Tuned In

Did American Idol Trade More Talent for Less Excitement?

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I haven’t been doing week-by-week writeups of American Idol performances this season, which I thought might give me the perspective to see the forest of the season without getting lost in the trees of the individual song performances. From where I’ve been sitting so far this year, though, I’m looking at a pretty drab forest.

Writing in the New York Times, music critic / singing-competition-beat reporter Jon Caramanica may have put his finger on what’s kept me from really getting invested in anyone this season. Perhaps spooked by the success of The Voice, he theorizes, Idol appears to have structured this season toward cultivating the singers with strong and distinctive raw vocals, but at the expense of magnetic performers with a strong stage presence:

It’s as if, unnerved by the breakaway success of “The Voice,” “Idol” has opted to import what it perceived to be its competitor’s advantage — choosing voices over people — without realizing that the decisions should go the other way.

The 13 finalists on “Idol” were a collection of vocal types more than potential stars: the magnificent church shouts of Joshua Ledet; the untested belting of Shannon Magrane; the airy falsettos of Jeremy Rosado and Deandre Brackensick; the full-bodied blues-soul of Elise Testone; the Korean-accented soul of Heejun Han; and the dignified low rumble of Jermaine Jones, who was ousted this month for not disclosing an arrest record. Great voices, all — well, maybe not Ms. Magrane’s — but almost all beset with flaws as personalities seeking votes.

The tension between Idol-as-singing-contest and Idol-as-performance-contest is as old as Idol. But for most of the show’s run, it was ultimately unembarrassed about coming down on the side of saying that there was more to being an “Idol”—and thus selling records and concert tickets—than just having a really, really good voice. Simon Cowell was always willing to be That Guy, and made the case persuasively, but he’s moved his act to The X Factor, a show that carries in its title that assumption, that stardom is about a sine qua non beyond singing.

Now, I’ll grant you: Idol was never really aimed at me as its market. (I’ve bought albums by exactly two Idol winners, Kelly Clarkson and Fantasia.) But I can still get involved and invested in the show when there are contestants that bring that crackle of personality and charisma to the stage. This season, though? There are some good singers—last night, frankly, was probably the best all-around vocal night for the remaining nine contestants, many of whom sounded good (if not deserving of 5 standing O’s from the judges) and few of whom sounded terrible.

But it all feels a little dull: Heejun, for instance, is delightful, funny and appealing when he’s not singing, but the personality just seems to drain from him once the music swells up into another ballad. I had hopes for Skylar, though she could ease up on the frantic pogo-sticking on stage. Elise is growing on me: her “Whole Lotta Love” had the sound of an Idol contestant who actually has her own tastes beyond the judges’ approved-songs-of-the-week lists. Beyond that? Nice voices. But no one who really tells a story, who makes me think: “Wow, I can’t wait to hear what he/she is going to do with that song.”

Of course, a lot of this is subjective: if I were more simpatico with Colton’s brand of emotionalism–or if I were just more religious–I might be more moved by him, for instance. So you tell me: is anyone on Idol this season exciting you?