Charlie Toft February 20, 2009
“This is a singing competition.” That’s the phrase Simon Cowell uses whenever he wants to remind people that he regards American Idol as serious business. We will hear him say it when an audience boos Cowell for criticizing a popular singer, or if he has to turn down a likable but overmatched auditioner. And in fact, once you peel away the occasional controversy, the hyperactive product placement, and the layers of soapy drama, Idol has done a fine job of identifying and crowning the best or next-best singer in each of its seven seasons, with one exception (sorry, Taylor).
But some casting choices this season have raised questions about whether the producers of Idol still believe that the “singing competition” is enough to attract the size audience they and Fox have become accustomed to. These Season 8 Idol contestants raised our eyebrows:
1. “Bikini Girl” Katrina Darrell survived a wobbly audition in large part because her presence made for some choice boy/girl arguments on the judging panel. She’s hardly the first questionable auditioner to get through to Hollywood, or even the first to credit a cute face and/or body. But Bikini Girl became the focus of much of the promotion for the coming season when ads began running. Typically such ads whet viewer appetites for good singers, or hold the truly wretched up for ridicule. Building an ad campaign around Bikini Girl, who has all but admitted she was using Idol exposure as a springboard for jobs more likely to call for bikinis, simply encourages more of the same in future years.
2. Teenager Nathaniel Marshall, while not without ability and originality, got much more attention for his dramatic breakdowns and crying fits than for his performing. Marshall wasn’t seen at all until Hollywood, when his emotional pleas to the judges, studiously quirky dress (complete with headband), and rubbery facial expressions made him a camera magnet. Everyone knew kids like this in high school, and for the most part they had a hard enough time of it without being held up as drama queens on national television. Still, Marshall’s eccentricity doesn’t mean he didn’t get to the final 36 on the merits, unlike…
3. Tatiana Del Toro, who had a lengthy audition segment and was a key figure in three of the Hollywood episodes. She does have some singing talent and proved it with a surprisingly decent performance on her semifinal night. It’s not even a matter of her personality quirks (which include maniacal laughter, even more maniacal crying, treating the rest of the field as if it doesn’t exist, and obsequiousness before the judges) being a new thing for Idol. What was new this time around is that she has tended to crowd out interest in every other woman in Season Eight. Certainly the producers have a vested interest in creating buzz, but time was when singing well on Idol was its own buzz. Carrie Underwood didn’t need to scream or act the diva to gain our attention. America did not cast enough votes to guarantee Tatiana a finals spot, but the wild card format gives the producers a new ability to shape the final twelve that they want, so it remains to be seen if the judges will choose to prolong the drama.
4. Nick Mitchell, or rather his Norman Gentle character, has yet to sing any song all the way through without breaking off into his Bette Midler-meets-Groucho Marx craziness. At first, it seemed as if his New York audition was no different than any other we’ve seen in recent years where a comedian posing as a singer would do his thing, irritate Cowell, and be given the hook. Mitchell does have a fair singing voice during his rare lucid moments. But his continuing advancement on the show, despite Cowell’s insincere insistence that he can’t stand him, appears to be the result of a group decision by the producers and judges to see what would happen if a gag auditioner kept getting a surprise thumbs-up.
After the news of the Top 36 was leaked, and people got over being stunned to see Mitchell’s name on the list, something of a pro-Norman counteroffensive emerged from various corners of the Idolverse. Various observers have said Norman adds something to the occasionally overserious Idol with his humor, and that his presence on the show shakes things up in unpredictable ways. The thinking is that since he isn’t taking the place of anyone who really had a chance to win, what’s the harm? And if Americans actually vote for Mitchell (either out of Vote For the Worst motives or simply on a lark), well, then that becomes a much bigger story than seeing the descendants of Anwar Robinson and Haley Scarnato fighting it out.
There’s something to be said for those points. The problem as I see it is that too much attention paid to the sideshows might eventually risk the status of Idol as a place where serious careers are spawned, which in turn will risk the show’s place at the top of the Nielsens. The evil twin of American Idol is America’s Got Talent, which Cowell also has a hand in. That show also typically leads the ratings, albeit against much weaker summer competition. But the average America’s Got Talent season may feature about five or six acts with real ability, mixed in with four-year-old girls lisp-singing, women crushing items with their breasts, and people bumping into each other wearing giant animal costumes. Needless to say, no significant recording artists have yet been launched by the show, in large part because the contest takes a backseat to the spectacle as far as viewers are concerned.
Ratings for Idol have slipped in each of the last two seasons, and Cowell has left little doubt that he knows the reason why: It’s the fault of the contestants, who he has said have been too reserved and quirk-free to win the hearts of America. Marshall, Del Toro and Mitchell are certainly big personalities, much more so than Melinda Doolittle or David Cook or even David Archuleta, who for all his tween appeal was practically inarticulate. But the fact that Idol seemingly believes that it now needs infusions of personality from the questionably gifted does not bode well for the ability of the show to stay on top much longer.
Those people who think Idol has always been silly or find the whole idea of handwringing about the integrity of a reality show to be ridiculous won’t think that Del Toro and Mitchell are anything to worry about. But I believe that many of the show’s biggest fans sense that it is on the verge of becoming something quite different, and that we could be heading towards the day when its genuine competition-to-phony drama ratio becomes more like what one might find on The Bachelor.
Categories: TVTags: American idol 8, American idol contestants, American idol recap, American idol spoilers, Bikini girl