'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.

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    'American Idol' final 2

    Who's your pick to win the crown this year?

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    Last two standing -

    The final two "American Idol" contestants are Phillip Phillips and Jessica Sanchez.

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    Down to the wire -

    Remaining "American Idol" contestants Jessica Sanchez and Phillip Phillips wish the best for eliminated contestant Joshua Ledet at "American Idol's" Thursday, May 17, show in Hollywood, Calif.

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    So long, farewell -

    The audience voted to say goodbye to Joshua Ledet, who sadly said goodbye to judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler at "American Idol's" Thursday, May 17, show in Hollywood, Calif.

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    Get the point -

    Former "American Idol" runner-up Adam Lambert performs his new song, "Never Close Our Eyes," onstage at the Thursday, May 17 show.

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    Heads bowed -

    Contestants Jessica Sanchez, Joshua Ledet and Phillip Phillips and host Ryan Seacrest take the stage to hear their fate on "American Idol's" Thursday, May 17, show.

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    Shake, rattle and roll -

    Lisa Marie Presley, daughter of Elvis Presley, took to the stage in with a Gothic ensemble on "American Idol's" Thursday, May 17 show.

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    Only three remain -

    The top three contestants from season 11 of "American Idol" are (from left to right) Phillip Phillips, Jessica Sanchez and Joshua Ledet.

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    One last time -

    Eliminated contestant Hollie Cavanagh sings one last song on May 10 before leaving the competition behind.

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    How it's done -

    Season-seven winner David Cook takes the stage and shows the top four contestants his winning ways.

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    Safe -

    "Idol" hopeful Phillip Phillips breathes a sigh of relief as he he learns he's safe, but Hollie Cavanagh doesn't have as much luck.

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    The moment of truth -

    Contestants Phillip Phillips, Joshua Ledet and Hollie Cavanagh wait for "Idol" host Ryan Seacrest to tell them who's going home on May 10's top 4-to-3 show.

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    Down to four -

    The top four contestants from season 11 of "American Idol" are (from left to right) Phillip Phillips, Hollie Cavanagh, Joshua Ledet and Jessica Sanchez.

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    So long song -

    Eliminated contestant Skylar Laine performs her final song on the "American Idol" stage on May 3.

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    Hot and cold -

    Chris Martin of Coldplay delivers a hot performance on the "American Idol" stage on the May 3.

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    Moment of truth -

    Jessica Sanchez stands beside Skylar Laine as "American Idol" host Ryan Seacrest shares the results on May 3.

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    The experts -

    Judges Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson get ready for a night of song and sadness for one eliminated player on "American Idol."

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    Carrie Underwood -

    Country star and "American Idol" season four champ Carrie Underwood takes the stage before the top four singers are revealed on May 3.

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    Your final five -

    Still standing after the Thursday, April 26 elimination show (from left): Phillip Phillips, Hollie Cavanagh, Joshua Ledet, Skylar Laine and Jessica Sanchez.

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    Katy Perry -

    Pop star Katy Perry performs "Part of Me" during the April 26 episode of "American Idol."

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    Going home -

    Hollie Cavanagh, left, gives Elise Testone a hug after Testone was eliminated from the competition on Thursday, April 26.

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    Killer Queen -

    Musicians Brian May and Roger Taylor of Queen perform with Queen Estravaganza onstage at "American Idol" on Thursday, April 26. The contestants from the show performed Queen songs during this week's competition.

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    Support -

    Contestants Skylar Laine, Jessica Sanchez, Joshua Ledet, and Phillip Phillips offer some moral support to Hollie Cavanagh and Elise Testone when the pair landed in the bottom two on Thursday, April 26.

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    Six shoot for top -

    The final 6 contestants on "American Idol," from left, Jessica Sanchez, Skylar Laine, Phillip Phillips, Elise Testone, Joshua Ledet and Hollie Cavanagh.

