Pop Culture

Vegas show should be a good bet for 'Idol'

Season 10 of “American Idol” was supposed to do away with a lot of the gimmicks that have characterized the show’s previous nine seasons. One tradition that was expected to be de-emphasized was the theme weeks, in which contestants have to sing songs from an assigned artist or genre regardless of how well it fits their musical talents (or in some cases, the lack thereof).

The change makes sense for a lot of reasons. Notably, it reduces the risk that top contenders will get voted out early just because their voices didn’t lend themselves to Broadway show tunes or 1950s standards.

For some reason, the “Idol” theme weeks tend to be about songs not heard on contemporary radio. It's a curious choice at the best of times for a show designed to produce a modern pop star, and it’s possible that a potential hitmaker or two has suffered a premature exit because they can’t sing the music of whichever star has something to promote that week. Fewer theme weeks also keeps the audience from suffering through performances by singers who are clearly uncomfortable and overmatched by the selection.

Perhaps these themes will go away once the semifinals start and Universal Music executive Jimmy Iovine gets his hands on the remaining 24 singers. But in the meantime, we’re getting one before the audition phase is even over.

However, the way things have gone over the past few seasons and with the proliferation of teenagers among the remaining hopefuls, the timing of this particular gimmick may not be a bad thing.

The songbook of choice for Wednesday’s episode is the Beatles, and the remaining 60 contestants made the trip to Vegas for a casino performance. We’ll see highlights and lowlights of that night, and also witness the judges cut the field from 60 to 40. Odds are very good that some of the eliminated singers will be those overwhelmed by the Beatles catalog or the bigger stage.

In a way, it’s an appropriate final performance for the auditioners, and a better fit now than when the competition actually starts. What better way to prepare for being on the show than in some group performances in a product placement extravaganza for a casino?

A bunch of teenagers, wannabe rockers and the occasional emotional time bomb will test their ability to memorize and perform the Fab Four's songs on the Mirage stage where Cirque du Soleil usually performs its Beatles-themed show, "Love." Based on last week’s episode, this challenge is bad news for Scottie McCreery, who messed up the lyrics in his previous performance.

The move to a different city and the chore of learning a song and stage routine will put everyone under tremendous pressure. There’s already a lot of stress on everyone in Hollywood, but once the live performances start, there is a different kind of pressure that some have had a hard time handling. That tends to lead to some uncomfortable semifinal heats with a few who look like they're in way over their heads when asked to pick up the microphone.

That makes Vegas a particularly high-stakes night for the teenagers, on which "Idol" has bet so much. Lowering the age limit to 15 for this season and spending so much airtime on those teenagers thus far makes it clear that "Idol" is chasing the Justin Bieber vibe. That puts the show in the same boat as, well, everyone.

Obviously, if the competition does come up with a new Bieber, that’s a huge boost to the "Idol" franchise. But there are two dangers to going younger: Chasing the Disney Channel audience could drive away older viewers, and picking unprepared teenagers could make this look more like "American High School Talent Show." So while getting a few kids to make the finals would be a good thing, it could wind up being a terrible move if they are the wrong ones.

So far, teens have been better than expected. Of course, that opinion is based totally on the footage “Idol” has shown.

The ones remaining in the competition certainly can’t complain about the editing of their performances — Jacee Badeaux in particular was the most sympathetic character of group night. As far as we know, Lauren Alaina and Thia Megia croak like frogs 90 percent of the time they are onstage, but we are seeing only the 10 percent when they shine. That crutch ends next week, when the semifinals start. We'll see the singers perform an entire song, and it’ll all be in the hands of the viewers.

So one interesting factor to note in Vegas is whether the younger singers are subjected to increased scrutiny from the judges. If the hopefuls are too young to handle the heat right now, this is the time to find out.

If Beatles week gives the judges a sense of who can handle the bright lights of the live performances, the show will benefit with a stronger group of semifinalists. And that had better happen, lest our ears suffer in vain through an evening of “Idol” wannabes wailing away on the Lennon-McCartney songbook.

Craig Berman is a writer in Washington. Follow him , where he live tweets each "Idol" show. Want to get the latest Entertainment news? Follow TODAYshow.com Entertainment .

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