Unlike in previous years, when I called David Cook “a sociopolitical barometer with an awesome comb-over” and compared Adam Lambert to Barack Obama , I’ve avoided making sweeping generalizations about the 11th season of “American Idol,” mostly because, at this point, there’s not much about the show that inspires me to do anything (except complain, of course).
Worn down by the past four seasons — the revolving cast of judges, that time Casey Abrams did Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and, of course, the lilywhite list of champions (Cook, Kris Allen, Lee DeWyze and Scotty McCreery) — I’ve come to view “Idol” for what it really is: a massively bloated, increasingly out-of-touch behemoth, one that lumbers and crashes with much import but leaves nary a footprint on the cultural landscape. It has become predictable almost to the point of parody, thanks to the de-fanging of the judges (not everyone is amazing, guys) and the voters, who, judging by their recent track record, seem to value stuff like “nice smiles” and “upper body strength” over genuine talent and commercial appeal. Oh, and the Y chromosome above everything else.
Because of that, “Idol” has unquestionably suffered. Long gone are the days when the show could create actual chart-dominating superstars. None of the previous four winners have done much of anything, sales-wise, which isn’t really surprising, given the female-driven shift of popular music. Rihanna or Katy Perry or Lady Gaga or Beyoncé could never be crowned champion these days, mostly because voters would choose the handsome guy with the guitar instead. Given that they’re the biggest stars in the universe, that’s slightly troubling. If anything, “American Idol” has become completely antithetical to what it set out to be: It reflects the whims of a demographic more attuned to adult contemporary as opposed to pop music.
And yet, I find myself breaking my season-long ban on “Idol” just in time for Tuesday night’s (May 22) performance finale, which pits yet another handsome dude with a guitar — the indomitably growly Phillip Phillips — against the sassy, sublimely talented Jessica Sanchez. I’m making this exception mostly because I have loved this show for 11 seasons now, but also because tonight’s extravaganza is much more than just another overproduced coronation ceremony: It may very well be a battle for the future of the show itself.
See, for the first time in years, “Idol” voters have a chance to make a genuine change tonight. In Sanchez, they have the show’s best hope recapturing that old magic, of creating an actual, of-the-moment pop superstar. She is young (just 16) and current, she can sing pop, R&B and soul, and, as her alter ego BeBe Chez has proven, she possesses that sheer diva-tude that has driven the likes of RiRi and Bey to superstardom. In every way, from her biracial background to her grab bag of musical inspirations (Mariah, Xtina, MJ) to her supreme belief in self, she best represents the whims and attitudes of the millennial generation that drives trends and shapes culture (and downloads singles). In short, she is relatable to the people who really matter, and that’s the key to it all. Like Rihanna or Katy or Gaga, there is a belief — either real or imagined — that today’s biggest stars aren’t only your best friends, they’re you, living out your wildest dreams and fantasies.
And “Idol” hasn’t had a potential champ like that since, shoot, maybe Jordin Sparks in 2007 (who actually won). Allison Iraheta was gone too soon. Crystal Bowersox was great, but she wasn’t going to go pop, no matter what. Haley Reinhart was an old soul, pure and simple. And last year’s runner-up, Lauren Alaina, well, she was country to the core. By giving Sanchez the crown, not only can voters send her on her way, but they give the show a shot at actually becoming culturally relevant once again. It can be the launching pad for the next great superstar.
But will they actually do it? Of course not. Phillips is going to win this one in a landslide, carrying on the proudly predictable tradition of the past four seasons — back in January, I begrudgingly signed off my “Idol” predictions piece by declaring “a white guy will win anyway” — and (probably) disappearing very quietly into the night. He seems like a nice enough dude, but he’s certainly no superstar, and his win will only send “Idol” further down the relevancy scale, if that’s even possible. It will just be more of the same, which, for a show currently on life support, might prove fatal. And when the confetti falls on Wednesday night, and Phillips cracks that same goofy grin, I will shed a tear for this once-proud show and promise myself that I will never watch again. Of course, I will anyway.
So, “Idol” voters, if you love this show like I do (for whatever reason: unintentional comedy, overwrought balladry, you are contractually obligated to write about it, etc.), I urge you to set aside your emotions and vote for Jessica Sanchez. It’s the only way we can save “American Idol” from itself. Was she the best contestant this season? Of course not. But she’s still standing, and she’s our only hope. No offense to Phillips, but in our hour of desperation, we don’t need Kris Allen 2.0. We need a glimmer of hope, we need someone to believe in … we need BeBe Chez.
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