We explore what went wrong this season

By Michael Slezak
March 26, 2010 at 12:00 PM EDT
  • TV Show

Fox executives no longer have to worry about viewers fast-forwarding past commercials on American Idol — but unfortunately, that’s because reigning champ Kris Allen’s charming Ford Fusion ads have been more compelling than the majority of contestant performances on the show’s ninth season. Yep, for the first time since its June 2002 debut, the talent gauge on TV’s most powerful monster truck seems dangerously close to the red zone. Ratings for this year’s Top 12 performance and results telecasts plummeted compared with the corresponding week in 2009 — from 25.8 and 25.5 million to 22.9 and 20.5 million, respectively. And that shockingly low rating for Wednesday’s results show was against all repeats on ABC, CBS, and NBC.

Perhaps even more troubling for the show’s long-term health is the fact that season 9 has produced only two worthy front-runners (Crystal Bowersox and Siobhan Magnus), and a distressingly large collection of singers worth rooting against. Even host Ryan Seacrest has been unusually reserved when describing the current crop of contenders; there’s been nary a ”most talented group ever” in his vernacular since live performances began in February. Add Simon Cowell’s impending defection to Fox’s planned fall 2011 launch of The X Factor, and suddenly, there’s a cloud looming over the House That Kelly Clarkson Built. So how did a cultural phenomenon coming off the buzzy high of Kris-versus-Adam lose its mojo? We examine the reasons why some folks are already calling this year’s Top 12 finalists the weakest in Idol history.

Too much guitar strumming

Look, we enjoy an acoustic guitar as much as anybody (especially if it’s wielded by Bowersox), but the show’s newfound obsession with singer-songwriter types — 7 out of the 11 finalists remaining at press time (one has since been eliminated) have strummed their way through at least one performance — has given this year a decidedly one-note feel. And contestants like Lee Dewyze see no need to lay their six-strings down: ”That’s me,” he says. ”I play the guitar, I sing, and that’s what I’m going to do.” Fair enough, but where are the powerhouse R&B divas? The straight-up country crooners? The blue-eyed soulsters? And the truly unexpected gems? ”You want somebody who represents what is going on at the moment. I’d love to find a Taylor Swift,” Simon said last month. But wouldn’t that line of thinking have precluded the Cowell-led Britain’s Got Talent from discovering Susan Boyle, who turned out to be music’s biggest commercial success story of 2009?

How to fix it If Idol truly strives to give Joe and Jane Couch Potato the power to crown the nation’s next singing sensation, then it needs to stop trying to predetermine the musical genre in which said star should fit.

We’re still heartbroken over cut contestants

Viewer consternation was running high during Hollywood Week over the unexplained eliminations of Angela Martin (the hard-luck young mom who’d auditioned for the show three times) and Jermaine Purifory (the handsome crooner who made Kristin Chenoweth swoon with “Smile”). And then came the March 11 semifinal results show in which Alex Lambert, Lilly Scott, and Katelyn Epperly all missed the Top 12 in favor of less promising singers. “I really did not expect them to go home at all,” says Bowersox of Scott and Epperly. As for the shy, mullet-sporting Lambert, fans have collected more than 18,000 online signatures in an attempt to get him back in the competition. Even judge Ellen DeGeneres admitted she was “devastated” by Lambert’s early ouster when he appeared on her talk show March 17.

How to fix it If Idol insists on making us fall for the Angelas and Jermaines of the world during auditions, we need to see footage of their shortcomings when they’re booted during Hollywood Week, so we understand why they didn’t make the cut.

