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.


Posted on April 13, 2012, in American Idol. Bookmark the permalink. 37 Comments.

  1. Great Post, hg. I really enjoyed reading it. I agree on all points. I also think part of the problem is the audience on AI that are watching and voting are older woman. They are voting for these WGWG. I think it all did change in S7 as you had these self admitted “cougars” voting for David Cook. I never got that feeling with Cook but many did. lol Some of the voters/viewers now of AI aren’t open minded enough to vote for people of other races or women IMO. The show has alienated many of its younger viewers as I do not even know many young people who regularly watch it anymore. The audience for the show used to be very diverse, but it’s not any more, and I am not sure there is a way that the people at AI can change that. All that being said I think Skylar might have a chance as she is a white and a country artist. I like Phillip and Colton too but others should have a chance. The bigger issue for AI is that these WGWG are highly popular with their audience but not marketable or successful long-term.

  2. Loved reading your post, HG. You made very good points about AI. imo, as with any popular show, there is always going to be copies and with AI, the copies seem to be doing better than the original at this time.

    I’m still very glad that our David was on AI because that is where I fell in love with his voice and have been a diehard fan ever sense.
    What I’am wondering is if David didn’t go on AI, would he have a music career at all or maybe just be a popular singer in Utah.

    What I got out of your post, it seems to me that David is kinda doomed in the music industry.
    I will still hope that David fines a place in the industry and will become the star he was meant to be, so that we can enjoy his wonderful voice and music for a lifetime.

    • “What I’am wondering is if David didn’t go on AI, would he have a music career at all”—Good question cq. David obviously had the voice and the talent and the ability to connect with an audience. I think AI did give David the majority of his fanbase. It sure was well worth it for David to be on AI for that reason alone. I know my mother and I became big fans of David because of AI. AI also gave him a record deal.

  3. What I got out of your post, it seems to me that David is kinda doomed in the music industry.

    Why would you say that? How did I even make such a claim?

    IMO, out of the two white boys on Season 7, David was far more, WAAAY MORE!!, “crossover” than Cook could have ever been, are you kidding me?

    1. He is, as I fell in love with his vibe, “Soul David,” and had that “Soul Man from Utah” ability, and anyone who ever heard his cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Ribbon in the Sky” would know that David could out-Robin Thicke or out-Justin Timberlake these “blue-eyed soul singers” any time or any day. Give him the right urban soul song, and he’s got that audience wrapped around his little finger!

    (We black folks love our blue-eyed soul singers when they bring it, and David Archuleta, given the right material, could bring it, and thus successfully launch a whole new genre of “hazel-eyed” soul singers!)

    2. His “Latin” roots give him a different crossover market with the Latino/Latina audience. Give him the right “Enrique Iglesias looks with Julio Iglesias ballad sound” edit, and he’s got that audience wrapped around his little pinkie too! 🙂

    3. The teens and tweens who love his cuteness, nuff said.

    4. The older crowd who love his “good boy” image, nuff said.

    5. The gay crowd who love his “pretty boy” image, nuff said.

    What group am I missing?

    Don’t tell me David wasn’t marketable. Idol shot themselves in the foot when they backed the wrong horse, IMO. They had a “Justin Bieber” on their hands before Justin Bieber even came on the scene!

    So, I don’t see how David is “doomed” in the music industry. He just needs good management, good marketing, and above all, good music! 🙂

    • Oh my goodness, yes, I do stand corrected….I just thinking in terms of what comes out of the AI machine, but you are so right, David is the exception.
      I see what you see in David also and am very hopefull that the right management and label comes along to make his career skyrocket.

    • I agree with your points HG.
      David was marketable and they just needed to highlight his qualities instead of trying to transform him.
      The 2 years break in his career might be what he needed to make a great comeback. I think it’s not such a bad thing for him to have to start (almost) from scratch. He’ll be able to rebuild his career on good foundations with the music he really wants to create and the image he wants to project. You’re right, “he just needs good management, good marketing, and above all, good music”. I hope he’ll take the right decisions and surround himself with professionals.

      • “You’re right, “he just needs good management, good marketing, and above all, good music”. I hope he’ll take the right decisions and surround himself with professionals.”—–I could not agree with you more hg and cmoi.

    • About Justin Bieber, I never thought that he’ll be accepted by the urban audience. His team is doing a great job in trying to make him become the new Justin Timberlake. His new single sounds really more mature. But I just can’t take him seriously as a urban singer (no matter how many times he repeats the word swag in his song).

