Friday, March 27, 2009

Idol Rules: Top 10

Week three of American Idol is what I like to call “The Audit”. The music theme is usually broad enough that no contestant should fall outside of their comfort zone. In the past the themes have included “Songs from the Year You Were Born”, “Songs on Gwen Stefani’s iPod”, and this week’s theme of Motown is making its second appearance for the Top 10. Now that we know who is boring or entertaining and have a vague notion of each contestant’s Idol identity (for the most part), the audience can now offer the following evaluation: who do we still want around?

I realize that this sounds obvious, as it is the basic concept of the show. However, the voting in the third week doesn’t reflect who America likes – it reflects who America really doesn’t want around anymore. This week also allows viewers to figure out where the fanbases are located and how they have dispersed now that three contestants have been eliminated. Lastly, the contestants now must use their performing abilities and their identities to create memorable performances. Let’s look at the results.

Notably absent from the bottom three was Megan Joy (Corkrey). Her identity as the candidate of the website Vote for the Worst has helped her, as well as the fact that she has given memorable performances. These performances are not good, but they are still memorable (“caw caw” begat “influenza B” begat “For Once in My Life” making Stevie Wonder wish he was deaf also). However, one thing that I noticed during the results show occurred right before Ryan announced that she was safe. There were some girls sitting behind Simon who were yelling “no!” when Ryan asked the audience if they thought that Megan was in the bottom three. You can tell these girls were not of the snarking/VFTW mentality because they are sitting behind the judge’s table. Also, if you consider who supported Alexis, who was ousted last week, the most likely contestants they would rally behind would be Megan and Allison. Megan is not going to win, but she may be around longer than people will expect...or like.

In eighth place this week was Scott MacIntyre. The best synopsis of his performance came from Idolator:

“You know who I think of when I think of dudes singing "You Can't Hurry Love"? Phil Collins. You know who wore paisley shirts in his videos, and was very likely to pair them with things like pinstriped blazers? Phil Collins. You know who is not a contemporary artist in any way, shape, or form in 2009? Phi... oh, you know. I blame the wardrobe department for this a little bit, I admit.”

Aside from being a total Phil Collins performance, this was the third Phil Collins type performance in a row for Scott. I actually had Scott picked to be in the bottom three since yesterday afternoon, before the show, because I knew he would retread the same boring, unmemorable path. His identity saved him this week, but I can’t imagine his fanbase growing.

The surprise of this week’s bottom three was Matt Giraud. He went first, which is a less than enviable position on a two hour show, and gave a somewhat tepid performance of “Let’s Get it On”. My initial reaction was that it sounded like it could be the background music for a Country Crock commercial. Matt’s challenge right now is that he has to share his piano guy identity with Scott. Although he is getting praise from the judges for his vocals, most of the guys this season are strong on vocals so it falls back to performance and identity. The good news is that if Scott is knocked out, Matt will get a large chunk of his fanbase. The bad news: Scott had more votes this week.

Michael Sarver got the boot this week, which was not too much of a shocker. His performance of “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” wasn’t good, but it wasn’t memorably bad the way that Megan’s was. He was also plunked down right in the middle of the show before favorites like Adam, Lil, Danny and Allison performed. He failed to develop any sort of identity, instead relying on a “taking it to church” type performance which he described as “off the cuff” and “fun”, which makes me wonder what type of church he goes to on Sundays.

I am curious to see how Sarver’s fanbase will disperse, as there is no obvious analogue. I suspect some will move to Megan (the last remaining country style contestant) and Kris (because of objective cuteness), which is bad news for Matt and Scott.

So here are the rules for week 3:

*The rules from previous weeks carry over. If you fall behind and don’t make up your missed rules, you will be in trouble.

*The fanbases are starting to solidify at this point. Wooing voters will require performances that deserve being rewarded.

*If the home audience can not differentiate your week 3 performance from any of your previous performances, you will be in trouble.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Idol Rules: Top 11

So this week's Idol theme was a Salute to the Grand Ole Opry. Sort of. Two songs were attributed to Garth Brooks, two for Carrie Underwood, and two for Martina McBride. Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Patty Loveless and Willie Nelson rounded out the representation. I can't criticize the depth of the representation because country music is an area I am not all that familiar with so I don't want to overstate my expectations. Fortunately, for our purposes, this week isn't about song choices. This week is about Identity.

Last week, success relied on avoiding being boring while on the stage. This week that theme is extrapolated as the contestants should begin to establish an identity that the public can latch onto. Some contestants already have pretty firmly established identities. Kris Allen is The Cute One; Lil Rounds is the R&B one (racist? A little bit); David Gokey is the one with the dead wife -- he has been able to drop that part of the image and latch on to the faith leader role; Scott McIntyre is the blind one; Anoop is the overachiever. Yes, some of these identities are on the cynical side, but when has American Idol ever been about nuance?

Matt Giraud, Megan Joy Corkrey, and Adam Lambert all are in a cultivation phase. Matt's original identity was that of a dueling pianist with an R&B twist. However, Scott is leeching away at the piano identity marker which could hurt Matt in the long run if Scott sticks around too long. Megan has yet to settle on an identity of any sort on the show but is the selected one for Vote For The Worst. She has dropped "Corkrey" from her name which may not hurt her as it doesn't seem diva-like in her intentions. Right now she is moving in the direction of becoming the Bad Luck Kid which could keep her on beyond her expiration date.

