I’ve made it known that as of late, The Voice is my singing competition of choice. Regardless of that fact, American Idol is still the biggest show on television (despite declining ratings) and yet with Phillip Phillips’ win on season 11 of the show, you can’t help but wonder how this affects the show’s future. Phillip’s win marks the 5th straight year a “white guy with guitar” has won the show, beating vocal powerhouse, 16 year old Jessica Sanchez for the title.
I can certainly make the case that when David Cook and Kris Allen won seasons 7 & 8, it was justified regardless of naysayers. Both seasons ended up being a close match between the final 2. In season 7, David Cook took it over David Archuleta, and I bet that in its current state, had there been a re-do Archuleta would’ve won the overwhelming teenage vote. But Cook won on his own merits: not only was he a great singer, but he proved to be rather adept at rearranging songs to fit his style and make it contemporary. Also, let’s be honest, the game of Idol (and every other singing competition) changed after that amazing season 7, which featured a multitude of true artists and not just your standard singers. In season 8, Kris Allen, the underdog of the season, beat Adam Lambert, who was long considered the one to beat with his incredible vocal range and knack for the dramatic. And yet, that ability to stir up controversy and divide people with a “love him or hate him” sensibility, might have been Adam’s downfall, because Kris appealed to a wider, more general group of people. Kris’ arrangements, like Cook, ultimately helped him win as well, because it sounded like something that was radio-ready.
Season 9 was when things started going downhill, at least for me anyways. It was Simon’s last year and you felt as though he was kind of phoning it in. The contestants themselves weren’t all that memorable either. I can name the winner and runner-up with ease (that’d be Lee Dewyze and Crystal Bowersox), but I’m honestly struggling to name anybody else. Season 10 I dropped roughly halfway through the live shows because I continuously found myself having issues with watching the show, watching the judges give non-critiques, singers and their bad song choices…Not to mention, I’m not a huge country fan so that final 2 of Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina wasn’t all that compelling/appealing to me.
So back to the point with Phillip Phillips winning this season, especially against someone like Jessica who just killed it week in and week out, it makes you question whether a female can ever win this thing again. The conspiracy is that these WGWG win because they are very marketable and so on, but at the same time, how do you explain their record sales? David Cook and Kris Allen’s record sales were decent but not great, and despite the fact that their albums were very well put together and certainly enjoyable. Lee DeWyze has the unfortunate distinction of being the Idol winner with the lowest sales numbers for his debut album. Scotty McCreery managed to get a pretty good number of albums sold, but Scotty is also firmly planted in the country world, which has been nothing but accepting of former Idol contestants. But Idol has always prided itself on the fact that they find “superstars”, and yet the last real superstar they found was Carrie Underwood…back in season 4. We can probably extend this to season 5, when Chris Daughtry competed, and even though he didn’t win his season, he is one of the most successful artists to come out of Idol. So what does this say about Idol? Has it lost its touch? Or is this just a reflection of the music industry today?
I’m inclined to say that it’s a little bit of both. If Idol really is about finding a “superstar” as it claims it does, then Adam Lambert probably should’ve won season 8, and Jessica Sanchez or even Joshua Ledet should’ve won this season. But the fact of the matter is, these WGWG wins is adding up to be bad business for the Idol machine. Some say these guys are marketable, others say they add up to other artists out there who fit the WGWG mold. Let’s be real here, the labels who release these Idol winner & runner-up albums don’t do very much in marketing these so-called marketable artists, except the obligatory ad + CD sticker saying “Hey! Here’s the album from this year’s American Idol winner!” Not to mention, they rush the production of the album to get it out by November, which is a time where a lot of the big name albums come out. How does anyone expect these new artists to compete with more established names? Granted, like I said previously, David Cook and Kris Allen’s debut albums were very solid efforts, taking everything into consideration, but as a fan of theirs, I feel like more could’ve been done in the marketing area. It’s also true that the WGWG exists all too frequently in the music world, and only a handful are able to breakthrough to the mainstream, at any given time. Honest, the most well-known WGWG in this generation is John Mayer. He came to the scene at a time when the music world was filled with boy bands and female pop singers. Jason Mraz had a few minor hits, but you couldn’t really consider him a big name until he released “I’m Yours.” So where exactly does this leave all these other guys, who pretty much play into the same group, are equally talented, but don’t quite have the ubiquitous hit song that ultimately gets overplayed on mainstream radio and makes them more well-known? Guys like James Morrison, Tyler Hilton, Matt Nathanson, Ry Cuming, Jason Reeves, just to name a few. I know I listen to these guys because they make great music, but they aren’t nearly as famous as they should be.
But then there’s also the issue of demographics. The ones who are most likely to vote for the American Idol winner are teenage girls. They can vote all they want, but that doesn’t necessarily carry over to album sales. They are more likely to (illegally) download the album, because they’re crafty like that, than buy the actual album. Same goes with the fact that Idol may get 16 million viewers (on average), but of those millions, how many watch it simply as a television show and when it’s done, they move onto something else? There is also then an issue of mainstream radio and the general music industry accepting singers coming from Idol. Sure, Idol is this great platform for new artists, but at the same time, the regular music listener/”fan” might be a little adverse to Idol contestants and not taking them seriously. While we’re on this topic, let’s talk Grammys. American Idol has been around since 2002, and it wasn’t until 2006 that a former Idol contestant (in this case, first season winner Kelly Clarkson) won a Grammy, and the following year, Carrie Underwood became the only contestant to win Best New Artist.
It is important to note that the music industry is very fickle. Especially lately, almost everything you hear on the radio is dance-centric music, with few exceptions. There’s practically no room for these WGWG to make a dent in the rotation unless they have a bonafide hit single that is loved by the masses. Actually, that applies to almost everyone, unless you are a highly beloved/established artist or you play straight into the teenage girl demographic (Bieber, One Direction…I sound old by saying it, even though I’m not, but I don’t get them)
So with all this being said, what does Phillip’s win mean for the future of American Idol? Well, we may have to wait and see how his album will sell late in the year. But at this point, I don’t think a girl can ever win the show again. Not unless some changes get made in the voting system. It would also help if the judge’s critiques were actually fair and not utterly biased, as well as being a tad bit more critical. I’m not saying the judges have to be Simon Cowell, but some real constructive criticism would be great. All I’m saying is that Idol is getting stale, and if they still want to be considered the greatest singing competition on the air, they’re going to need to do a lot more than bashing the other shows.