Welcome to “American Idol, Season 8: Revenge of the Judges.”
You did it America: The tuneless stylings of Taylor Hicks. The tacky alt-rock aspirations of David Cook. For every trend-setting Kelly Clarkson and chart-topping Carrie Underwood, you chose a forgettable entity such as Jordin Sparks or a case of chart poison like Ruben Studdard.
So, it shouldn’t be a surprise — at least not with the music industry devolving annually to a new low point — that the producers and judges (Simon Cowell is both) have decided to stage an insurrection and wrest as much control as possible from the viewers this season. It’s not just a talent show; it’s a multimillion industry, and so it makes sense from a financial standpoint — if not an artistic one — that the judges want to safeguard their investment and try to secure a path of victory for the musicians in which they see the most dollar signs.
The most obvious example of this is the addition of songwriter-producer Kara DioGuardi to the judging panel. Kara likes to frame her critical approach not in terms of musicianship, but through the search for “package artists,” code for: “You’re hot, and we’ll fix your horrid vocals in postproduction.” She genuinely seems surprised when contestants she has advanced through several rounds of judging can actually sing.
While the producers have put their perennial tricks to good use — giving a feast of screen time to a few favorites while the remainder of contestants go hungry — the judges have simultaneously moved on several fronts to boost their profiles. Not only are they now being introduced on performance nights as if they were hosting the Oscars, but they played a stronger role this year in choosing who you’ll see on the big stage. Season 8 marked a return to wild-card night; this time, the judges held total power and were able to determine four of the Top 13 (because Jasmine Murray’s vocals were apparently so compelling they couldn’t limit it to 12).
In addition, the judges have awarded themselves an ace up the sleeve. If America decides to vote off one of their favorites, they have the ability (though, thankfully, only once and just through the Top 5) to grant a reprieve to a singer America has sent to death row. When announcing this decision, the judges framed it in altruistic terms — they heard from us about contestants who were sent packing too soon, such as Jennifer Hudson and Chris Daughtry (though the new rule wouldn’t have helped the latter, as he made it to the Top 4). In other words, the judges are saving the viewing audience from itself.
Sure, we (and by we I don’t me — I love the show but have never felt compelled to race to the phones) have made some dumb decisions, but do they really expect Randy and Paula to do a better job? If so, do consider those the judges have pimped from the start:
• Danny Gokey: Dubbed “ghoulish widower” by some because he and the show took pains to point out that Danny’s wife died shortly before he tried out — and those early, creepy appearances left an impression that he had been waiting patiently for years for a dead relative to complete his emotional backstory — the focus has since returned to his singing. While he has some ability, it’s vastly eclipsed by the breathless hype bestowed upon him by the judges. And the songs (Mariah Carey’s “Hero”? “Jesus Take the Wheel”?) aim for inspiration but find regurgitation instead.
• Lil Rounds: From the first word out of her mouth, the judges have declared her a perfect singer, the season’s top diva. In other words, Fantasia: The Sequel. But Lil Rounds is no Fantasia. Where the “Idol” champ brought emotional depth and vocal nuance to her belting, Lil seems to have one approach: Scream as loud as possible. Her bombastic take on “I Will Always Love You” from the audition rounds was a shot across the bow that has been followed weekly by the senseless beating of a song into submission. Someone get a restraining order.
• Adam Lambert: I’ll give him this — he is interesting. Whether shocking Randy Travis with his emo grooming (Heavens to Betsy, men with black nail polish!) or turning “Ring of Fire” into a sitar-drenched dirge, he never bores. Maybe that’s why Simon (rightfully so) attacked the country night performance as indulgent. But it was less so than Adam’s self-fondling rendition of “Satisfaction.” I’m hoping that if the show has a ’90s night, Adam will choose Divinyls’ “I Touch Myself.”
Such offenses would be easier to overlook if the show didn’t have several other contestants who can sing. Despite this fact, the following didn’t get much judge love before making it to the Top 13: Kris Allen (singer-guitarist), Allison Iraheta (young rock chick), Anoop Desai (the “sexy nerd”) and the divisive Megan Joy (I’ll take her quirky style over the bombast of the others any day). Surely they deserve more praise, but I’m writing about what’s wrong with “Idol” right now. It suffices to say these artists tend to favor good songs and understatement. Thus, I could not imagine any of them inspiring the judges to fork over their “Get Out of Music Oblivion” card. No doubt they’ll be saving that ploy for their three favorites. And it’s safe to presume that should none of the favorites make it to the finale, the judges will have to invoke special powers and declare Martial law live on American television.
Imagine Randy Jackson with a submachine gun and Paula Abdul in guerrilla attire (but still dancing mindlessly and sipping from her Coke cup) telling you that it’s time to vote, and you have one number to call as a picture of Danny Gokey stares you in the face, agitating for you to not declare him an inspiration to humanity and secure his place as an “Idol” champion.
Absurd perhaps, but that’s what it feels like on “American Idol” this season.