American Idol 2011 – Better or Worse?

I am generally not a fan of reality television. I am particularly not a fan of contrived drama in reality television. Being not much more than a glorified talent show -slash- popularity contest, I don’t really clasify American Idol in with reality TV like The Bachelor or Survivor. And then there is the fact that everyone has their guilty pleasures in low-brow entertainment, right?

It was purely accidental that I started watching American Idol. It was 2003. I had just taken a job in North Carolina and needed to start the following Monday. Since I got the notice Friday, I didn’t have time to arrange for all my usual amenities, like living quarters. I prefer, when working contracts, to have an apartment rather than a hotel. It’s just more cost efficient for stays longer than a couple weeks. So I stayed a night or two with some cousins on my wife’s side of the family. They watched American Idol, so I watched American Idol. It wasn’t as bad as I’d imagined it would be. My wife and I enjoyed it.

The format of the show changes slightly as they whittle down their auditionees from the thousands to a dozen or so, but the basic idea is that a wanna-be singer performs in front of a panel of judges. This year they changed their judges.

Last year they had the acerbic Simon, the cheerleader Paula and the producer/musician Randy. Simon was always quick to jump on the negative, calling it constructive criticism. Paula could rarely speak a coherent criticism, often remarking on how lovely people were. Randy “kept it real”.

Yes, that’s in quote. Simon didn’t renew his contract so he could start his own show that will be mostly the same thing. Paula didn’t understand that she’s not worth an 8 figure salary. They also had Ellen Degeneres as a judge last year, but not the prior years. She was funny. She’s good at funny. She’s not really a music critic. She’s gone, too.

Randy stuck with the show. I’d say they replaced Simon and Paula, but replace would imply that the roles were taken up by new people. That’s simply not the case. There are two new judges this year: Jennifer Lopez, aka J-Lo and Steven Tyler, aka Aerosmith’s lead singer.

Jennifer Lopez has always been an American Idol fan and has served as a mentor to contestants in previous years. She’s surprisingly good in the role of mentor at giving people advice on how to improve their singing and performance. In the role of judge, she’s either praising or silent. When she’s silent, it’s a strained, nervous, fidgety type of silence with that too big smile that any normal person auditioning would read as “You should just leave.” But, the people auditioning are far too hopeful and frequently delusional, so if it’s J-Lo’s turn to start the criticism, and the criticism is going to be unfriendly, it’s a little painful to watch as she squirms, trying to find a nice way to say, “Dude, you suck at singing.” Ultimately Randy will have to save her.

Steven Tyler admits he’s never been a fan of the show. Like J-Lo, he had problems with figuring out how to be negative early in the auditions, but he adapted quickly. Once he got comfortable, he’s rather unabashed, but not really mean-spirited, but not one to hold back on poking fun at people who are ridiculously awful. Usually after the person leaves the room, but not always. New to the game, he’s letting some people through to the next round who are little on the rough side. He just hasn’t figured out yet that they will audition thousands and that little bit of roughness isn’t going to hold up in comparison to the cream of that crop.

While we, the audience, are most familiar with the judges, because they get more screen time than any individual singer, the majority of the time features someone on stage singing. That’s really the part I care about. In prior seasons, almost all of the songs have been covers of existing songs. This season it will be most of the songs. I’ve always liked to see how, when someone does a cover, how they’ll make it different and if they will make it their own while still respecting the original. Over the weeks we get to know the singers styles and see how they’ll adapt to a different song or two each week. Notable exceptional arrangements over the years are David Cook’s version of Chris Cornell’s version of Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean” and Andrew Garcia’s rhythm guitar accompanied version of Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up.” I wasn’t a fan of Mr. Garcia, but that performance was a stand-out.

Invariably the judges are fallible and make selections and choices we won’t all agree with. The sound must be completely different for people in the auditoriums than for those who get the recorded signal through their TVs. At some point the judges cease making the decisions and the audience then begins to vote via phone, text message, and as I understand they are starting this year: internet voting. I’m of the opinion they should take into account iTunes sales, since they will have the songs available on iTunes by the time they stop singing on TV, but so far, this is not considered. (The TV performance is usually live, the iTunes version is pre-recorded. This occasionally means the song will be sung differently, much to my annoyance.)

American Idol gets a lot of criticism for claiming to be a singing competition, but really being a bit of a popularity contest, as well. These critics need to realize that they’re looking for the next pop-star. Pop-Star. Do I need to reiterate. Pop. They’re not looking for a music great, they’re looking for someone who will sell records.

Any delusion that they’re not looking to create a manufactured pop-star is really just a delusion. While the manufactured pop-stars out there do not appeal to everyone, clearly there is a market for pop-music of the ilk of Britney Spears, Avril Lavigne and Miley Cyrus.

And let’s be honest, the record sales are just the icing on the cake. American Idol’s primary concern is the advertising revenue it can bring in by being the most watched show in America. Unfortunatly, most of the people who watch the show seem to have different tastes in singers than me; my favorites tend to be voted off in the last few weeks and I stop watching at that point.

Anyway, I asked “Better or Worse” in the title of this entry in my blog. My verdict is that the show is different. I’m not calling it better or worse. Phbbt!


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