American Idol: As Mainstream As It Gets

Every week my father complains about the contestants on American Idol. But aside from the usual “no one stands out like Carrie Underwood or Jordin Sparks”, he’s downright dismissive about contestants that sport unorthodox fashion choices: dreds, funky, multicolored hair, large tattoos, earrings in unrespectable places…he was even against Taylor Hicks because his gray hair labeled him a geezer. My parents don’t like contestants that are too outside the mainstream. They find them weird and off-putting, no matter how talented they are.

When I heard that Amanda Overmyer was eliminated this week, instead of the expected bland Barbie Kristy Lee Cook, I began to think they’re onto something.

Apparently I’m not alone:

I’m not saying that you have to pick a hit to win, but a hit is a hit for a reason…That was a lesson I learned from the Idol producers. I used to submit for clearance the most random songs, like ”Rockin’ the Suburbs” by Ben Folds. I had no rhyme to the reason — I just liked those tunes. …But Ken and Nigel would always give me suggestions-that-weren’t-really-”suggestions” (because that would be unfair), saying that I needed to pick something the public knows and likes and that shows off my voice — essentially, a hit song. I think I was trying to tell them, ”Hey I’m cool, look! I’m a fan of Motörhead, yippee!” But luckily they didn’t let me sing ”Ace of Spades.” …They remind me that this whole thing is more like a political primary than a music concert.

Now, granted, this is from an ex-contestant, but what he’s saying is true, and as much as many would love for them to feature more offbeat songs, it’s not going to happen. Seeing further that Carly Smithson landed in the bottom three proved that viewers want someone who fits in the mainstream mold, as she received high marks from all the judges as well as the crowd. The three most successful Idol performers are Chris Daughtry, Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson, and it’s easy to see why. To just compare the current contestants to them is unfair, but so is trying to picture them on the radio, if only because several of them can fit provided they have the right song at their disposal. After all, even long-haired Bo Bice came in second place and scored a modest single on Adult-Contemporary radio. Why? Because that song fulfilled the “rocker” niche, with just a little hard-edge/bad boy to him, yet still at the core was mainstream.

Extrapolating from this (and I know from doing my own research that people say they don’t vote based on looks, but on talent), it’s clear that people want what’s comfortable. It’s easier to judge contestants when they sing recognizable songs; if you don’t know them, you don’t care. Voters might say they choose on talent, but with the little time they have to review the candidates they need to go with what they’re given, and if they’re alienated they tend to want those candidates out of the way. Boring performers, they reason, can get better with the right improvements and songs, whereas weird ones will only get weirder. This idea isn’t new—for even casually watchers, it’s a virtual “duh”—but it’s getting recirculated as performers are willing to showcase their true selves.

I myself have criticized the show for being too mainstream, too bland, but by season seven now most people have realized and accepted that the contestants must fit within a narrow framework that is accessible to a wide audience yet still fall within a suitable genre. And hey, even I have come to understand that I don’t really care for certain “nonconformists” myself; I like innovation within a certain archetype. I’m less judgmental than my father–I don’t rule out bandannas, or bald heads on white guys–but they’re usually not my favorites. But it is American Idol after all, and I’m sure there are definite trends and types with the people who actually vote versus the viewers and at the end, as Simon pointed out just this week, the show is a popularity contest. Most music fans like both mainstream acts and cult favorites, and, as Amanda so refreshingly acknowledged, she has her niche, and it wasn’t comparable with the show. She knew she would have to change who she was, and that would never have worked.

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