In addition to harping on pitch problems and song selection, one theme coming from the judges stand this year has been the importance of "knowing who you are." This doesn't mean that contestants need to come onstage with nametags, but rather a request that they sing songs that fit their strengths and style.
But more often than in the past, what the judges are dinging the offenders for isn't not being true to themselves, but not being true to who the judges think they should be. Particularly since the contestants have generally performed better than previous groups, judges seem to be basing their criticisms on the failure to meet their expectations, as much as the performance itself.
Take Mikalah Gordon, a frequent target of the judges' disdain who on Thursday became the second finalist eliminated.
When she was onstage bantering with Ryan and the troika, she was sassy as they come. Though the judges were clearly rooting for her during the semifinals, she's gotten dinged every week for not singing with that same verve, and she probably should have. The judges were looking for her to sing like someone young and fun, like any of the million teenaged girls who sell records, and clearly the voters were as well.
But that's not who she is. When the music plays, she really is more Barbra Streisand wanna-be than teen pop star. That's why she picked the type of songs she picked. And the viewers voted her off on Wednesday not because she stinks, but because not very many people call up Top-40 stations and request "The Way We Were."
But Gordon wasn't the only one who was a victim of failed expectations. Each of the other contestants who filled out the bottom three were there not because of poor performances, but because they didn't meet the judges — and specifically Simon's — expectations.
Simon saysLike, say, Anthony Fedorov. He's the closest performer this season has to Clay Aiken, and Simon in particular seems to think Fedorov should break out the Barry Manilow and the ballads every week. But clearly, that's not who Fedorov is trying to be. The Aikenesque stature and his feel-good medical story might have helped him get to the final 12, but now that he's here he's looking to be more of the traditional heartthrob who makes the ladies swoon in the aisles.
However, every time Fedorov tries to be a rock star, Simon seems to wonder why he isn't trying to woo the Clay Aiken fanbase instead of girls closer to his age.
A couple of weeks ago, Simon essentially said Fedorov had no business trying to pull off a Mark Anthony song. This week, Simon got two chances to comment, and the second night's show may have been particularly damaging since he said Fedorov's act was a sexy as a shirtless Randy Jackson (note to Simon: Please, for the love of all things sacred, no more disturbing visuals right when most of the audience is still trying to digest dinner). Lo and behold, Fedorov wound up in the bottom three.
Not for long though. He was sitting in the first row of seats, was the last of the three called up on stage, and was sent back to safety without even having to stand through a commercial break.
Was it the song or the hairdo?Nadia Turner wasn't so lucky. What she may be wondering — and what conspiracy theorists are undoubtedly asking about — is whether her hairstyle and her Mario Vazquez comment wound up counting for more than her performance.
Turner came out in a Mohawk to sing "Time After Time," and while it wasn't as good as some of her earlier performances it was certainly among the top half. But it was curious that right after she said the hairdo was a tribute to the departed Mario Vazquez, Simon — whose day job is as a music executive for the company that produces the winner's album, and therefore can't be happy that Vazquez dropped out and may be looking for a better deal — called the performance "even worse the second time around" and predicted an early exit if there wasn't substantial improvement.
It's especially curious considering that a week ago, Simon said of Turner: "In a competition full of hamburgers, you are a steak." Has anyone ever gone from the penthouse to the outhouse quite that fast?
Ryan Seacrest commented before the loser was revealed that Turner had previously said she had no regrets about her performance. As she faced elimination, Turner said "I just did me. And that's all I can be." And really, Turner has been nothing if not eclectic, as one might expect from someone who's in a group that she describes as a "Rock Soul Christian Band" on her "Idol" biography.
It's hard to imagine Turner playing it safe the rest of the way, even if being herself nearly got her voted off the show. But she at least should probably avoid mentioning Mario Vazquez's name from here on out.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.