If Simon Cowell is right, Elliott Yamin will leave “American Idol” Wednesday night (May 16) and Taylor Hicks will win next week.
That, however, is a big if.
How much influence Cowell and the rest of the judges have on the voting has been one of the most debated aspects of “Idol” since the show launched, and this season’s been no exception.
There have been some misses — Mandisa, for example — but for the most part, the judges’ predictions and critiques have pretty much aligned with the eliminated contestants each week.
“I think that they have a huge influence,” said Katharine McPhee, who backed up her opinion on Tuesday’s show by actually confronting the judges for being hard on her in recent weeks. “It would be really interesting to know if the actual votes go up and down based on who Simon says is the best and worst each week.”
Yes it would. Unfortunately, “Idol” never releases the vote totals until the finale. Co-executive producer Nigel Lythgoe, however, would reveal that the numbers fluctuate each week.
“Everything that I see in the votes, America truly votes for who they think is the best on the night and don’t really follow one single person all the way through,” Lythgoe said.
Jacob Clifton, who covers “Idol” for TelevisionWithoutPity.com, however, isn’t buying it.
“The show is designed around the ‘pick your pony’ concept, which means that the majority of viewers aren’t basing their votes on the performances at all, much less the judges’ comments,” he theorized. “From the final 12 on up to the final two, all the judges’ commentary really does is narrow and focus voting time for those few voters who are undecided, want to use some of their votes to help who they see as the underdogs, or can’t decide between two or three candidates.”
An argument could then be made that since the number of votes remains around the same each week (40 million), that once a voter’s favorite is eliminated, he or she then gets behind a different contestant, and that decision could be influenced by where the judges stand with each singer. So, then again, it becomes a question of whether voters are listening to the experts or making their own decisions.
“The judges do a lot in the beginning stages of the show, but once America knows who you are, they’ll pick for themselves,” third season finalist Jon Peter Lewis said.
“I think in the past, the judges have had a little bit more direct input into, certainly, what the public thinks of the kids than they do now,” co-executive producer Ken Warwick added. “The public knows the show now. Simon gets it right a lot of the time, as everybody knows, but occasionally he gets it wrong.”
Bucky Covington, the fifth finalist eliminated this season, agrees that Simon’s influence has faded over time.
“I think a lot of people are starting to go from ‘what Simon says is right’ to ‘Simon just likes to make money, and he just says whatever he says to make a good show,’ ” Covington said. “Like, he used to give advice, but now he doesn’t so much give advice as he does try to just put you down and make the show [have a feeling of] ‘Oh, I can’t believe you said that.’ Which makes people talk the next day. He told Paris, ‘Weird.’ What is that supposed to mean? That tells her nothing. You should have just kept your mouth shut. I don’t mean to sound rude about it, but you can help and then you can just sell the show. He does a good job of selling the show.”
Some of this season’s semifinalists, however, have different opinions.
“I think America really listens to what the judges have to say,” Will Makar said. “When I heard it from Randy, it really hurt me. … I’m being judged by three of the best in the business.”
“I do think absolutely that America trusts their professional opinions,” Kinnik Sky added. “They look at them as people who have experience in the industry and they trust their backgrounds.”
Gedeon McKinney, on the other hand, believes the judges don’t matter. “I my case, I got all good comments, but I went home,” he argued.
Shirley Halperin, Teen People‘s “Idol” correspondent, backs the “pick your pony” theory, but believes it can also apply to the judges. “If you always agree with Simon’s opinion or you have the hots for him, you may be more likely to vote for who he praises on that episode,” she said.
So where does Cowell himself weigh in on the whole issue? Of course he thinks his opinions are monumentally influential. Randy Jackson, thankfully, offered a more reasonable sentiment.
“I think it goes in and out,” he said. “If you watch the show closely, some weeks they vote exactly with us and it’s like they’ve listened to what we said. Some weeks they don’t listen to us at all. And I think a lot of people go for the underdog, because ‘Idol’ is a bit the ‘Rocky’ story, isn’t it?”
So maybe Elliott isn’t going home.