In years past, booted contestants offered bland platitudes about the helpful judges and their "amazing journey" on "American Idol" and how they've grown and learned so much from the show.
But this season the gloves appear to have come off, with some singers flat out accusing Randy, Steven and Jennifer of messing with their heads by offering head-spinning advice that sends them sprinting in one direction one week only to turn around and jet the other way the next.
"They are hurting the contestants with confusing advice," said MJ Santilli, founder of the popular "Idol' blog MJsbigblog. "What makes it worse are the 'battles' between the panel and mentor Jimmy Iovine. The finalists are often hearing one thing in the studio with Jimmy and his guest mentors, and something entirely different from the judges."
Aside from the seemingly horrible sartorial advice they're also getting from fashion mentor Tommy Hilfiger, MJ said the mixed career messages are impacting the singers in widely different ways. They don't appear to be messing with the head of self-assured growly rocker Phil Phillips, who she said may actually be hurting his own chances by arrogantly ignoring every note he gets from the show's experts. But they've definitely made for some up-and-down weeks for the likes of potential R&B star rocker Elise Testone, country belter Skylar Laine and they are clearly hurting the teenage girl contestants.
"Hollie Cavanagh is obviously not growing from her 'Idol' experience," Santilli said of the 18-year-old who has a powerful voice, but a shaky stage presence that appears to be on increasingly rockier ground after weeks of confusing notes. "She seems to lose confidence by the week. And [just eliminated contestant] DeAndre Brackensick had potential, but the advice he was getting wasn't focused enough to really help him."
The contestants themselves have even said it.
"I felt confused every week, I'll be honest," Erika Van Pelt told MTV News after she was booted two weeks ago. "I felt there was a lot of contradiction, and as an artist and someone who takes their singing very seriously, it's hard for me to take critique of my work, period, and then when you feel like you sorta have people telling you one thing and then telling you something completely different the week after, it's hard."
EVP had plenty of experience singing in front of audiences, but her frustration with the mixed messages from the trio behind the judge's table, not to mention often contradictory words of wisdom from mentor Jimmy Iovine, was unabashed.
"Because constructive criticism to me is something I can go home, work on, fix and come back and say, 'Here, I fixed it,'" she said. "I feel what happened to me in this competition was I would take all the advice, I'd work on things, I'd bring something different to the table, and they'd tell me the complete opposite. It's been really hard for me, I can admit that."
Brackensick appeared to have solved that problem by taking Phillips' path and ignoring all the competing voices. "I'm just following what I want to do, not listening to what someone's telling me to do," he told MTV News after his elimination about his up-and-down ride on the show.
Hollywood Reporter music editor Shirley Halperin said she's definitely noticed some mixed signals from the judges, but she doesn't necessarily put the blame on them. "In a way, the judges are not as connected with developing an artist as Jimmy Iovine is," she said of the legendary Interscope label head who has helped guide the careers of Eminem, Lady Gaga and 50 Cent and whose opinion she often finds herself agreeing with. "Maybe they [the judges] can't be that critical because they've never been in that position of developing an artist. That's what Jimmy does for a living."
The judges, she said, have to face the camera (and the in-studio audience), while Iovine doesn't, which is why his rougher criticism rings more true. She pointed to Iovine's harsh predictions about Brackensick's fate on Thursday's elimination show as an example of how Jimmy can smell the career potential and talent of an artist in a way Steven, Jennifer and Randy can't, and then pull no punches in evaluating their chances.
The advisory disconnect is clearest for those who might also be tuning in to NBC's rival show, "The Voice." Instead of bland platitudes, Christina Aguilera, Adam Levine, Cee Lo Green and Blake Shelton are busy giving their charges good, constructive, specific advice on how to be better, more effective singers.
And you see it in their performances from week-to-week, as the singers take the building blocks and incorporate them into their routines.
"Idol" has gotten plenty of flak this season for the everyone-gets-a-trophy comments from the judges and the B-list talent in the finals. But considering that so many of its contestants are less seasoned than those on shows such as "The Voice" and "X Factor," if "Idol" wants to keep pace with the competition nipping at its heels it needs to up the mentoring and spend more time shaping its charges instead of spinning them around like a prime-time game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey.
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