego-stroking positivity. In their holy quest to avoid the negative, they now offer no criticism, no guidance, no sense of any standard that they’re operating from. They’re encasing each performance in a Bubble Wrap of hype.
In recent weeks, as this has really gotten out of hand, it has become depressingly clear — at least, this is my theory — that the judges have been muzzled by the show’s producers. I say this because Randy, who at the start of the season seemed like he was becoming the new Simon (simply by remaining his old commonsensical, I-love-you-dawg-but-here’s-something-you-gotta-work-on self), grew softer and softer, and looked less and less happy about it. To give one telling example: I bow to no one in my enthusiasm for the soaring pop-gospel quavers of Jacob Lusk (whose rendition of Heart’s “Alone” is the most haunting performance so far this season), but his version of “Man in the Mirror” last week not only added nothing new to Michael Jackson’s, it was egregiously out of tune — and for any of the judges, especially the sharp-eared Randy, to fail to point that out was unforgivable. They also blew it by letting James Durbin get away with a lazy, ’60s-variety-show lounge-lizard version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” I usually think that James is terrific, but he needed to be called out on that one. And had he and a few of the others been called out, Pia might still be there.
It was more than a little ironic to see the judges’ jaw-dropping, head-shaking outrage at what happened to Pia, since this was a case of the chickens coming home to roost, with the all-praise-all-the-time strategy laid bare as the timid — and, yes, dishonest — “feel good” ideology it is. You could see the battle over that ideology turn ugly when Randy offered one of the few (mild) tidbits of criticism on last week’s show, complaining about the bumpy rhythm of the first half of Stefano’s performance, and the other two judges, especially Jennifer Lopez, castigated him, as if the very idea that he was offering words that weren’t “supportive” made him some sort of buzzkill Debbie Downer. In those few seconds, the atmosphere on the judges’ panel turned almost Stalinist. What Lopez was saying wasn’t only that she disagreed with Randy, but that his willingness to engage in criticism — any criticism — had put him on the wrong side of the show’s vibe, the wrong side of America. With the studio audience cued to agree, and to display its displeasure by booing, the whole segment took on the air of a fascist pep rally. Meanwhile, Lopez managed to gush over every single performance on rock & roll night — yet she visibly recoiled when Iggy Pop, one of the inventors of rock & roll, stuck his wild-one sneer in her face. Does J. Lo really prefer Stefano to Iggy Pop? (I’d be afraid to know the answer.)
Of course, audiences on Idol used to make similar hoots of displeasure when Simon Cowell went into one of his solo pirouettes of slice-and-dice disdain. Yet they also hung on his every word, and with good reason: For nearly a decade on Idol, Simon wasn’t just an electrifying personality and a caustically fearless judge. He was a great critic — not because he was “mean,” but because what he said was blunt and honest and incisive and fascinating. He had plenty of enthusiasm, but when he didn’t, his reasons for not liking something made you sit up and think. You might agree with him, or you might disagree, but either way, you reacted to the surgical wit of his perceptions. He had a vision of what a song should be, and his vision, more often than not, enhanced and enlarged what you heard.
Right now, the judges on Idol aren’t enhancing anything. They’re just blurring the line — between the good and the not-so-good, between the performers we like and the ones we love. Their miscalculated early save of Casey Abrams was just one more instance of their refusal to make distinctions, shrewdly and soberly, coming back to bite them. They were so busy cheerleading that they threw away their one real act of power. (Hell, a week earlier, J. Lo had wanted to use the save on Karen Rodriguez!) The grandest irony of all is that without content, without criticism, in what the judges elect to say, the singers aren’t raised up high. They’re subtly diminished, all mashed together into a sweetly cloying marzipan of weekly good vibes. If there’s a lesson in the booting of Pia Toscano, it’s that criticism, when it’s offered by people who know what they’re doing, isn’t evil. It’s a force that enriches, an aesthetic helping hand, a declaration of reality that helps the best artists prevail. Let’s hope that tonight the judges remember what they’re there for, that they’re willing to be critics again. Let’s hope that they start judging.
Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman