An American Idol season that produced unprecedented amounts of fan dissatisfaction for the bulk of its run was significantly redeemed by the unique Idol journeys of both champion Kris Allen and runner-up Adam Lambert. But that doesn't mean the earlier complaints were off base, or that we aren't going to see more changes by the time next January rolls around. As we wrap up our coverage of Idol for Season Eight, here are some questions raised by the latest competition, and some suggestions for making the show we love/hate better.
Can a woman still win American Idol? An irony regarding this season is that while the only Idol champions to sustain lengthy careers as hit makers have been Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood (Jordin Sparks is threatening to join them), Idol seems to be going out of its way to make it harder for women to succeed on the show. After four female winners in its first six years, the top woman finished third in Season Seven and fourth this season. The judges have worked much harder to promote male contestants, and only three women, the bare minimum, were voted out of the semifinals this year by the public. Women are the primary audience for Idol, as they are for most reality shows, and since they drive sales for the Idol summer tour, a small bias toward attractive men is understandable, but one wonders if there has been some kind of permanent change in voting patterns that has made a future female winner nearly impossible. When someone like Allison Iraheta, easily one of the half dozen most talented females in Idol history, makes continual bottom three appearances and can't seem to get any love from the judges, something is wrong.
Four's a crowd: This is less a criticism of new judge Kara DioGuardi, who certainly had moments worthy of scorn, than it is a comment on the four-judge format itself. My biggest doubt when Kara was introduced had to do with whether the already tightly-packed Idol hour could possibly accommodate the time it took for a fourth judge to make her remarks. This should have been solved by telling the judges that they had a certain set amount of time, and to divide it up accordingly. What they ended up doing was talking as much as ever, and thus running long on some nights and cutting the number of songs on other nights (the Top Three, Four, and Five weeks featured twenty-seven total songs last season, and only seventeen this season). Any extra time created by the song reduction was filled by tiresome fights at the judges' table. Where Idol ever got the idea that what viewers want to see is less music and more chitchat is a complete mystery. The solution here is simple: If Idol can't reach a new agreement with Paula Abdul, let her walk. If Paula does come back, let Kara, who has only a one-year deal, leave instead. But either way, continuing with a fourth judge is pointless.
Going back to the future: Of the other changes that were made to Idol this season in order to stem the falling ratings and produce a more relatable cast, only one -- the increased focus on Hollywood Week -- worked the way it was intended. The promotion of certain contestants produced a backlash when it turned out that several of them (Scott, Megan Joy, Jasmine Murray) may have had interesting personal stories, but simply weren't very good singers. Two of this season's top four, Kris and Allison, got less attention than not merely their fellow finalists, but also the likes of Bikini Girl -- an embarrassing refusal to acknowledge special talents. The elimination of the step-by-step semifinals robbed Idol of the sense of narrative that has always been key to its appeal; the wild card was a blatant fix, a means of sneaking the likes of Megan and Jasmine past voters who rightfully rejected them the first time; and the judges' save was the solution to a nonexistent problem that served only to humiliate the defeated contenders. What Idol should do is accept that sliding ratings are unavoidable for a show in its eighth season and return to the format used in seasons Four through Seven.
The coronation song: There are some hard feelings between Adam fans and Kris partisans right now, but both sides remain united regarding the awfulness of this year's winners' song, "No Boundaries." With a few exceptions (Carrie got to sing a bad love song instead), these ditties have been filled with cliches about achieving dreams and overcoming obstacles, and are the sorts of overproduced ballads that have gone out of style for everyone except Josh Groban. These songs are cash cows so there's little hope Idol will just get rid of them, but there are a couple of improvements that can be made. First, make it a priority to find the best pop song out there, not necessarily just the best one about climbing mountains and sailing on taffeta rainbows. Second, the winners' song can be removed from the Idol competition itself, and there is precedent for this since it was done in Season Seven. It's a shame that a great battle between Adam and Kris came down to a song neither man could do anything with.
The importance of artistry: "Artistry" was Kara's much-derided buzzword, but looking back on the season we can now see she was on to something. Season Eight has apparently killed the old Idol paradigm once and for all -- the notion that the surest path to success lies in singing soaring ballads absolutely straight, complete with glory note at the end. We have now had consecutive winners who brandished a guitar (although the guitar was less intrinsic to David Cook's success than it was to Kris) and whose trademark was putting a unique interpretation on familiar hits (Kris' coffeehouse jam on "Heartless;" Cook turning "Billie Jean" into a dramatic wailing rocker). Adam was able to do this too ("Ring of Fire"), albeit without the instrumental skills. It appears as though the bulk of the Idol audience has rejected the karaoke approach and now expects its winners to show arranging ability and/or awesome song selection judgment.
What is most interesting about this evolution of Idol from a singing competition to an all-purpose music competition is that the audience has proven itself to be well ahead of the producers and judges. This can be seen from the fates of Danny Gokey and Lil Rounds, producers' favorites who represent what Idol used to be. One senses that Simon Cowell just can't understand a world where America could prefer Kris to Adam, Lil, and Danny. As he nears age 50, Simon's once unerring sense of what the people want appears seriously flawed (at least when it comes to the U.S. market), and as a result, I would not be at all surprised if he did not come back for Season Nine.