Then there is Adam Lambert. I actually liked his "Ring of Fire" performance, though I can see why it would infuriate others. It immediately reminded me of Blake Lewis and his rendition of "You Give Love a Bad Name" and Daughtry's version of "Walk the Line". The major difference between those performances and Adam's is that the other performances were later in the season. I think if this was week four or later, Adam probably would not have gotten dinged so hard by the judges and the public. Adam does not fit nicely into any of the Idol boxes which makes risk-taking far more dangerous. Adam needs to define his own box before he gets too experimental.

That leaves this week's bottom three: Allison Iraheta, Michael Sarver, and Alexis Grace. Allison has almost the opposite of Adam's problem. Idol is going to try to stuff her into the "She's Only 16 and a Rocker Grrl" box. I don't think she wants either of those identities and even if she did they are not going to help her win. Age is irrelevant and rocker grrl's have had a terrible track record on this show. Not only that, but she has already played the "Alone" by Heart trump card. I'm a huge Allison fan but I fear she is not going to be around much longer.

Michael Sarver is also in big trouble. His identity has been the Oil Rig Roughneck, which I don't really expect to resonate with the Hannah Montana crowd (aka the majority of voters). Also, I think there was an expectation that Grand Ole Opry night should be in his wheelhouse and Sarver only gave a so-so performance. In other words, he should not have landed in the bottom three on his gimme week and he did. However, during tonight's result show he talked about his daughter and how much he misses her, so if he is able to cultivate that into his narrative he might be able to regain some traction.

And then there's Alexis Grace. I liked Alexis but she was in big trouble this week. "Jolene" is an awesome song but did not seem to mesh with who the real Alexis is. During her send off video they showed the clip of Alexis at her audition and Kara advising her to dirty up her image. In retrospect, this was poorly delivered advice. I think what Kara was going for was grit, which Alexis did need, but trying to get Alexis to move toward Christina Aguilera during the "Dirrty" years was not the right move. Also, this version of "Jolene" seemed almost antithetical to Alexis' previous performance of "Dirty Diana". Sadly, I think this was the right call.

So, week one is about establishing yourself as a performer. Technical precision is not as big a deal so long as you are not boring. DO NOT BE BORING. If you survive to sing in week two, you need to establish your identity. If people can't remember your name, they should be able to describe you with a phrase like "the cute one" or "the blind guy". If you can't be described in fewer than six words, you could find yourself on the seal.

What are your thoughts on this week? What songs are you hoping for during Motown Week?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Idol Rules: Top 13

Tonight I actually rushed home so I could see the American Idol results show. I know, I know, that's probably something I shouldn't be admitting in public. But did you see last night's show? It wasn't the best show ever, but it was the first episode since Bon Jovi night in Season Six (we're in Season Eight now, folks) where I wasn't bored. This week's theme was Michael Jackson, which I think people, myself included, didn't realize the type of challenge such a theme would present until three or four songs in.

Michael Jackson isn't a singer -- he's a pop star who performs pop songs. Pop songs are usually not "singer songs", meaning that there usually isn't a range of notes and the melodies are catchy and uncomplicated. This became evident last night as the contestants tried to put their own spin on each song. Ultimately, performance counts more than technical skill, or to paraphrase one commenter I read this morning: Boring goes before bad. As a result, the contestants who were universally regarded as safe from elimination this week were ones who had more engaging performance. Those who were considered on the bubble were the contestants who tried to finagle the song but not necessarily have a good performance. Scott MacIntyre's performance fell into this trap, which led to one of the most awesome quotes from Simon: "You can be artistic, just not on this show." Because of this weird dichotomy of performance vs. talent, there was a lot of disagreement across the blogs about who would be in the bottom group and ultimately sent home. My predictions were dead wrong because I didn't consider which performances were objectively boring.

There were only two objectively bad songs last night: Megan Joy Corkrey's rendition of "Rockin' Robin" (which ended with a "caw caw" that I must have missed as I was twittering about the performance and not paying attention) and Anoop Desai's "Beat It". The latter song choice suggests another rule that contestant's should consider: If a song has served as source material for Weird Al Yankovic, it probably isn't a "singer's song" and should be avoided. However, both contestants were performing last night even though their song choices were questionable. They both hit the seal tonight, but survived.

The two who didn't survive were Jasmine Murray and Jorge Nunez. Both sang their songs adequately, though I only found one other reviewer who agreed with me that Jorge's song wasn't that bad. There was nothing particularly remarkable about either of their performances -- they just sort of sang their songs and moved on. No rocking out, no instruments to play, just standing there for the most part singing. Both were talented, but both were boring. The major problem I have with this particular elimination is that two of the four people of color in the finals this season have been eliminated and a third was on the cut line.

The results show was also intriguing, as this is the first time I think in the show's 8 year history where a results show contained more than 5 minutes of actual content. First, they introduced the Judges' Pass, where an eliminated contestant has the chance to get a reprieve if the entire judging panel thinks America got it wrong. It can only be used once and is available up until the Top 5. For starters, it creates the illusion that the departing contestant's singout is now a "Lip Synch for Your Life" type situation. I have a feeling the pass will likely be a non-factor, though I could see the judges using it at the Top 6 elimination just because five singers has always been an awkward number for the show to work with. Also, it doesn't completely eliminate the October Surprise shocker (i.e. Tamyra Gray, which still breaks my heart). There is a legitimate concern that Danny Gokey and Adam Lambert essentially have a free pass in their back pocket, but again I think that danger will happen after the pass expires.

Oh, and tonight's group sing (a mish-mash of "I Want You Back" and "ABC 123") was one of the best ever. This group sounds really good together. However, the less Danny-centric the choreography can be, the better. So much thrusting. Gross.

So what rules did we learn this week:

*At this stage of the competition, boring will lose out to bad.

*Weird Al's source material should be avoided.

*Your singout will not save you, so don't depend on it.