Fri March 8, 2013
'American Idol' Makes A Play For A Little Variety
Last night, the 10 American Idol finalists were announced, and one thing is for sure: the five-year streak of pleasant-seeming, guitar-playing white dudes (in reverse order: Phillip Phillips, Scotty McCreery, Lee DeWyze, Kris Allen, and David Cook) is over.
Those who have lamented this streak — who often call it WGWG, or White Guy With Guitar — don't necessarily dislike a white guy with a guitar, per se. But it's a little weird that the show's initial six-year run included three men and three women — two pop singers (Kelly Clarkson and Jordin Sparks), two R&B singers (Ruben Studdard and Fantasia Barrino), a country singer (Carrie Underwood), and whatever Taylor Hicks is.
Then, it went on a five-year run of guys who certainly aren't all the same as each other — it would be both wrong and offensive to say Scotty McCreery and David Cook are the same person just because they're both white guys who play the guitar — but who nevertheless present similarly: Here's A Nice Aw-Shucksy Fella Who Might Sit On The Edge Of The Bed When You're Sick And Play "Blackbird" On A Second-Hand Ukulele. (Admittedly, Cook might play a more rocking cover version than the other ones.)
In one way, last year's winner, Phillip Phillips, was this kind of guy at exactly the right moment. He slides comfortably into the Lumineers/Mumford & Sons moment, and the minute he performed "Home" in last year's finale, complete with obviously genuine tears, it was clear it was going to be the most successful coronation song they'd had in quite a while, and it was. Here was the moment when Mr. Aw-Shucksy was at his most relevant, and yet the streak was so conspicuous — and the show's ratings so evidently dropping — that creating the realistic possibility that someone else could win probably seemed essential.
And so they did the most obvious thing in the world to keep America for voting for the same guy again: they didn't give them one to vote for. The only guy in the top 10 offered to America by the judges who even arguably fits the bill is Paul Jolley, and he's positioning himself as a country-pop balladeer, not a deep-voiced old-school country singer like McCreery wanted to be and not a folkie — in fact, he says his aim is to be the male Taylor Swift. [!] [!!] [!!!]
Despite the racial element of the WGWG phenomenon, what unites those particular WGWG wasn't only that they were WG who had G, but that they felt kind of like The Female Idol Voter's Dream Boyfriend/Grandson, over and over. Idol has strong appeal to both young teenagers who power-vote and older people, and as prolific Idol analyst Richard Rushfield pointed out last year when correctly predicting a Phillip Phillips victory, there's a certain "alliance between young girls and grandmas" to pick "the nicest guy in a popularity contest." And what this particular slice of voters has been picking in that popularity contest is the Aw-Shucksy Fella With The Ukulele.
This year, they'll have to pick something else. They might pick a different style of male singer — a gifted soul singer, like ones that have come close to winning in recent years but haven't, in the person of Curtis Finch, Jr., or perhaps the show's first winner who routinely sings in both English and Spanish, in the person of Devin Velez.
Or maybe, for the first time since 2007, they'll actually pick a woman.
The reason the show needs a different kind of winner, in the end, isn't that there's anything wrong with any of the guys who have been winning. After all, as we've already noted, Phillips was as relevant a pick for the times as they've probably ever had. That's why you hear his song used in all kinds of advertising. (The true test of commercial appeal, after all, is the commercial.)
No, the show needs a different kind of winner because audiences can't keep watching the show feeling like they can tell at the moment somebody auditions that if they can see him in their mind's eye with that mug of chicken soup and that ukulele, he's going to win. They won't invest in female contestants if they know that no female contestant can win, ever. They'll stop caring about the impressive soul singers the show keeps putting through to the finals if they know they have absolutely no chance of coming out on top. The show needs variety not necessarily to make its winners better, but certainly to make its show better.
Of course, no matter who they pick, there will be no way to know whether Idol audiences are ready to embrace anybody except the WGWG if they were given the choice. It would have been a lot more interesting to see the audience look past this year's Phillip Cook McCreery Allen and pick Curtis, or pick Devin, or pick Kree Harrison. This is the crudest way to solve the problem: just take away the choice that you're afraid your viewers are going to make. But at least we'll see somebody else with all that confetti dropping on his — or maybe even her — head.