American Idol – How to make Idol brilliant again

We’ve just finished the [[American Idol (2010 Series)|ninth season of American Idol]], and forgive me for saying this, but the series is starting to look a little frayed around the edges. And I don’t agree that it’s down to a basic lack of talent this year. There are deeper problems with the show and its format that transcend the singers who make it through to the live shows.

As [[Lee DeWyze]] chuckles and runs away with [[Crystal Bowersox]]’s rightful title, toward mediocre record sales and eventually back to paint sales again, many of us critics and telly watchers are turning our attention to how Idol can turn its fortunes around again. I’m going to share with you some intelligent criticism of the show – some of my own observations coupled with the opinions of other internet pundits.

But first: it isn’t about talent. Zap2It have done a comparison of season nine finalists alongside their counterparts from previous years. And you know what? The class of 2010 stack up pretty well.

1. Less judges, more useful commentary

The optimum number of judges for any reality TV show is three. It’s a format that works: you have a good range of opinions, and an odd number of people to break any kind of deadlock between the judges. Bringing in a fourth judge is not about adding useful opinion – it’s about stretching out the show a bit more.

Ellen DeGeneres was a mis-step for Idol. As a judge she brings nothing to the table. Her cumbersome metaphors could guarantee groans and rolling of eyes in our house. As an outlet for Idol, she’s invaluable. She gets exclusives with the outgoing contestants on her show the following day, and just like Seacrest with his radio show, she helps with the media saturation of Idol. She just has no place behind that desk.

Randy has become even more incoherent than Paula Abdul in her prime. If you filter out the “Yo, dawg’s” that punctuate his comments, there’s not much left to go on. And I don’t trust his advice – pushing Mike Lynche toward R&B as an easy stereotype rather than encouraging his clear passion for blues and rock. Frankly, if Randy’s only interested in coasting through the show, he should step down. I love the dawg as much as anyone, but the show’s about finding talent.

As TV Squad note in their “Five Things Idol could learn from Dancing With The Stars“, on that show

Carrie Ann, Bruno, and Len are dance experts. They know what to look for, understand what goes into choreography, and provide useful tips to the celebrities each week. That’s important. It not only helps improve the quality of the show, it also brings the audience in on the learning process. And it can’t be underestimated.

As much as American Idol needs a judge with clout on that panel, it needs to strip back to constructive criticism to help the contestants improve. Kara DioGuardi speaks with a passion and knowledge of music that makes me believe that she wants to find a fantastic artist to win the show. She’s sometimes a little off in her advice, but that’s OK.

2. For God’s sake, ditch the stupid themes!

I’m on record as detesting ‘theme weeks’ where the contestants are all expected to sing the songs of some big name artist. X Factor does exactly the same thing. Both shows profess to want to find a unique artist, then load them up with cover versions and watch them fail.

They’ll hand a singer whose strength is rock music a ballad by Michael Jackson. They’ll tell a 17 year old girl to sing an Elvis song. They’ll rape and pillage the bloody Beatle’s back catalogue regardless of whether the singers are up to the job or not. If you’re going to establish these people as artists, then treat them as individuals with individual strengths or weaknesses. The theme weeks reek of a production-line mentality that real music fans despise.

Richard Drew of Remote Patrolled suggests some great alternatives to theme weeks in his “Fallen Idol” post:

 

How about Duets Night (with randomly drawn contestants picking their singing partners); No Instruments Week (please God get rid of all those guitars this season); One Hit Wonder Week (who’ll go karaoke and who’ll pick an overlooked classic?); Idol Brings Back Week (former Idol contestants return and contestants have to pick one each as their mentor all week) or All Mixed Up (girls have to sing songs made famous by guys and vice verse – that’s how you fit Boy George in). Time to get creative – and stop being so obvious. And above all no more Beatles / Lennon-McCartney nights!

