Monday, March 22, 2010
So you've been watching the ninth season of "American Idol" with intensifying dread, wondering, "Er, is it just me, or is this really underwhelming?" Though in part it's probably the inevitable hangover from the highly awesome season eight, no, it's not just you - and indeed, if you've been watching the show a long time, it should even look familiar: "Idol's" most entertaining seasons have traditionally been followed by clunkers, the ranks of which will include AI9 if the every-third-season pattern holds. (See graphic above, rating seasons on the new and exciting "Cowell-Seacrest-Dunkleman" scale - click to see at full size.)
Understand that by "entertaining," I mean, how entertaining a season was for viewers - a factor that history has shown to be totally unrelated to what the winners (and runners-up) go on to do afterward. Instead, the key factors are: Are there a lot of talented people? Abundant personality? Competition and suspense (i.e., the winner wasn't a foregone conclusion early on)? You'll also note that the judges play little, if any, role in that - as much as they'd love to believe they're the center of the show's universe, their words and presence mean little compared to the quality of the contestants, with arguably only Simon indispensable to the formula. At heart, Good Contestants = Good Season, while a lackluster crop can spell doom (or at least weeks of crashing boredom). With that in mind, read on for an (admittedly subjective, but still!) explanation of the rankings, season by season, from best to worst:
Season Eight (2009): The best combination of talent, personality, cool and relevant musical styles, song-selection savvy, with performances I would actually pay to listen to - in fact, DID pay to listen to, both via iTunes and in person - and contestants that compelled me to actually vote, after seven seasons of avoiding doing just that. The top 10 had depth, variety and arguably the show's strongest-ever top four: Adam Lambert, Kris Allen, Allison Iraheta and, yes, even Danny Gokey (despite his lack of pop music knowledge and terrifying "Scream On" - um, "Dream On.") I was skeptical I'd even watch AI8, fearing that the show was limping toward an ignominious end, but I'm glad I did. Iraheta was one of the strongest, most distinctive female voices ever on the show, Lambert raised "AI" performance standards to a new high. Of course, if only I'd consulted Idol history beforehand, I would've had a better idea of what awaited.
Season Five (2006): This year overflowed with diverse on-screen talent, and the music industry apparently agreed: At least seven of the top 10 went on to make albums, spanning R&B, pop, soul, rock and country. But AI5 also benefited from engaging personal stories, including those of Elliott Yamin, Kellie Pickler and Chris Daughtry. Though eventual winner Taylor Hicks is now maligned as a flop, he won for a reason: He was a strong, smart contestant, melding uptempo fun with more serious numbers, and his aw-shucks demeanor also garnered votes (even as his "Soul Patrol" repelled others). Even so, his victory over Kat McPhee wasn't a a lock, and have we mentioned the insane finale that featured Prince? (Four years later, the memory is still mind-blowing.) Anyway, about that outcome: Chris Daughtry's not doing too poorly for himself these days anyway, is he?
Season Two (2003): Season One HAD to be successful, or else the show wouldn't have lived to see another season. But Idol's second go-round - and the first in the now-traditional January-May timeframe - cemented the show's status as a cultural juggernaut. It had a higher level of talent than the previous year, a stellar top three (Kimberly Locke, Clay Aiken, Ruben Studdard) and a nail-biting finish. It also brought out the best in the judges in a way that hasn't really been seen since, frankly. Gawky, geeky Aiken's rise wrote the book on how the show can transform its contestants, and demonstrated that runners-up can succeed, too - while also proving "AI" could showcase the kind of soaring, old-fashioned male vocals not found on contemporary radio and pop charts.
Season Seven (2008): This gains points for eventual winner David Cook, the quintessential underdog who prevailed by treating the season as a setlist, taking advantage of every performance as if it were his last, with strong singing and inventive song rearrangements. His impact on the show continues to ripple. But it loses points due to Syesha Mercado's inexplicable persistence in the competition and the judges' (especially Simon's) nauseating, persistent hyping of favorite and runner-up David Archuleta - who was, I think, weighed down by early expectations and the understandable emotional, musical and intellectual limitations of being a talented yet sheltered 17-year-old. Still, they were a deserving top two, and the season also boasted other quirky, acoustic-oriented talents such as Jason Castro and Brooke White, the likes of which hadn't been seen before on the "Idol" stage. Other finalists, such as Carly Smithson and Michael Johns, proved alternately awesome (powerful pipes) and frustrating (they too often couldn't connect with their songs, or the audience).
TIED: Season Four (2005): The definition of a solid season, with the excellent top two of Bo Bice and Carrie Underwood, who were both responsible for (yes, Simon) "moments" that still stand out in the "Idol" ranks: Bo's a capella "In A Dream" and Carrie's "Alone." Third place went to sunny postal worker Vonzell Solomon, and this was also the year of Constantine Maroulis, the aspiring rocker with long, greasy hair and a sort of slithery semi-appeal who later found his rightful place starring in a Broadway musical about '80s hair metal. This season's top 10 gets a lot less memorable after that.
and Season One (2002): Because it started everything, proving the formula not only works, but makes great TV. And, because it rather remarkably redeemed itself despite an uneven-at-best, weak-at-worst crop of finalists, thanks to the original-and-still-the-best winner, Kelly Clarkson. Looking back on it now, it was also charmingly low-key and noncommercial, in a small studio, with the limited-time-only hosting team of Seacrest 'n' Dunkleman, a relatively coherent Paula Abdul, and without a gazillion commercial tie-ins.
Season Six (2007): Ugh. A chore to watch, with strange theme weeks, an overabundance of "guest mentors" and the difficult-to-endure likes of Haley Scarnato and Sanjaya, who survived far past where talent alone should have taken them. Although the victor was pretty clear going into the anticlimactic non-showdown of a finale, Jordin Sparks and Blake Lewis were not an unworthy top two. And Blake's song rearrangements helped set the stage for David Cook the next year, so it wasn't a total wash, unlike...
Season Three (2004): Which is the worst because it suffered from a dearth of talent, heavy pimping from the judges (Simon could not shut up about how he wanted Fantasia to win, which quickly became tiresome), an unsuspenseful top two and basically no viable guys in the top 12. Some of the performances from that year were so bad they still stand out, even seven years later (!) - the likes of John Stevens tackling Latin night comes to mind, particularly. Oh yeah, and FUTURE OSCAR WINNER Jennifer Hudson was voted out midway through the finals after an AMAZING performance. Game, set, match.
Anyway, hey, speaking of Season Three, does the above description remind you, even faintly, of any other season? Yeah, I thought so. Here's hoping for better, somehow, despite the presence of, say, Tim Urban...