    • Oh my! good response HG! I feel the same way. David could have been one of the best crossover artists, if they had of worked it right. I have always thought if they took that guitar away from Cook and not purposely changed up his look, just based on the voice…yea David would have won! I stil say David niche is soul music. David could BRING IT given the right song!Taylor Hicks had that soulful side to him and he could play guitar, but then they didn’t let contestants use them. Taylor won with all his gray hair suited glory lol.Taylor was never to me at David’s level of talent, even with a guitar. I am telling ya, David had, and has, all the right factors to do it all! I wonder if he will ever be given the chance to work with the right people who know how to bring out the best in him?
      Also, I just have to say I am so tired of white boys acting like someone they are not. Bieber had a swag coach and he still has no soul, just too much confidence LOL! David just acts like David and it comes natural to him. It’s in his voice. I miss that dude already lol! It’s gonna be a long 2 yrs…

  4. now that david has got the mission thing out of his system, he can come back and the right mgt,and label will back him,they won,t have to woory about him running off to a mission, he has it all

    • of course, he’ll be backed by the right management. I heard that his dad is taking management classes online. I heard that the first lesson was about “how to manage your son without leaking personal infos about him”. The next one will be “How many skating shows your client can reasonably perform in in a year”. I can bet that in 2014, he’ll be ready to resume his job. David said he already had planned projects for after his mission…

  5. Here’s the link to Brian Mansfield’s blog from the USA Today about Jessica’s save last night. He thinks that is will help Colton Dixon win and I agree with him. Colton might be the David Cook of this season:

    I think that David will be just fine doing music when he comes back from his mission. Before he left he proved that he can mount a Christmas tour on his own with success, and he definately can go back to the Asian market. I can see him adding the Spanish market – he for sure will have the language down. Who knows what else he might try. We will see in a couple years…

    • Jessica will be alright whatever happens as she will definately get a record deal IMO. I hope that she does well with her career. I think that either Colton or Phillip will win this year. WGWG again. AI sure did screw up when they did not pick David in S7. He was so marketable and he still is. I agree that David just needs the right label and team and supports in place to have a great career.

      • There really is only one contestant on AI that I hope does not win this year. I just do not like Elise at all for some reason. Her voice is not bad but she just does not connect to me at all. Everyone I know that watches AI does not like her either but she has her fans at mjs blog.

  6. HG, I want to thank you for this insightful post. Like everyone, I’d noticed the WGWG syndrome but I hadn’t thought about it so deeply. Of the 4 winners since this situation took root, I found two of the winners painfully boring (Kris Allen and what’s his name), one painfully ordinary (Cook), and one just not my kind of music (Scotty). I have eclectic tastes in music and the mushy white bread of Idol is just further and further from anything I’d ever watch. I wish they would change the instruments rule or spawn a show just for WGWGs 😉

    • crabpot, I agree with you about all the winners. I especially glad that someone else feels the same way about Cook, painfully ordinary.

  7. Forgot to add that there was tons of buzz before season 7 about how much TPTB wanted a rocker to win. I guess they sort of got that, though mostly Cook got me to realize how bland rock had gotten since I was a youth.

  8. Astrid, Thanks for sharing that link. I am pleased David’s name is still being talked about. Seems he has handled himself well through all the attention he has garnered. I do wonder if he really knew how popular he was among his peers at the MTC.

    HG, I owe you an apology…a few posts back, you asked us to check-out one of your favorites on David’s new CD; Rainbow. I had listened to it once on Youtube, gave a not so glowing report, then a week or so later received my own Forevermore CD. I couldn’t wait to listen on my own system! Well, I can’t stop replaying ‘Rainbow’! I am reminded of Stevie and Michael, only with David’s gorgeous VOICE singing so soulful! ‘Tell me’ is my next favorite. David’s smooth vocals and notes that pierce me to my soul are front and center throughout this CD. He really has left us some beauties here!
    #DA2014 I’ll be here.

    • So, you changed your mind about Rainbow, huh? lol I like it. I just don’t love it as much as everyone else seems to. Today was all about I’ll Never Go and Reaching Out for me. Love his lower register on them. Tell Me is among my favorites also. Very pretty!

  9. Love your post HG and would love to debate the black, white issue with you. My love of “black Music” has fascinated me for years I
    can’t argue that women are at a disadvantage because most of the votes are probably placed by females who are attracted
    to males. However, I think blacks have an advantage, at least with
    me, and I am white. When i see a black singer of any gender my expectations go way up. I love the texture of the back voice and I anticipate a soulful and sensual performance.

    Did you see the lionel Richie Special tonight? Now that guy can sing!!! One of my A! favorites was Lakesha. She was raw and probably lacked formal training, but had the stuff to join that group of fabulous black female singers.