3. Celebrity Mentors Suck!

Did anyone else cringe when Jamie Foxx handed out ‘artist’ and ‘contestant’ t-shirts when he mentored on Idol? I did. Patronising. And Usher, who was secretly hating on the contestants until he got his week’s worth of promo out of the show, then he let rip with a series of complaints about the effect of Idol on the music scene. Yes, the same guy who unleashed Bieber on the world.

I think universally everyone enjoyed Adam Lambert’s spot as a mentor. Still the highlight of last year, the season 8 runner-up gave good advice, didn’t spare the criticism and gave forthright opinions about the contestants. No celebrity bullshit in evidence.

While American Idol is the perfect platform for promoting big-name artists, sometimes it feels we’re being advertised to rather than entertained. Give me a less well-known act, help me discover a new band, hell get The Black Keys on there! And blackball Usher from ever performing on Idol again, just for being a bellend about a show that probably helped him shift a ton of records.

4. Lose the teenies

Another one of Richard Drew’s proposals – which I totally agree with – is to lose the younger singers. Teenagers like Aaron Kelly and Katie Stevens were highly unlikely to win, especially in a competition rounded out with older, self-assured singers like Casey, Mike and Crystal.

The judges keep babbling about song choice but these kids (and that’s what they are really) don’t know music well enough to make strong choices. That’s why you end up with karaoke performances and done-to-death songs week after week (I never want to hear Against All Odds, Alone or I Will Always Love You ever again on Idol).

Katie Stevens in particular got buffeted around between contrary advice from Simon and Kara, confusing her about what style of music she should settle for. If the judging panel had been up to snuff, the two should have met with Katie and talked about their comments and maybe also have helped her with song selections. All in front of the cameras of course to show that they were taking her seriously.

5. Be bold!

American Idol’s at a precarious crossroads. They’ve lost two judges in as many years and they’re facing a barrage of criticism about the quality of the show. The producers may not want to change too much right now and risk alienating the audience completely.

But…I think part of the reason the rot has set in is boredom. We’ve been played the same format for 9 years one way or another. Auditions, check. Shortlisting, check. Live shows, check. Contestant backstory that’s got nothing to do with their musical inspirations or ambitions, check. Themed weeks, check. Judges subtly guiding their comments to favour one contestant over others, check. Overblown, overplayed songs, uninspired lighting and performances. The list goes on.

Once you’ve seen this format repeated several times, it kind of becomes a blur. I could skip out the auditions phase altogether in favour of finding out more about the contestants. I could do with something that connects me to them – Casey performing with Bret Michaels? Hey, I’m a Poison fan – I’m gonna support that guy!

One thing I’d like to say about the Casey James/Bret Michaels performance – it was amazing to see one of our contestants playing with an established star. To be able to compare him to an admittedly crocked Bret and say – “You know, Casey’s pretty good. He held his own there.” I found it especially helpful in visualising him as an artist.

6. Songwriting

Yep – the eternal question. Crystal Bowersox apparently begged to sing an original song this year and was turned down. What I’d love to see is maybe two contestants paired up to compose a song that they’d eventually perform on the show. They could take a couple of weeks to play that out, giving us little snippets of the track – a verse here, chorus there – to make it feel familiar by the time we see a live performance.

Wouldn’t it be nice to know you were voting for someone who could create music themselves rather than just sing what they were told to sing?

7. Season Length

I put this one in as a red herring. I’m actually cool with how long Idol runs for – it’s big, event based TV, and it deserves to be given a decent slot to play out. TV Squad complained about the length of the season, but I’ve found the time has flown in…and I’ve generally enjoyed the series as a whole.

Finally

Many of you will point your fingers at the results shows. But it’s already been announced that the results show will be cut down from its current bloated state to just a half-hour show. That’s great news, and it shows that the producers are finally listening to viewers’ opinions. I just hope they make a few daring decisions to make [[American Idol (2011 Series)|Season 10]] much more vibrant and engaging.

Over to you guys – what would you do to improve next year’s American Idol?

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