Tuned In

Idol Watch: Are You In a Rut, America?

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Michael Becker/FOX

Spoilers for last night’s American Idol finale below:

Was anyone surprised?

I don’t want to take anything away from Phillip Phillips. Though his music is not to my taste, I came to appreciate over the American Idol season that he does what he does well, and between him and the powerful but generic Jessica Sanchez in Tuesday night’s performance, he was the deserving winner. (Over the whole course of the season, I preferred Skylar Laine and Joshua Ledet, but I don’t vote, so I can’t complain.) And I don’t have a heart of stone—it was pretty adorable when he choked up performing his coronation single, “Home,” and walked into the crowd to be with his family.

Still, it’s at least a problem with a competition show when you can predict its winner well in advance based on demography. Five years in a row now, Idol has been won by a nice-mannered, soft-spoken white boy, with some combination of the attributes [is from the South / has goatee, soul patch or stubble / has strapped on a guitar at some point over the season].

Phillips was the deserving winner vs. Jessica—much more than, say, Lee DeWyze—but the voting patterns made clear that he would probably win deserving or not. He had some definite off weeks, but he never once made it into the bottom three. I’m not sure there was much short of shooting a puppy on stage that would have kept him out of the final, and even then some fans could make the case the puppy was asking for it.

This is not an “America is sexist/racist” rant. What we’ve seen over the last few seasons is probably more a shift in the balance of power toward a voting bloc of high-volume texters with a definite selection bias toward boyfriend-ishness. And in any particular season there are other factors. It probably helped Phillip that he was not only talented but distinctive compared with the rest of the field, which probably assured him a voting bloc to carry him through the early rounds while other contestants split votes.

America has the right to elect whatever Idol it wants. I like that Idol is committed to the idea of keeping the vote democratic rather than splitting the power between the audience and the judges. (Excepting the judges’ save, which came closest this year to producing an actual winner, but has not done so yet.) But you’re getting a little predictable, America, and that’s making Idol a little less fun to watch.

I don’t see an answer to this beyond changes in the vote-rigging process that would basically amount to engineering a different kind of result, and I don’t want to see that. I would like to see the judges step up a little more, though. The Idol voting audience went boy-crazy before the new Tyler-Lopez era began, but the panel shifted toward being softer and less critical even before then. Now we’re to the point where, pressed on whose performance is better or who deserves to go home, J-Lo will agonizingly plead the Fifth—as if it is uncouth and unfair to ask a highly paid judge to, you know, judge something.

The judges don’t vote. But they do—or did, back in the Simon Cowell era when they judged—perform a function. By saying what most people would be too polite to say, when a singer has a bad week, they give at least a chunk of the audience permission to vote on the basis of strong or weak performances. When they don’t, and everyone is great—sure, you can decide for yourself, but overall the tendency among fans is going to be to vote for whichever team they’re already on, not for the person who had the best performance that week.

Idol’s producers probably don’t want to listen to me, because they do still have a relatively successful show on their hands, and Idol is still first and foremost a TV show. So by all means, America, you have the right to vote for another cute boy frontrunner next year if you want to. And the rest of us have the right, if the show gets too predictable, to vote with our remotes.