After last week's surprising elimination of presumed front-runner Pia Toscano, decade-old American Idol is once again making the kinds of headlines that most shows would kill for at half its age. Seriously, people are suddenly so worked up about the injustice of it all that this week's competition show tomorrow night is arguably the season's most eagerly anticipated Idol installment yet, perhaps because it now seems that nobody is safe (except maybe James Durbin, currently the most talented performer, in my humble opinion).
So what in blazes happened last week? Why send pretty Pia and her powerful pipes packing? Heck, I thought she would be in the top four, or maybe the top three, if the very talented Scotty McCreery or Lauren Alaina had proved to be one likely future country star too many.
There are two dominant theories as to why a contestant as strong as Pia was the victim of premature elimination, and why even the most gifted of the remaining eight should be on edge. One involves the Idol voting system, which now incorporates online votes and thus favors the younger and more digitally tireless viewers of the program. It's not about which contestant might have the most fans. It's about which contestant's fans are likely to spend one or two hours after the show relentlessly voting for their favorite singer. In other words, the collective voice of the audience no longer means as much as it once did.
The other popular explanation for Pia getting the boot (and, two weeks earlier, for the audience trying to toss Casey Abrams, like Pia one of the judges' favorites) is that this new incarnation of Idol that's all about loving and supporting the contestants is starting to fall apart, the victim of its own repetitive sweetness. New judges Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez earlier this season did much to reinvigorate Idol's audition episodes, which some years ago had grown tiresome. They weren't being all that judgmental, in the grand tradition of the mighty Simon Cowell and, to a lesser extent, the under-appreciated Kara DioGuardi, but they were having a lot of fun, and that made the auditions more entertaining for home viewers than they had been in a long time.
As swell as they were during the auditions, though, Tyler and Lopez haven't stepped up as true judges during the actual competition, and that may be as big a problem as the current mindless voting system. To listen to them these last few weeks, all of the singers in the top thirteen have been wonderful beyond compare, and each and every one of them has delivered at least one award-worthy performance. Anyone who has been watching at home would tell you those assessments are far from true. (For a time, veteran judge Randy Jackson occasionally tried to challenge the Tyler and Lopez Love Machine, in the process showing more chops than in the previous nine seasons. But Tyler and Lopez politely rolled right over him with such consistency that he has pulled way back.)
Some questions for the judges: If everyone's so friggin' wonderful, how are any of them supposed to stand out? Are you going to get pissed off every week when one of the contestants is sent home, as one must be every week? Do you think if you were more critical of the performers overall that the more gifted singers, like Pia and Casey, might not be prematurely dumped by the audience? What were you so angry about last week (especially you, Ms. Lopez)? How did it feel to sit there helpless while viewers ignored your preferences and made up their own minds?
This latest development in the ongoing story of American Idol has left me feeling somewhat justified, because last year, when it became clear that the show was cleaning house, I suggested that it look for music professionals who aren't afraid to uncompromisingly judge even the nicest contestants. My recommendations fell on deaf ears. More recently, in writing about this season's unexpectedly enjoyable audition episodes, I cautioned that Tyler and Lopez might not prove as effective in the true heat of the competition as they had been earlier on.
What to do about all this? The judges aren't going anywhere, so let's focus on the voting. I have heard one suggested change that I hope will be roundly rejected by everyone involved: That the judges be allowed to decide which of the bottom three vote-getters is sent home. American Idol remains the out-size success that it is expressly because of its powerful interactivity. The viewers determine the fates of the contestants, and that's that. Take that away and the audience will go away, too. Better to fix the ridiculous voting system than to compromise audience involvement. I vote for one vote per person via phone or text only, if such a thing is possible anymore.
I can't wait to see how everyone conducts themselves this week in Idol's new, wholly unpredictable environment. It may not be by design, but this show is suddenly essential again, perhaps for the wrong reasons.