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    Shocking cut -

    Eliminated contestant Colton Dixon, right, gets a hug on the Thursday, April 19, episode of "Idol." “I apologize. I wasn’t myself last night, and I get it,” Dixon said before getting on his knees to sing the first part of his exit song.

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    Plenty to laugh about -

    LMFAO performs on "American Idol" on Thursday, April 19. TODAY.com's Craig Berman calls the band's live performance the worst from a guest act in show history.

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    The ladies are safe -

    Elise Testone, left, and Hollie Cavanagh joined Dixon in the bottom three on Thursday. The result seemed especially shocking to Elise, who told Ryan Seacrest that she thought it would be her going home since the judges were mean to her Wednesday.

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    Super seven -

    The top 7 on "American Idol" are (from left) Holly Cavanaugh, Josh Ledet, Colton Dixon, Jessica Sanchez, Elise Testone, Phillip Phillips and Skylar Laine.

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    Saved! -

    Jessica Sanchez is saved on by judges Randy Jackson, Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez on Thursday, April 12.

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    Super pairing -

    Former "Idol" contestant Jennifer Hudson, center, and Ne-Yo, left, perform on the elimination show on Thursday, April 12.

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    Awaiting the news -

    The Bottom 3 (from left), Josh Ledet, Elise Testone and Jessica Sanchez, await their fate as Ryan Seacrest looks on.

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    The lucky 7 -

    The top seven contestants of season 11 of "American Idol" are, from left to right, Hollie Cavanagh, Colton Dixon, Jessica Sanchez, Skylar Laine, Phillip Phillips, Joshua Ledet and Elise Testone.

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    Sorry, baby -

    Eliminated contestant DeAndre Brackensick gets a hug from judge Jennifer Lopez, who voted to use the judges' save on the 17-year-old singer. Randy Jackson and Steven Tyler disagreed, even though they gave the singer high praise for his peformance on April 4.

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    In the bottom -

    Host Ryan Seacrest talks to the bottom three contestants, Elise Testone, Hollie Cavanagh and DeAndre Brackensick, on April 5.

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    The Wanted -

    British and Irish boy band The Wanted performs on "American Idol" on April 5.

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    The great 8 -

    The final eight contestants on season 11 of "American Idol," clockwise from left, Skylar Laine, Phillip Phillips, Colton Dixon, DeAndre Brackensick, Elise Testone, Jessica Sanchez, Hollie Cavanagh and Joshua Ledet.

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    A hug for Heejun -

    Heejun Han is eliminated on "American Idol" on Thursday, March 29. TODAY.com's Craig Berman writes: After weeks of getting not-so-subtle hints that he should cut back on the jokes, culminating with Steven Tyler’s less-veiled swipe a week ago, Han cut out the act and did a straight-up performance of Donny Hathaway's “A Song for You.” It was sweetly done and earned him a standing ovation.

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    Otherworldly -

    Nicki Minaj performed her latest hit, "Starships," on "American Idol" on Thursday, March 29.

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    Scotty, beaming -

    Former "Idol" champion Scotty McCreery performs his latest single, "Water Tower Town," on the Thursday, March 29, show. The singer was also presented with a platinum record for his debt album, "Clear As Day."

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    Meeting his idol -

    Singer Eric Benet surprised contestant DeAndre Brackensick on the Thursday show. Brackensick performed "Sometimes I Cry" and Benet told his, "You have a beautiful, unique tone."

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    Down to 9 -

    The final nine contestants on "American Idol" are, clockwise from top left, Colton Dixon, Elise Testone, Phillip Phillips, Heejun Han, DeAndre Brackensick, Josh Ledet, Hollie Cavanaugh, Skylar Laine and Jessica Sanchez.

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    Hug it out -

    Erika Van Pelt learns she's been eliminated on the Thursday, March 22 episode of "American Idol."

