Friday, February 24, 2012

'American Idol': You Had Me, Then You Lost Me

After 11 season, this faithful viewer might be trading 'Idol' in for new models 'The X Factor' and 'The Voice.'
By Gil Kaufman

Ryan Seacrest with the top 24 of "American Idol"
Photo: Fox

I'm a loyalist at heart. Back in the day, I watched "The X Files," the original "Beverly Hills, 90210" and "The O.C." until the bitter end, convincing myself that my patience would be rewarded well after the shark had jumped.

But after slogging through another interminable pair of "American Idol" cut-down episodes Wednesday and Thursday, I think I'm finally throwing in the towel.

I've been there since episode one with "Idol," reveling in the joy of Kelly Clarkson's win, cheering Ruben Studdard to his well-deserved crown and scratching my head when clearly inferior champs like Taylor Hicks, Lee DeWyze and Kris Allen took the top prize.

Just a week before the season 11 live shows start, though, "Idol" has lost me, perhaps for good. The bottom line is that the show just feels like it's on auto-pilot, from the bored looks on the faces of celebrity judges Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez to the predictable plotlines and not-so-clever editing tricks intended to keep our interest up through the early rounds.

It was bad enough a few weeks ago when an entire episode of the group rounds went by without any discernible footage of, you know, singing. The biggest plot point that week was the exploitation of a sick teenage girl passing out and falling off the stage, which was used as a cruel cliffhanger.

On Wednesday night, we got yet another rehash of the previous audition rounds along with mostly truncated looks at the singer's final Las Vegas performances (most of which were bland, if not downright boring) before they had to make the long walk to the judgment chairs. Thursday night was more of the same. Sole original judge Randy Jackson seemed to run out of creative ways to torture the painfully eager singers with purposely vague platitudes about how hard it is to cut them at this point, purposely mangling his words to keep them on the edge of confusion.

Watching this spectacle, I just asked myself, "Do I even care if Heejun Han or Reed Grimm make it?" "Do I need to see Jermaine Jones cry again?" "Who is Chase Likens and why haven't I even seen him up until now?"

In my long experience with "Idol" and writing about music, none of them seem like winner material, in the same way that such paint-by-numbers soul mamas like Jen Hirsch, Elise Testone, Erika Van Pelt, Shannon Magrane and stage mom'd Brielle Von Hugel fail to excite. And making Adam Brock — a weepy white dad who brags about singing like a black woman while using his dead grandfather's handkerchief as a pity prop at every turn — a cliffhanger for Thursday night's episode just seems pointless. This guy has no chance to win, and if he does, well, "Idol" has way bigger problems.

In fact, the only contestant in the mix at this point who seems even halfway relevant in today's music biz is skunk-mohawked former castoff Colton Dixon, but he hasn't gotten nearly as much love as Phil Phillips, whose twitchy Dave Matthews impersonation has already grown unbearably irritating. Even 15-year-old Eben Franckewitz seems promising, but I can already tell his "story line" will be that despite lots of experience on the musical-theater stage, the judges are going to hammer him for his nerves.

Before Wednesday night's episode aired, I was already firmly in line with Entertainment Weekly columnist Mark Harris, who wrote an opinion piece in the February 24 issue about how he was switching sides. "The opening weeks of 'Idol' traffic in humiliation and tears — the neediness of the young, desperate to be extracted from the mob; the familiar weariness of the judges; the talentless clowns pimped as sneerworthy sideshows," he wrote. "But the opening weeks of 'The Voice' are about hope and discovery."

In essence, he said, we're at a tipping point where NBC's upstart show is winning the race not by copying the template of "Idol," but by purposely running in the other direction. The "Voice" judges are relevant musicians of today from varying genres with a sharp, entertaining rapport that crackles and brings a fresh energy to the show. That show starts from day one with good to great singers from varying backgrounds, singing mostly contemporary chart hits, who are eager to get help from those who are still charting today. Meanwhile, the "Idol" judges are riding the fumes of their fading careers as they continue to struggle to apply their hard-earned lessons in the music biz to mostly teenage strivers who can't relate to their mother or father's favorite singers.

The leading contestants so far this year on "Idol" fall into two or three predictable camps: overreaching, throwback R&B belters, quirky imitators of no-longer-relatable stars or ultra-twangy country gals. Where are the edgy R&B divas like Rihanna? The cute boy singers like Justin Bieber? The hip-hop-influenced Drake wannabes? Hell, where are the Carrie Underwoods who can deftly mix pop and country? "The X Factor" and "The Voice" eagerly embrace singers of every color, style and persuasion. So are you telling me that there was not one woman of color out of the tens of thousands who auditioned worthy of the semifinal round? Have we become a nation of (almost exclusively) blond, female Mariah/Christina copycats?

Just look at the talent that has already been signed in the wake of the first "Factor" season: a legitimately powerful soul diva in winner Melanie Amaro, a fascinating redemption story in rapper/crooner Chris Rene, contemporary R&B singer Marcus Canty, white blues man Josh Krajcik, high school cutie Rachel Crow and buzzed-about teen rapper Astro, any one of whom could legitimately blow up.

Meanwhile, the first 24 semifinalists put through by "Idol" this week are almost without exception as blandly interchangeable (and old-fashioned) as Lopez's spangly tops. And the "surprise" extra boy to be named later is one of the most tired tropes in the "Idol" dream factory bag of tricks.

Sure, it's very early in the process and nobody knows what could happen. But if you recall, even in the audition stage it was already clear that eventual season-eight runner-up Adam Lambert was destined to be one of the most exciting, unusual performers in the show's history. It's not like season-one "Voice" winner Javier Colon has set the world on fire, but at least that show focuses on mentoring and nurturing talent of any age, shape and style, rather than serving up cookie-cutter slot fillers.

The sense of hope, discovery and optimism that Harris said permeates "The Voice" is wholly lacking on "Idol," which feels more and more like a dated reality competition and less like a singing showcase. Tear-jerking backstories aside, it's hard to see how any of these singers is going to win America over, not to mention make a case for idolatry or even above-average chart success.

It's been a fun ride, "Idol," but unless you can prove to me that you can read the writing on the wall, I'm afraid my TiVo is going to be reprogrammed to NBC from now on.

Get your "Idol" fix on MTV News' "American Idol" page, where you'll find all the latest news, interviews and opinions.

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