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05.26.11

Idol's White-Guy Problem

Scotty McCreery has a good shot at becoming the most successful Idol winner since Carrie Underwood. But, Richard Rushfield says, the show is unfairly fixed—by the audience.

Scotty McCreery has a good shot at becoming the most successful Idol winner since Carrie Underwood. But, Richard Rushfield says, the show is unfairly fixed—by the audience. Plus, watch Idol’s top 9 WTF moments.

First the good news. American Idol had two massive overriding goals in this tenth season: to keep the ratings from going into freefall post-Simon Cowell, and to produce a winner who could sell tons of records, something Idol has not done now for years.

The first of these Idol accomplished, and then some. The ratings this season have been at worst only slightly down from last year, and on some weeks, they have been up substantially; a feat almost without precedent for a TV show in its tenth year (that’s 80 years in Earth time), let alone one which has just lost its iconic star.

Watch Video: Scotty McCreery Wins Idol

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On the second goal—creating a mega-selling recording act—it is too soon to say, but there is certainly cause for cautious optimism about Idol’s just crowned champion Scotty McCreery. There is a case to be made that as an attractive young man with a solid voice working in the Idol-friendly country genre, Scotty might end up becoming Idol’s biggest record mover in a half decade, since the show last crowned a country champion, with Carrie Underwood. Only time will tell and many a slip occurs on the way to the Billboard charts, but having dominated the season as no Idol has since Underwood, the signs are positive.

Given these successes any objections fall into the category of “yes... but”s and can easily be classed minor quibbles. But minor though they may be, the stack of quibbles this season has accumulated can be piled fairly high. Taken together, they paint a picture of very different Idol emerging this season from the goliath America has come to regard with awe and terror. It is a show still with some great strengths and whose following is not going anywhere anytime soon. But after Season 10, the era when Idol was seen as a supernatural force seems to be at an end. The time of thinking of Idol as just a TV show among TV shows may have arrived.

For starters, we might very well mark Season 10 as the year Idol’s glass ceiling was cemented in place. It’s hard to say exactly how many clinical trials one would need to prove the theorem that good looking white males are the only category with any chance of win, but four lab tests seems ample. For the show’s first six years, its winners were as diverse a pool of gender and genres as one could have imagined; veering from Kelly Clarkson to Ruben Studdard, Fantasia to Carrie, Taylor and Jordin Sparks. And then, four white male champions, without interruption. At this point it seems safe to say, barring a force of nature appearing on the Idol stage, no one outside of this demographic need apply for the crown.

Whatever the reason for this shift ( heavy text voting by young women is the usual suspect), this change has taken something huge away from the contest: the idea that anyone can become The American Idol. There is nothing to suggest that, as the conspiracy theorists constantly allege, that Idol is fixed by its producers. However there is now a mountain of evidence suggesting it is fixed by its audience, by voters determined to award the big prize to the most popular boy in the class; for whom the singing part maybe just incidental. (It is worth noting that in each of the last four seasons, the ultimate runner up was thought by the judges and by general critical consensus to have performed better in the finale than the winner.)

At the open of the Wednesday results show, we were reminded, as is the custom, of the journey the finalists had taken since they auditioned nearly a year ago. 100,000 hopefuls whittled down to two finalists and then one champion. In past seasons, that voyage has felt as great an epic as those numbers suggest. But somehow this year it all felt too easy, as though the contestants hadn’t hurled themselves desperately though the doors of show business, but had the doors held open for them.

Much of the blame for this has to go to this year’s revamped judging panel. Without question, Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler have become enormously popular as Idol judges. Tyler has transformed himself into America’s favorite wacky uncle. J. Lo has done the impossible: taken a career that had stalled out in every arena—from fashion to music to film—and made herself not just relevant again but beloved. And certainly, that popularity is what has kept the show afloat even while the show failed to produce a break out, sensational contestant.

However, while providing the audiences with affable centerpiece figures, their effect on the proceedings has been insidious. In their unceasing praise of just about every lackluster performance and mediocre night, they rendered the season contourless, with no narrative structure, no obstacles spelled out, no clear mountains to climb. If every moment was magnificent, it made no moments anything more than plain old magnificent. Nothing had room to fall nor room to soar. It was just a parade of songs the audience was told were beautiful and flawless, followed by, the next night, a contestant being ousted seemingly for no reason at all.

The overall effect was that of driving across hundreds of miles of flat, gently rolling farm land; pleasant enough to gaze out at but after a time, one suddenly snaps to consciousness and struggles to remember whether you’ve been trying for three minutes or three hours.

Worse still, the show’s failure to acknowledge in any way that any of the contestants were ever anything less than perfect felt like hype, a drug that in the past Idol has veered away from. We were in the position of college admissions officers reviewing a high school class where everyone got straight A pluses. It seemed the ultimate self-esteem centric, entitled, millennial stereotype. Had this really a struggle for them, or had they all been handed diplomas just for showing up? Little wonder in such a landscape that Scotty, the most steady and reliable if never the most exciting, should trot along to the finish line without ever having that star making moment.

As a result, Idol’s magical alchemy never took hold. In the past, the most fascinating thing about the Idol journey has been watching how out of the 100,000 a few emerge whom grow in stature before our eyes until we can’t believe that this natural accomplished performer was the same shy little waif we ignored just a few weeks back.

That didn’t happen this year. Looking back Wednesday night at the beginnings of runner-up Lauren Alaina and Scotty’s journeys, the thought wasn’t how far they have come but rather, oh yes, there they were; propped up for stardom from the first.

In many ways, the finale showcased all that was good in the Idol spirit. Bringing Judas Priest and Tony Bennett, Gladys Knight and Lady Gaga together on one stage it was a true celebration of American musical styles, in all their messiness and grandiosity and quiet charm all at once. It was both the least grandiose finale Idol has put on, and one of the most entertaining. The tragedy was that this grade inflated class, full of talent though it may have been, never really had the chance to strive to join this unruly tradition.

It was as though Idol, once a goliath astride the entertainment stage, was suddenly, just a television show.

Richard Rushfield is a four-year veteran of the American Idol beat and the author of a memoir, Don't Follow Me, I'm Lost. His new book, American Idol: The Untold Story, goes behind the scenes of the most popular TV show of the decade.