Adding Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler to the judging panel and Jimmy Iovine as the in-house mentor has done more than increase “American Idol’s” positivity. It’s also led to a noticeable change in philosophy about what an “Idol” champion should look and sound like.
In previous seasons, “Idol” has emphasized the need to find someone who fits in with the modern pop-radio sound. For all of Simon Cowell’s sound bite indicating “this is a singing competition,” the vast majority of the finalists over the first nine seasons sounded an awful lot like what’s already on the radio. Salability was at least as important as raw talent.
Finalists who did not have a conventional sound were usually placed in a comfortable box to let the audience know that they weren’t really that unique. For example, Crystal Bowersox may have looked and sounded like someone you might see busking for spare change in the subway station, and Simon praised that about her early in the competition. But by the end she was compared to Melissa Etheridge enough times that her individuality was less of a factor. It wasn’t just that she was talented, but that she was talented in a way that would sell records. Both factors were equally important.
Season 10 has gone in a different direction. Instead of a bunch of one-size-fits-most singers designed to appeal to the widest swath of the general audience, “Idol” selected a host of genre singers and non-traditional voices. And while there are attempts to gently bring them back to the realm of modern radio — Haley Reinhart is sort of like Adele! — even that doesn’t work for singers like Casey Abrams’ jazz-fused tracks, or James Durbin’s attempts to revive the metal craze.
The judges made that attitude explicit a couple of weeks ago, noting the great thing about this season is that a non-traditional performer could wind up winning. It’s a refreshing change from the cookie-cutter mentality that has seen the last three champions go from David Cook to Kris Allen to Lee DeWyze, successively weaker versions of the same style. And it’s a show of faith in the public that it would support someone a little different even after the competition ends.
It’s also a risk.
There’s little doubt that this was a calculated decision on the part of the “Idol” decision-makers, further fueled by the early audience voting. Apart from Stefano Langone, none of the men in the semifinals were anywhere close to the past three winners, and even Langone is a stretch.
Uniqueness was the buzzword, whether it was the deep country baritone of Scotty McCreery, the gospel sounds of Jacob Lusk or the ... well, whatever Paul McDonald could be compared to. The women had their share of unique voices as well. There hasn't been anyone like Naima Adedapo before, and the lowering of the age limit brought new voices with Lauren Alaina and Thia Megia.
That might be because it’s been a long time since “Idol” produced a buzzworthy champion. Carrie Underwood in season four was the last winner to go on to superstardom. Some of the subsequent winners have done better than others, but with the talent level dropping over the past couple of years, it was a natural decision for “Idol” to look in a different direction.
But there’s a lot riding on that, and on this season’s winner. The stakes for "Idol" are higher now because Simon is throwing the gauntlet down when "The X-Factor" debuts on Fox this gall. It not only has a higher top prize of $5 million, it also may reunite Simon with his ex-"Idol" partner and genially entertaining/unpredictable/nutty co-star Paula Abdul.
So while nobody is proclaiming that "Idol" is preparing to go to the mattresses to defend its turf, it would be a much less tense fall for all associated with the show if it has a top-selling season 10 champion to showcase.
Would Casey Abrams have been that kind of champion had he not been eliminated? Maybe, since based on pure talent and musical versatility there haven't been many better contestants to take the "Idol" stage. But it might not happen quickly, since in business terms "Idol" would be looking for him to carve out a new market among Top 40 radio fans instead of neatly fitting into an existing niche.
Durbin would be slightly easier, in part because he's enough like Adam Lambert that there's some familiarity with how he might succeed as a commercial artist. But Durbin is a lot more into metal than Lambert was, and he's another guy who may have a hard time turning his talent and popularity into an immediate hit single.
Lusk would have a similar issue based on his R&B stylings, though based on his trips to the bottom three in recent weeks, he's got a lot of ground to make up. Indeed, it's the youngest of the men who might have the most immediate sales potential, albeit in a genre that hasn't taken a man to the title in the past. McCreery is so comfortable in his country music lane that he will not leave it even after being prodded by Iovine, so it's very easy to see what kind of album he'd be releasing.
Either of the two women could likely find something to record that would sell quickly. Though Reinhart remains a longshot, she could either go the country route or release something that falls into the Adele Lite category.
Lauren Alaina would probably be the easiest of any of the remaining finalists to sell. She has been compared to Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson, arguably the two most successful winners ever. Moreover, she hasn’t yet been in the bottom three, a good sign considering the judges all feel she still hasn’t reached her potential.
If she wins, the pressure will be on her to hit that mark sooner rather than later. Though talent may be the buzzword of season 10, translating that into stardom will be critical in helping "Idol" overcome the x-factor of a Simon Cowell challenge.
Craig Berman is a TODAY.com's "American Idol" correspondent. Follow him on Twitter as he live tweets each episode.