The judges and producers try to make the claim every year, but I think there’s a plausible argument to be made that “American Idol” Season 10 had the deepest talent pool in the show’s history.
Not only did this season have a Top 13 that was embarrassment-free — Ashthon Jones and Thia Megia were, at worst, occasionally worthy mediocrities — but a slightly erratic cut-down from the Top 24 cost us plausible hopefuls like Lauren Turner, Robbie Rosen and Kendra Chantelle, plus early candidates like Jordan Dorsey, Rachel Zevita and Julie Zorrilla, who looked liked contenders during the audition episodes, but chose the wrong week to come out flat.
With a deep Season 10 field, the chances for shocking eliminations were plentiful. Casey Abrams forced an early use of the Judges’ Save when he was voted out in the Top 11, a decision so obvious (and, in context, correct) that they barely let him begin his musical plea for mercy. Observers who knew nothing about the way “Idol” works claimed that Pia Toscano was a favorite when she bombed out at the Top 9. She wasn’t a favorite, but she still went out three or four weeks earlier than expected. Casey was eliminated again after the Top 6, but that timing felt more appropriate and we were glad to have spent an extra month with El Beardo. And when James Durbin was sent home after the Top 4, he was so amazed by the vote that we professed amazement as well, even if his bombing out at the same stage as Chris Daughtry made for a nice coincidence.
It was a unusual season in many ways. We had our youngest-ever Finalist (Thia Megia). We had a Finalist determined to sing (not always well) in Spanish (Karen Rodriguez). We had a finalist who happily sacrificed valuable singing time to allow for African-inflected dance breakdowns (Naima Adedapo). We had a Finalist who hit admirably high notes even though a bulging vein in his forehead warned that an aneurysm could be around every corner (Stefano Langone). We had a Finalist who looked like an eccentric hobo with unexpected access to whitening strips (Paul McDonald). We got our first taste of Judas Priest and Nirvana covers on the “Idol” stage.
Yup. It was a memorable, diverse and unpredictable season of “American Idol” that will conclude on Tuesday and Wednesday night with the blandest, most predictable finale matchup possible, pitting teenage country wunderkind Scotty McCreery against teenage country wunderkind Lauren Alaina.
[More after the break…]
When you hear “blandest, most predictable finale matchup possible,” there’s an instinct to assume that I’m saying that “American Idol” will end its season with the “worst” finale it could have assembled.
This could not be further from the truth.
In many ways, “Idol” got exactly what it wanted every step of the way in Season 10.
The narrative of Season 10 was supposed to be, “Without Simon Cowell, ‘American Idol’ struggled to find purpose and meaning and with ratings dipping precipitously, FOX was forced to imagine a world without ‘Idol.'”
That was the narrative we all expected and pre-wrote stories around.
Instead, “American Idol” started the season with only the most moderate of declines and as the spring progressed, the talent show began to post-year-to-year increases on a regular basis. Much credit will be given to Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler for not puncturing the life raft with their pointy stilettos and and sending the whole endeavor to the bottom of the sea, but the people who deserve the real credit are the kids. The many types of voices and the many types of new and old songs being sung — often well — helped the show hold onto its audience far longer than in Season 9, when Crystal Bowersox was the only contestant giving reliably quirky and exceptional performances on a weekly basis.
In reaching out to the previously untapped Latino market, was Karen Rodriguez ever going to win “American Idol”? Probably not (though she may have opened a door a crack for somebody more talented in the future).
Were dancing and rapping in a tacky patois ever going to take Naima Adedapo to the Finals? Ummm… No (but they were entertaining).
Were American teens going to crown honky-tonk man Paul McDonald as their Idol? Not likely (but his destiny as a roving troubadour got a boost).
Were a standing bass and jazzy affectations really going to lift Casey Abrams past his well-demonstrated contempt for the show’s trappings? Only for a while (and only with that Judges’ Save).
Was church-trained Jacob Lusk ever going to win “American Idol”? Tee-hee. Heck no.
But those singers were key threads in the tapestry of this “American Idol” season and they each did their part to prevent boredom from ensuing.
They helped “Idol” accomplish the goal of remaining TV’s most popular show in the only demographic FOX cares about.
Now that we’ve reached the Finals, though, “American Idol” has a bigger concern: Can “Idol” find a winner who will actually sell a few albums and re-validate the show’s status as a popular music star-maker. And for that purpose, Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina constitute the best finale 19 Entertainment could have hoped for.
I attended the taping for the semifinals performances for the Top 12 Men. I came home and immediately set Scotty in the top position on HitFix’s “American Idol” fantasy boards. I haven’t moved him. I don’t plan on moving him. My fantasy bracket didn’t prove to be prescient in any other way, but Scotty was my winning prediction from Day One and I’m expecting him to dominate the final vote with the sort of crushing victory we haven’t seen since David Cook somehow dominated previous favorite David Archuleta. Scotty McCreery is going to sell records. His smooth country baritone may be the most album-ready voice “Idol” has yielded in years and it’s easy to see both teenage girls and older country fans picking up his CD and even easier to imagine his voice coming out of the radio.
