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Idol Watch: America’s Next Top Balladeer?

How has Idol managed to make its finalist choices so much less interesting than The Voice's?

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Michael Becker / FOX

Quick spoilers for last night’s American Idol results show follow:
American Idol judges like to open up their criticism with a compliment (“You looked like you were having fun!”), so let me start by saying something nice about the ten finalists the show presented to America last night. I agree with Linda Holmes that it’s a relief that the show is going in a different direction this year, simply by not offering up one more “White Guy With Guitar” like the last half-dozen winners of the contest. That’s not about political correctness or musical bias; it’s just not very exciting going through a whole season knowing who’s bound to win.

So, good on Idol for going in a different direction. But I wish to hell that different direction were also interesting. There’s talent enough in the five men and five women competing for this year’s confetti drop. (Lazaro Arbos, Janelle Arthur, Curtis Finch, Jr., Candice Glover, Kree Harrison, Amber Holcomb, Paul Jolley, Angie Miller, Burnell Taylor, and Devin Velez) But from what we’ve seen so far, we’re probably going to decide what kind of pleasant singer of ballads to choose from.

There are the country ballad singers. The R&B ballad singers. The pop ballad singers. The singer who performs half his ballads in Spanish. The ballad singer who deals with a stutter. They’re nice. They’re competent. There are few rough edges. And they’re… zzzz….

It’s all perplexing when you compare Idol’s finalists to the last couple seasons of The Voice. Whatever you thought of The Voice’s finalists in the fall, for instance, they spanned a wide variety of genres and styles, they did uptempo as well as ballads, they generated a sense of excitement on stage and, as a group, they felt current. (Or at least distinctively retro.)

Each of the finalists—Cassidy, Nick and Terry—had a sense of him- or herself as an artist as well as a performer. You felt, watching them, that they had listened to a lot of music and knew what they liked and didn’t. They showed off not just singing ability but their personal tastes, as opposed to a willingness to adapt whatever style would get them through to the next round.

To be fair to Idol, I suspect that its choices—weeding out the eccentrics, looking for strong performers who can be molded as artists—are completely intentional. The show has definitely set up a dynamic that rewards safe choices, at least early on, and there’s simply much more downside to choosing anything other than romantic ballads—you might hit some bum notes, but you don’t risk getting singled out for song choice or a manic performance in the same way. And that may work for the show, which probably does need to distinguish itself from its competitor on NBC.

But it’s funny to find myself in the position, right now of watching Idol more for the judges than the singers (well, Keith and Nicki, at least). As for the finalists, the only one I have a strong rooting interest in right now is Kree. Maybe I’ll learn to like some of the others over the next few weeks. But I only have time to watch so much competitive singing, and so far, the show is doing an excellent job of making it easy for me to switch to The Voice at the end of the month.