'Safety first' the mantra for 'Idol' this season

Once upon a time, “American Idol” forced its finalists to go outside their comfort zone. If the theme weeks didn’t take care of that, the constant browbeating of the judges was incentive enough. Better to do what Simon Cowell said than to listen to him complain every week, and if he turned out to be wrong and the audience didn’t embrace the new you, that was just a tough break.

Oh, how times have changed!

Now we get judges criticizing Phillip Phillips for daring to be too artistic and picking the wrong Dave Matthews song to cover. Though he survived last week, Elise Testone did not, in part (the judges suggested) because she picked an obscure song to sing. Play it safe, they warn their favorites. Don’t do anything too risky, or you might get sent home.

Here’s the thing: That’s great advice if the judges are looking to be strategic. It’s just bad advice if the goal is to develop the finalists, or to have a more interesting show.

“Idol” judges are far more risk-averse than they have been in the past, but they have good reason to be. The show’s voters have not rewarded contestants who go away from their strengths over the past couple of seasons.

Colton Dixon hadn’t been in the bottom three all year, but got sent off two weeks ago after his ill-advised decision to cover Lady Gaga. Jessica Sanchez can blame song selection for her week at the bottom of the charts (and credit the judges for keeping her around despite that).

It’s not just this season either. Pia Toscano a year ago got booted the only week she went away from the ballads. Meanwhile, Scotty McCreery resisted all calls to try something besides country or country rock, and emerged as the season 10 champion. The “Idol” voters have spoken, and they value comfort and stability, not contestants who stretch themselves.

'American Idol' final 2

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That makes it an easy decision for each individual finalist. If the audience is going to smack you down for trying something different, there’s no incentive to take risks. But it’s bad for the show because it makes the performances predictable and boring.

Everyone knows that Phillip, Jessica, Skylar Laine and Joshua Ledet are going to sound the same every week (Hollie Cavanagh is less predictable, but mostly because we’re wondering whether she’ll relax and sing well or tense up and do her sing-by-numbers thing). It will come down to whoever’s music best matches what’s on the audience’s iPods, which is likely Phillip judging by what has happened so far.

Nobody is ever going to criticize Skylar for singing country rock, or Joshua for picking songs that give him a lot of big notes to power through. But it’s also hard to open new eyes or gain a lot of ground that way. A great performance might inspire more dedicated texting from fans, and a bad one might see them fall asleep before voting starts, but nothing more. It's easy to tune out singers if you haven't liked them in the past, since odds are small that they are going to change this week.

In short, you don’t actually grow as an artist that way, which has been a problem over the past couple of seasons. The finalists are more polished than when they started, but not necessarily better, because they have rarely been stretched beyond what they were already good at.

And while it’s easy to blame the judges, the “Idol” voters have nobody to blame but themselves for that. Just ask Colton Dixon.

Do you think the contestants are playing it too safe? Are the judges being too conservative? Tell us on Facebook.

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