    In his book “Childhood and Society”, Erick Erickson, Postulated that the society of black children allows for preservation of sensuality. I think he was right and that this is demonstrated in the music we know and love by our black entertainers.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think we are seeing really good black performers on AI. But I’ll keep waiting.


  10. Sister Hermana Goimarac wrote that Archuleta “wears the tightest missionary pants, haha.”

    OMG!!! 😆

    That aside, I must say, as someone who is also endowed in that area of my anatomy, it is quite grating when one has to wear certain uniforms designed for folks who are NOT naturally endowed in that area.

    Poor David! 😛 I imagine the average Mormon boy isn’t all that endowed like he is, so how can his pants NOT be the tightest.

    That really made me laugh this morning! 😀

    Thanks for sharing that link, Astrid.

    CAS, while I agree that we don’t really get the best black performers on AI (well, except for Fantasia and Melinda Doolittle), I also don’t think we get the best white performers on AI either (well, except for David Archuleta!).

    If everyone is “mediocre” at best, and all things being equal, I guess the voters just pick WGWG.

    • Beside talent, on T.V. especially you need charisma – which IMHO Joshua and Jessica lack. I guess you would call it the X-Factor. David has it in spades.

    • HG, Good point! Maybe my higher expectations for the black contestants is the reason I am more disappointed when they don’t shine.


  11. Here’s another interesting blog from another middle aged Mormon man. He brings us a few concerns about David’s mission but is very positive about David:

    • I saw this grammyj and I am glad you posted it. I thought he raised some good concerns and was being realistic but was very postive about David.

      • From David’s interviews and last vlog it sounds like he wants a traditional mission like all the other young Mormon missionaries. Will he be able to have one like that? IMHO to be most effective for his church they should send him all over Chili
        singing in lot of churches (or wards or whatever they call where they worship). The other missionaries could tell their “investigators” that if they come to church David will be singing. It could be a good way to get people to come to their church, but that would not be the normal Mormon mission.

    • grammyj, that part on the blog that said that it was like a two year gym class made me laugh. Haven’t read too many of the blogs, although I’m happy he is being mentioned because it keeps his name out there. We’ll see how things turn out.

      • I thought when David went on his mission there would be less to read about him, but that hasn’t been the case yet. He even trended worldwide again last night. It sounds like he will be leaving for Chile next week so then we may not hear much about him. I don’t think he will have a missionary blog for fans to see. But at least we will have more music from David in the fall.

  12. Actually I’m hoping we hear more from David himself after he leaves MTC and gets settle in on a routine on his mission. He is taking a hiatus from his career, but he still can keep a connection with us fans. As I have said before, if he wants to return to a music career, he has to prove to the industry that he is still marketable in 2014. He needs us, he really needs us, lol.

  13. Boy, HG, you so hit the nail on the head…..nowadays I only consistently read two music type blogs – yours, because I have to keep up with David news, plus I adore the way you write, ( I knew you had to be some kind of academic right from the start), and the
    other is MJ’s, (which I read now, but stayed away from during the AI7 days, because she was such a Cook fan).

    As you probably know over on MJ’s, there was this exact topic being discussed – about how women just can’t seem to rise to the top and win this thing anymore. I wanted to respond, but I never do over there. I came up with the same conclusion as you – If they stopped allowing instruments, like they did through season 6, they could have a female winner again. I would even go so far as to say, that if instruments were not allowed, most of the seasons from 7 and up would have had a different winner, and many of them probably would have been female.

    This goes even beyond the instrument thing – the entire viewing and voting demographic has changed since the early AI days. The voting seems to go with either male country singers, or AC/HAC pop/rock singers, which happen to also favor the male gender. Anyone other than that should try a different talent reality TV show. I highly doubt that if Kelly Clarkson tried out for AI today, she would even get beyond the top 12, let alone win. What’s even more ridiculous is that, the people that have won since the inclusion of instruments, (and I’m excluding Scotty, because country music fans are in a whole separate category), have only been mildly successful. Why is this? In my opinion it is because as much as they are loved on AI for their genre of music and their so called “artistry” (oh, I so hate that word now), it’s not what is popular or sells well in the real non-AI world.

    Jessica is insanely talented. Is she my cup of tea?..not so much, but that’s a preference thing, however, I cannot deny her talent. In the early AI years she would have won hands down. More importantly, AI could, and I believe will, make so much money off of her. All these hip-hop and R&B stars are chompin at the bit to work with her. Like Charice she has the ability to be an international star.

    Well that’s my two cents for the day..LOL. AI has just become one big farce. I knew from the moment David A. lost to Cook that AI is no longer about “the voice,” but more about the WGWG who has “artistry.”

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