If you were to look for an album from a former “American Idol” or runner-up, you would find Kelly Clarkson in the pop section, Ruben Studdard in gospel, Clay Aiken in adult contemporary, Fantasia in R&B, Carrie Underwood in country and Bo Bice in rock.
Clearly, in the real world, being a one-genre singer is not a problem; it’s basically encouraged.
So why then have different genre weeks during the finals of “Idol”? Why make a country girl sing Stevie Wonder this week, knowing damn well she will never cover him on record?
Well, according to those behind the show, there are a number of reasons, beginning, of course, with the often-debated definition of “American Idol.”
“The winner has to appeal to all of America, not just country fans or rock fans or whatever,” co-executive producer Nigel Lythgoe said. “The sad thing for me is somebody like Ruben who didn’t pigeonhole himself on ‘Idol’ — he did sing ‘Imagine’ and a Bee Gees [song] — and then the record label pigeonholed him.”
Versatility is the key to longevity, the producers believe, and an artist who has a career is a true “Idol.”
“We want a singer who’s going to be around in 10 years’ time, and the only way that you can guarantee that is to throw everything at them,” co-executive producer Ken Warwick added. “We don’t want a one-trick pony.”
Forcing contestants to sing a variety of songs is also one of the ways the judges determine the best singers.
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“The theory is that Mariah Carey can sing anything,” judge Randy Jackson said. “You hear that expression, ‘She can sing the phone book.’ So if you can really sing, you should be able to sing anything, so we’re testing them. That’s the whole competition.”
It’s also a way to judge a singer’s ability to make something their own, as well as see how they perform under added pressure. “It allows everyone to see how you land on your feet,” said Debra Byrd, one of the show’s vocal coaches.
And then there’s that other little advantage: ratings.
“I don’t make any excuses for that, either,” Warwick said. “The reason why we have such a wide demographic is the mums and dads go, ‘I remember that song from back in the ’70s. That was a great song.’ A lot of great music was around in those times and we want to appeal to everybody.”
The theme weeks also add a train-wreck factor that one could argue is the reason many start watching “Idol” at the beginning of each season anyway.
“Frankly, I think the reason they do the genre nights is they want to see people fail,” theorized Andrew Wallenstein, who covers “Idol” for The Hollywood Reporter. “Someone who is great singing gospel obviously probably isn’t that good at punk, and we’ll have fun watching them fail.”
Byrd thinks of theme weeks more as balancing out the competition.
“The thing about the themes that I love is, ‘This week may not be challenging for me but it is for you,’ ” she said. “Next week, ‘I’m busting my butt and you’re sailing.’ ”
For Byrd and her fellow coaches, the theme weeks also provide an opportunity to educate the contestants on musical styles.
“I think the genre weeks are really hard because this generation of singers is maybe not as versed in music as maybe we were,” coach Dorian Holly said. “These kids’ knowledge of music is very narrow.”
“Pop music was invented in America, but the way the radio stations have gone for one type of music these days, it’s so disparate now, it’s very difficult for kids to get an overall feel of American music,” added Lythgoe.
“Case in point, Fantasia Barrino came in one day and said, ‘I don’t know what to sing this week,’ I think it was songs from the movies. And I said, ‘You should sing “Summertime,” George Gershwin.’ She had never heard of it, and that’s a crime. It’s a crime that you have kids at school who have never even heard of George Gershwin, let alone be able to appreciate his music.”
Fantasia went on to sing “Summertime.” Not only did she give one of the most memorable performances on “Idol” — she later took the song to the top of the singles chart.
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