‘American Idol’: Some theories on a surprising result

Senior Television Writer
04.07.11 107 Comments


Big doings on “American Idol” tonight, not just with one of the more incongruous guest performances in the show’s history (though credit to Iggy Pop for being in that kind of shape at that age), but with a result that was very interesting/surprising/shocking to say the least. Fienberg’s got the full recap, and I have some thoughts on why we got the result that we did coming up after the jump…

So, we got a bottom 3 of Stefano (who was Dan’s pick to go home), Pia, and Jacob. The judges seemed surprised and disgusted by this bottom 3, but that wasn’t even close to their reaction when the one going home turned out to be Pia. J-Lo cried. Randy was so thrown that all he could do was stammer and hope that one of his banal catchphrases came to mind. Steven Tyler, who had previously been content to play court jester this season, was out-and-out furious.

Pia came into the finals as one of the frontrunners. Instead, she goes home in 9th place. Nobody on stage could comprehend how this could have happened, but I’ve got a couple of theories:

1. The Lack of Simon Factor: Given the way the judges responded to all of last night’s performances – giving uniform raves to a bunch of numbers that were mostly solid but not great – you would think they would have been shocked by any bottom 3 grouping, and by anyone going home. And this is as much their fault as America’s.

We talked going into the finals about how J-Lo and Tyler refused to give negative critiques, and while Randy played bad cop for a couple of weeks, his heart clearly wasn’t in it, and he joined the hallelujah chorus right alongside the two newbies. Everyone on that stage is an artist, everyone could release that performance as a single right now, everyone is molten lava hot, etc. Occasionally, one of the judges (mainly J-Lo a couple of weeks ago) will offer constructive criticism, but it’s incredibly gentle.

And here’s where the “everything is beautiful” approach that the judges and producers wanted this year – which Simon talked about in my interview with him this morning – is a problem. Because while Simon Cowell could be a jerk at times, he was unquestionably powerful at scaring people – both the contestants and their fans – out of complacency. If Simon was still around, Casey Abrams (another one-time frontrunner) likely wouldn’t have needed to be saved two weeks ago, because Simon would have called his recent performances self-indulgent, and it either would have shaken Casey out of his rut, or it would have put his fans on high alert to vote more often, or both. That didn’t happen, the Judges Save got deployed much earlier than anyone expected – and wasn’t available for Pia, etc.

Similarly, Simon would not have tolerated Pia’s long run of technically-proficient but mind-numbingly similar ballads, nor would he have treated Wednesday night’s performance of “River Deep, Mountain High” like some brave journey out of Pia’s ballad box, when (once you factor out the idea that Pia is capable of movement) it wasn’t markedly different from any of her previous vocals. The judges let Pia coast for a long time, which made Pia and her fans complacent, and which led to this.

As Simon liked to say, “Idol” is a “voting competition” as much as it is a singing competition. At this point, it’s mainly about people voting for their favorites, and they tend to vote more if they think their favorite is in trouble and less if they think they’re safe. With the Kumbaya approach of the judges this year, it becomes almost impossible for most of the die-hard fans to figure out who’s safe and who isn’t. And unless one or more of the judges is willing to not only be critical, but be so bluntly critical that they might get booed as their message is coming across, it would not shock me at all to see a few more alleged frontrunners go home before some of the remaining cannon fodder like Stefano.

2. The gender problem. Fienberg wrote at length about this issue when Kara officially left the show last fall. I highly recommend reading it, but the short version is that as “Idol” has entered middle age, the voting has trended more and more in favor of the male contestants. The last three winners were guys, and four of the last five. Every year, Randy proclaims this “The Year of the Girl,” and every year the women go home early and they go home often. The previous two seasons have featured only one woman in the top 5, and the year before that only had two. Out of eight remaining contestants this season, Lauren Alaina and Haley Reinhart are the only females left. The vast majority of people who vote for this show are female, and they’re apparently not voting for someone they can relate to, but someone they’re attracted to. As Fienberg notes in his recap, pretty women seem to get targeted especially these days, and as J-Lo noted often, and noted tonight, Pia was gorgeous. 

I wasn’t particularly a fan of Pia’s – the repetitive Celine Dion-style ballads do nothing for me – but she was one of the two or three best singers of either gender left, and she was a lot better than a number of people who are left. But based on how the show has trended in recent years, and based on how the judges have approached their jobs this season, nobody should be shocked by what went down tonight. And if the judges couldn’t previously jar Pia and her fans out of their complacency, hopefully this result gives them a kick in the ass and they start doing some, you know, judging.

What does everybody else think? You have your own theory for why Pia got the boot relatively early?

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