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    Big day -

    Aerosmith's Joe Perry takes the stage to play "Happy Birthday" to judge Steven Tyler.

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    Name calling -

    Host Ryan Seacrest, right, reveals that Erika Van Pelt is in danger as Heejun Han, left, and DeAndre Brackensick learn they are safe.

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    'Believe' -

    Van Pelt gets one last chance on "American Idol" on Thursday, March 22, singing "I Believe in You and Me."

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    Top 10 countdown -

    The final 10 contestants on "American Idol," from left, Phillip Phillips, Elise Testone, DeAndre Brackensick, Hollie Cavanaugh, Colton Dixon, Skylar Laine, Heejun Han, Jessica Sanchez, Josh Ledet and Erika Van Pelt. Jermaine Jones was eliminated from the show after his criminal record surfaced.

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    Head lines -

    Former "Idol" contestant Chris Daughtry, who came in fourth in the competition's fifth season, performs on his old stomping grounds and sings "Outta My Head" on Thursday, March 15.

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    Good night, good luck -

    Shannon Magrane, left, waves farewell to her fans after being eliminated from the show.

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    Bad news -

    Shannon Magrane, center, with Erika Van Pelt, hears from Seacrest that she has been eliminated from the competition.

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    Breaking in -

    Demi Lovato rocked out on the "Idol" stage, singing "Give Your Heart a Break" on Thursday, March 15.

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    The Wonder of it all -

    The top 13 perform Stevie Wonder's "As" to open the results show on Thursday, March 8.

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    Mary J. Blige -

    Mary J. Blige, who served as a mentor this week, took to the stage on Thursday, March 8, to perform "Why."

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    Alive for another week -

    Elise Testone clutches onto Jeremy Rosado after learning from Seacrest that she will remain in the competition for another week.

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    Say goodbye -

    Jeremy Rosado bids adieu to the fans after the judges told him that he had been eliminated from the competition.

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    And then there were 12 -

    The Top 12 are (clockwise from top right): Elise Testone, Heejun Han, Jessica Sanchez, Hollie Cavanagh, Skylar Laine, DeAndre Brackensick, Erika Van Pelt, Jermaine Jones, Colton Dixon, Shannon Magrane, Joshua Ledet and Phillip Phillips.

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    Colton Dixon -

    Colton Dixon, 20, hails from Murfreesboro, Tenn.

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    Deandre Brackensick -

    Deandre Brackensick, 17, is from San Jose, Calif.

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    Elise Testone -

    Elise Testone, 28, is from Charleston, SC.

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    Erika Van Pelt -

    Erika Van Pelt, 26, hails from S. Kingston, RI.

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    Heejun Han -

    Heejun Han, 22, is from Flushing, NY.

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    Hollie Cavanagh -

    Hollie Cavanagh, 18, is from McKinney, Tex.

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    Jeremy Rosado -

    Jeremy Rosado, 19, is from Valrico, Fla.

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    Jermaine Jones -

    Jermaine Jones, 25, is from Pine Hill, NJ. He was let go from the show when producers discovered he had a criminal record, and outstanding warrants.

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    Jessica Sanchez -

    Jessica Sanchez, 16, is from San Diego, Calif.

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    Joshua Ledet -

    Joshua Ledet, 19, is from Westlake, La.

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    Phillip Phillips -

    Phillip Phillips, 21, is from Leesburg, Ga.

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    Shannon Magrane -

    Shannon Magrane, 16, is from Tampa, Fla.

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    Skylar Laine -

    Skylar Laine, 18, is from Bradon, Miss.

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    Lucky 13 -

    "American Idol's" final 13 are, clockwise from top center: Jermaine Jones, Erika Van Pelt, Jeremy Rosado, Skylar Laine, Jessica Sanchez, Deandre Brackensick, Hollie Cavanagh, Shannon Magrane, Colton Dixon, Heejun Han, Joshua Ledet, Elise Testone and Phillip Phillips

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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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