I don’t see how she wins, but if she defies the odds, Lauren Alaina is every bit as prepared for popularity. Is there room on country playlists for a de-sexualized, chirpier version of Carrie Underwood or Kellie Pickler? Of course there is. Figuring out what to do with Haley Reinhart’s empirically superior voice would have tortured record producers (and still will). With Lauren Alaina, you know exactly the kinds of songs she can sing and you know exactly who to market that album to. At this moment, there are thousands of singer-songwriters in Nashville who will happily put their own material aside to write PG-rated songs about cheating boyfriends and overcoming obstacles for Lauren Alaina.
Lauren Alaina and Scotty McCreery have been ready for tonight’s spotlight all season. They were two of the most heavily promoted singers from the audition and Hollywood rounds. “Idol” judges and mentor Jimmy Iovine have let them stay in their comfortable corners all season long, cutting corners on themes and generously rearranging complicated songs. And the results have been reassuringly solid and consistent for nearly three months of live performances. Other than the wail, you could never predict what a James Durbin performance would sound like. Other than their respective growls, you could never predict what a Haley Reinhart or Casey Abrams performance would sound like. Viewers have always known exactly what Lauren Alaina and Scotty McCreery were going to deliver. That’s boring for critics, but it’s reassuring for the fans who may someday want to buy an album or download a single in iTunes.
It’s probably not going to make for an exciting finale. By remaining as steady and consistent as they have been, Lauren and Scotty have avoided the sort of risks that lead to both great *and* awful “American Idol” performances and I don’t expect that to change on Tuesday. And what difference will Tuesday’s show make anyway? Lee Dewyze and David Cook tanked their respective finales and won anyway. Scotty and Lauren have their fanbases and little they do on Tuesday is likely to move the needle.
And what could they do? Lauren gave her best performance in her very first audition and hasn’t equaled it subsequently, showing almost none of that patented “American Idol” growth that viewers allegedly loved. Scotty has learned to hold the microphone straight 2/3rds of the time and to sometimes move on stage, but he hasn’t been singing better every week. I’d expect their Tuesday performances to be more of the same, which obviously isn’t a bad thing for their millions of fans.
Still, I wish one of the finalists could find a way to have a Moment out there on Tuesday. Last week, I speculated that I could make a list of the season’s 10 Best/Most Memorable Performances and neither Scotty nor Lauren Alaina would have a single performance on that list. I sat down and went through my recaps from every week and rewatched many of the performances and I cobbled together my Top 10 and it is, indeed, totally Scotty-and-Lauren-free. Again, that doesn’t mean that Scotty and Lauren aren’t worthy finalists in their own ways. My Top 10 contains performances from only five singers and while all of them had higher highs than Scotty and Lauren, they also had lower lows.
Here’s my personal Top 10:
10) James Durbin’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” – I’m a sucker for a cappella intros and the two songs that James Durbin has on this list prove the amount of range he had as a singer and performer. And James’ cover of “Uprising” was the last performance I cut.
9) Jacob Lusk’s “You’re All I Need to Get By” – Jacob had more vocal and emotional range than any contestant this season or possibly any season. By my count, though, he only tied everything together twice. That’s still impressive.
8) Haley Reinhart’s “I Who Have Nothing” – It takes guts to cover a song that already gave A Moment to a previous “Idol” winner. Whether you think Haley equalled or exceeded Jordin Sparks on this one is your call. It’s still a fantastic vocal.
7) Pia Toscano’s “I’ll Stand By You” – We got bored with what Pia Toscano did. And we got bored with it in a hurry. But that shouldn’t take away from how revelatory that Top 24 performance was, particularly given how absent Pia had been from the auditions and Hollywood episodes.
6) Casey Abrams’ “Nature Boy” – The best of Casey’s bass-and-growl performances and the clearest articulation of his “I’m gonna do what I want, even if it costs me votes” ethos.
5) James Durbin’s “Heavy Metal” – This was not James’ best vocal, but accompanied by legendary shredder Zakk Wylde, it was the purist distillation of how different he was from Adam Lambert or Chris Daughtry or any of the people he was compared to throughout the season.
4) Jacob Lusk’s “A House Is Not a Home” – The other great union of voice-and-emotion from Jacob’s imperfect season.
3) Casey Abrams’ “I Put a Spell on You” – After spending days in the hospital leading up to the Top 24 performances, Casey couldn’t even sit on-stage with his fellow contestants for the two hours leading up to his performance. He got up on stage and he was visibly weak. And then, like a man possessed, this performance came bursting out of him. It was amazing to watch.
2) Haley Reinhart’s “What Is and What Should Never Be” – This is a list of Best *and/or* Most Memorable performances. This wasn’t a good vocal for Haley. But in terms of memorable? It’s hard to top. She sang with her dad. She fell flat on her face. And she got back up with a smile. This is a performance I’ll use as a touchstone for as long as I recap the show.
1) Haley Reinhart’s “House of the Rising Sun” – I understand why Haley is not in the Finals. Heck, I was amazed she lasted along as she did. But we should be grateful for those last few bonus weeks she earned with one stand-out performance after another. And she made my list with an Animals cover, a Ben E. King/Shirley Bassey cover and a Led Zeppelin cover. Wanna talk about taking risks and showing different colors? Kudos to Haley.
And now, I’ve got a splitting headache to dispatch in the six hours before the “Idol” finale begins…