'American Idol' Experts: Season Seven Improved By Instruments, Nearly Destroyed By 'Producer Manipulation'

Our panel of professional bloggers and superfans weigh in on the David/David finale and the season's hits and messes.

The end is near, "Idol" fans and detractors. We are quickly approaching the hour when someone named David will take the stage for the last time to perform his committee-chosen first single, struggling through the tears and confetti. But first, MTV's "American Idol" expert Jim Cantiello decided to take a look back, and he invited some fellow superfans to weigh in on the rule changes, flagging ratings, producer manipulations, judges' flubs and professional contestants that have characterized season seven.

Seated at this illustrious roundtable were: EW.com's Michael Slezak, who, in addition to writing popular episode recaps and blog entries, hosts the Web show "Idolatry," where he and his colleagues illustrate their "Idol" arguments with clips from old Japanese monster movies and "Wonder Woman" episodes; Idolator.com editor Maura Johnston, who brings her blog's patented cynic's-eye-view of each "Idol" episode to her recurring feature, "American Idolatry"; MJ Santilli of MJ's Big Blog, which has become the official "go-to" place for weekly song spoilers, as well as meticulous coverage of past "Idol" contestants' whereabouts; and Rickey.org's Rickey Yaneza, who has been posting MP3s and videos of each "Idol" performance for as long as we can remember and treats every "Idol" season as a full-blown political campaign, complete with slogans, nicknames and online rallies.

Of course, you can see for yourself that their impassioned conversation was illuminating, but because blogging is what they do best, we let them sum up their thoughts below.

Michael Slezak

Season seven will be remembered as the "Year of the Artist" on "American Idol." For the first time ever, the show's producers allowed contestants to play instruments during live performances, and the four finalists who took advantage (nope, we're not counting Chikezie's harmonica) all managed to crack the final five. More importantly, though, contestants like Brooke White, Jason Castro and even David Cook shifted the show's spotlight away from Celine-style glory notes and vocal bombast and turned it toward a more nuanced — and radio-ready — sound. On the other hand, however, season seven will also be remembered for an unprecedented (and unacceptable) level of producer manipulation. The embarrassing Paulagate gaffe found Jason Castro being judged before his performance of ''September Morn'' — no apologies deemed necessary! — and while the judges repeatedly ignored David Archuleta's lyrical flubs, they were unduly tough on singers like Carly Smithson and Syesha Mercado, refusing to give proper credit to even their most show-stopping performances. With so much ugliness behind the curtain revealed, it's no wonder the show's ratings trended downward throughout the year; here's hoping the show gets its groove back in season eight — and without those blasted Swaybots!

Maura Johnston

"American Idol" felt like a show in transition this season, thanks to two factors: The addition of instruments to the mix — which allowed contestants like David Cook and Jason Castro to make serious headway in what the judges constantly refer to as a "singing competition" — and the current fragmented state of pop music — which has made the "big voice, big star" principle guiding the show seem more and more anachronistic. (The fact that most of the songs trotted out for the competition were born before 17-year-old David Archuleta didn't help the show's increasingly mothballish smell, either.) The interesting question currently floating around "Idol" right now isn't so much "Who's going to win?" because really, either one of the Davids could take it all. Instead, it's "Are the winner's fans going to care enough to buy the album when it comes out, given the fleeting nature of fame and the increasing lack of interest the public has in buying records?" Which means that I'm still going to care about "Idol" come November, just in time for me to get excited about the whole shebang starting all over again.

MJ Santilli

Bringing instruments into the mix for season seven changed everything. Well-rounded artists like Brooke White and Jason Castro were able to advance deep into the competition based on more than just vocal prowess. It also allowed guitar-slinger David Cook, who started as a middle packer, to advance past pure, "AI"-friendly singers like Carly Smithson, Syesha Mercardo and maybe, possibly (I hope so!) David Archuleta. If David Cook, who's got an appealing, radio-friendly sound, does win it all, season seven may finally produce what it hasn't yet: a male winner who can sell records.

Rickey Yaneza

Season seven will be remembered for that kid with the stage father who may or may not (as of this writing) have cost his son the title. It is the season when everyone thought an Irish girl with a failed CD just might be pimped to death by the show but in the end was never given a break. It was the season of guitars, pianos and yes, a ukelele. A season of forgotten lyrics. A season with iTunes. A season of an ill-advised mosh pit and useless Q&A sessions. And yet another season in which Paula Abdul upstaged the contestants for all the wrong reasons. In the end, it may be a season in which "American Idol" turned the corner and ultimately became the search for and selling of a rock star.

Jim Cantiello

The seventh season of "American Idol" proved something I've long assumed about this fine country: America is one cold-hearted snake. First, she voted off Robbie Carrico because she thought he was pretending not to be bald. Then she told the sass-a-second Danny Noriega that "some people weren't likin' it." She ousted David Hernandez when she found out he flaunted his man-parts for money. She lauded rock-and-roll nurse Amanda Overmyer as a national treasure that must be seen live to appreciate, only to cut her a week shy of landing a spot on the "Idol" tour. She forced a black guy to sing bluegrass music but crucified him for showing a little soul. She indicated that she'd rather hear a cowgirl singing a patriotic song poorly than a decent song well. She kept Carly around until the week that Simon actually gave her a good review. She loved Brooke's "hippie" persona until she blurted out a "Woo!" during "Here Comes the Sun" — leading to her complete meltdown over the next several weeks, which is why I consider Brooke White to be the Howard Dean of "American Idol." Speaking of hippies, she screamed for Jason the dreadhead ... until he picked two songs you'd expect a guy with dreadlocks to sing. She strung along the suspiciously popular Syesha long enough to see her depressing hometown visit (where she received a snow globe — in Florida?), but not long enough to give her a chance in the finale. And finally, she played along with producers' hopes by voting to ensure a David/David finale, but stopped tuning in along the way.

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