Too much style over substance

Blame David Cook. And Kris Allen. And Adam Lambert. Had those three not unleashed iconic rearrangements (Cook’s “Hello,” Allen’s “Heartless,” and Lambert’s “Tracks of My Tears”), we would not be saddled with so many contestants now butchering perfectly fine hits (remember Todrick Hall’s unfortunate take on Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone”?). The difference, of course, is that Cook, Allen, and Lambert had the vocal chops to pull it off. Conversely, season 9’s finalists are hitting so many bum notes during their “inventive” interpretations, it’s a wonder they haven’t been cited for panhandling. Instead, they get free passes from the judges. Ellen breezily excused Dewyze’s pitch problems on a recent rendition of Owl City’s “Fireflies” because he’d put a rocker spin on it, and because he’s “adorable.” Just as distressing was Kara DioGuardi’s rave about Tim Urban’s emotionally tone-deaf reggae reenactment of the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb,” saying, “I’ve got to applaud you for doing something so incredibly different with the song.” No, you don’t.

How to fix it The judges need to set priorities for the contestants — nail the compulsories first, then go comb YouTube for the latest quirky covers. Or as season 8 finalist Matt Giraud puts it, ”You’ve got to sing it well before you sing it cool.” Amen.

Get a new songbook

Consider this: Twenty-four of the 60 songs performed during the season 9 semifinals had already been covered on live shows by previous Idol wannabes. And don’t look for that ratio to improve if the contestants have their way. Finalist Katie Stevens tells us it’s her dream to tackle ”Over the Rainbow.” Sure, but will she really be able to bring something to it that Kimberley Locke, Katharine McPhee, and Jason Castro couldn’t back in seasons 2, 5, and 7?

How to fix it Here’s a crazy thought: Ban every song that has been performed on a prior season. If you’re not sure that such a militant stance is a good idea, ask yourself if you really want to hear Rendition No. 147 of ”Feeling Good.”

The judges could use some critiquing of their own

If we could offer any advice to the four people tasked with helping make our fearless combatants better, tougher, and more speed-dial-worthy, it would be this: Learn how to articulate one substantial piece of constructive criticism in a succinct, 30-second sound bite. ”Sometimes it can be a little bit confusing as to what they actually meant by what they were saying,” admits contestant Aaron Kelly. Stronger feedback will only make for stronger performances down the line.

How to fix it Randy Jackson, please don’t waste the first minute of every critique fumbling for an opinion. Ellen, your instincts are usually right, but in the Idolverse, people will respect you more, not less, if you stop tacking on a halfhearted compliment at the end of every critique. Kara, you’re actually giving this year’s most salient, actionable feedback, but your desperation to create an ”Idol moment” for yourself, as well as your constant game of touchy-feely with Simon, is off-putting. Simon, we know you’re daydreaming about The X Factor, but your new baby won’t be delivered for 18 months; meanwhile, your existing kid is in trouble, and it needs you to sit up, pay attention, and show that you still care. If you don’t, then neither will viewers. (Additional reporting by Sandra Gonzalez and John Young)

Season 9 can still be saved!

Here are five ways to do it

Group numbers verboten!

They’re poorly choreographed, frequently lip-synched, and never enjoyable (for the audience or the contestants). So which sadist insists on keeping this cheeseball tradition alive?

Weeklong mentors

Granted, the concept of Miley Cyrus ”mentoring” singers older than her is kind of hilarious, but what we’d really like to see are music superstars willing to spend seven whole days on the job, working on everything from song selection to arrangement to staging. If not for us, do it for Tim Urban.

Better theme nights

How many times can Idol go back to the bone-dry wells of ”Disco” and ”Songs From the Year You Were Born”? As an alternative, we’re thinking ”No Ballads Allowed” or ”’80s Hair-Metal Night” (guest mentor: Sebastian Bach!). That’s change even Donna Summer can believe in.

Contestant collaborations

In a few short months, the eventual winner and runner-up will be thrown into the studio to write songs with megaproducers like Max Martin or Linda Perry. Why not gather half a dozen A-list producers, pair each of them with a contestant, and watch what magic happens? (Or doesn’t.)

Death to the swaybots!

No one enjoys the sight of creepy, synchronized arms waving in front of the contestants’ faces. Seriously, even The Lawrence Welk Show had hipper staging. — MS

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