How David’s Season Changed American Idol
I’ve been reading through some interesting comments on Idol-related blog sites. You know, the ones that still think American Idol is relevant (well, except for Vote for the Worst of course) – MJ’s Big Blog, Television Without Pity Forums, the usual suspects – and it’s interesting how so many keep bringing up how the race and gender demographics of Idol voters have now made it difficult for any woman or minority to win the show again.
It’s not that I think people are off in how they talk about issues of race and gender as they apply to American Idol. But I do think they don’t always get how these issues are more subtle than blatant. Either way, I don’t think anyone is playing any race or gender cards when folks point to the big giant pink elephant in the living room:
In case you haven’t noticed, only white guys – or what some refer to as WGWG (white guys with guitar) – have been capturing the Idol title for the past four years, so no one should be surprised if another one wins this year as well.
The issue, of course, is being raised because some folks are upset (understandably so) that one of the stronger vocalists this season – Jessica Sanchez – received the least number of votes, and had the judges not used their save on her, she would have been a goner this week. People chock it up to A)She’s a girl; B)She’s Asian American; C)She’s an R&B soul singer; or D)She’s not connecting emotionally with voters.
I say: all of the above.
Here’s why: David’s season.
So, consider this. The first five seasons were all about The Voice. Kelly Clarkson, the first Idol, definitely had it, as did Ruben Studdard Season 2, Fantasia Season 3, and Carrie Underwood Season 4. Taylor Hicks won, thanks to his “Soul Patrol” fanbase and his various entertaining stage antics, beating out some real gems that year – Elliot Yamin, Chris Daughtry, Paris Bennet, Kelly Pickler. And, as I mentioned in a previous post this week, Jordin Sparks was a really good soul “diva” vocalist in Season 6 when she won (she was just outclassed by Melinda Doolittle, who was considered too boring and too old to win).
Either way, what all these seasons had in common is that no one performed with musical instruments.
Because of those early season restrictions, there’s a reason why Chris Daughtry (Season 5), Constantine Maroulis (Season 4), or a Chris Richardson (Season 6) didn’t win. All white guys who had their fanbases but who didn’t play with instruments and didn’t have the best voices, and so, all things being equal, voters had vocals to mostly go on (that plus personality). Had instruments been allowed from day 1, I’m absolutely certain ALL of American Idol winners would be white guys (just like they have been from Seasons 7 through 10).
Enter Season 7, and had no instruments been allowed, David Cook wouldn’t have pulled out his guitar and rocked out Lionel Richie’s “Hello.” He changed the game with this number, and he changed it right after David Archuleta wowed us on vocal strength alone with his “Imagine” performance.
Just like that, the voters shifted their ideas about what makes for a great American Idol winner.
It’s why David would forever be compared to Cook and found to be “boring” and why a “diva” contestant like Syesha Mercado couldn’t Fantasia or Jordin her way into a win. It’s why the black female contestant (often held as the vocal standard, a la Whitney Houston-style) has been on the decline ever since (she didn’t even make the Top 24 cut this season), and why contestants who don’t also exhibit the same musical skills – through guitar or piano playing – aren’t taken as seriously.
It’s also why soul singers don’t get taken seriously: unfortunately, all their musical skills rely on vocal improvisation – a style you either get or don’t get, and the Idol voter demographics who prefer rock/country/musical instruments don’t have the same appreciation for vocal improvisation.
So, why does the allowance of musical instruments favor white guys more than others?
Consider these economic differences. Musical instruments costs a whole lotta money. I know because my mom who was a struggling professional still wanted the best for me when she encouraged me to learn to play the piano. It cost her a lot of money to give me piano lessons and even more money to get a piano for our home so that I wasn’t forced to go outside the home (in an inner city neighborhood that wasn’t completely safe for girls) to keep up with my daily practice. When I ceased interest in continuing, she cried. I had thought she had her own musical dreams, but I now have to consider the economic sacrifices that went into this as well.
This is a reality for many low-income people, and people of color in particular don’t always have access to money to develop their instrumental music skills. It’s why most black people are church-trained when it comes to music and why most of their musical skills rely on their very bodies – vocal music and dance – or, in the case of hip-hop, the remixing of available commercial music through record-spinning and other more affordable “instruments.”
This is why there is embedded in music and music skills a “class divide,” and since class issues in America are also racial, there’s a “race divide” as well. There’s also a “gender divide” since women are often pushed more into vocal music training, and musical instruments as a result are often associated with “guys.”
The allowance of musical instruments on Idol have shifted the gender and race balance in very subtle ways as a result.
On the other hand, how America votes on Idol has no bearing on who shapes the music market after the show. The bottom line is: when it comes to who’s still buying music traditionally, those demographics skew more heavily toward communities of color, who still don’t have the same levels of access to new technologies and who come from communities that value music and will support music. It’s why the music industry routinely seeks out artists of color and those white artists who can appeal to those communities (why Justin Bieber’s handlers would give him a “swag coach,” a black R&B mentor like Usher, and various hip-hop artists to collaborate on his music).
That’s why white guys win on American Idol but don’t sell well in the music world. The appearance of “vanilla” works on Idol, but if they want crossover success, they need a bit of “chocolate,” and since Soul Music has received a steady decline in interest among Idol voters, it’s going to be a hard sell all around.
As snarky and mean-spirited as Vote for the Worst is, at least the folks there get these politics, which is why they have fun promoting WGWG because they understand that the producers know WGWG isn’t “crossover” and why shows like The Voice and X-Factor still promote diversity.
Too bad David Archuleta’s “team” sought to push him in a more “inspirational” route (chosen after the phenomenal success of “Imagine”), because had he done more of his “Soul Man from Utah,” he would have kept the focus on vocals rather than give Cook the edge in seeming more “cool” with his guitar and rockified performances of soul music, and soul singing would still have had a chance to shine after Season 7.
Alas, it was not meant to be, and so, we’re kind of stuck with the same old type of winner, and I imagine Idol producers know they have to shake things up, because – in comparison to The Voice and X-Factor, which have given us winners of color – invariably, the media is going to bug them about why there is no more diversity in the winner’s circle (or why they seem to be attracting the kind of audiences that seem to not value diversity).
But the producers don’t get how race and gender work – both on the show and off the show. If they had a clue, they would have already started looking for that woman or man of color who can sing like nobody’s business AND play a musical instrument. In short, they need to find an Alicia Keys type.
Better still, a Fantasia who can play a guitar like Prince!
Does she exist? She probably does but wouldn’t dream of auditioning on Idol! 😛
But that’s the only way Idol will get a non-WGWG to win. If they’re serious, they better start the search right now if they want a new game changer.