Pop Culture

'American Idol' is giving its girls the edge

Michael Becker / FOX / Today
"American Idol's" female finalists, from left, Candice, Amber, Angie, Kree and Janelle.

Opinion: Girls, girls, girls! “American Idol” has been hyping its ladies this season since the first auditions. The show's message to the audience is clear: It’s time to end the stranglehold that the men have had on the competition.

But as the final 10 prepare to start the sprint to the finish line, it’s evident that all of the hype around the women is not all the show has done to boost things for them this time around.

It’s hard to blame "Idol." For five years in a row, confetti has rained down on a white guy with a guitar during the finale. No woman has won since Jordin Sparks in season six, and only three times in the last five years has a woman even made the final two.

Season 11 champion Phillip Phillips has nothing to apologize for, as it’s hard to go three minutes without hearing “Home” on the radio or in an HGTV promo. But though Jessica Sanchez's fanbase was loud a year ago, he was the predictable choice to win. Same with Scotty McCreery over Lauren Alaina the year before. As for the Lee Dewyze-Crystal Bowersox debacle, the less said about that season, the better.

You might say that “Idol” should give the people what they want, but any competition gets boring when the winner can be predicted so easily. And spending big money on high-profile judges with funky hair and/or chest tattoos only gets you so far.

Giving the girls the edge

Let’s start with a few assumptions. The “Idol” folks aren’t going to ignore the popular vote in their results. The cost of having a guy win again are far less than the tremendous blow that would be caused by any scandal suggesting the results were rigged.

I’ll even stipulate that the judges will call it like they see it: If they think the girls are terrible and the guys are great, they’ll say so. I’m not one of those people who thinks executive producer Nigel Lythgoe is whispering in their ears and telling them what to say, although it is funny to think of him uttering Nicki Minaj’s dialogue every week.

But what the judges say is not the only way to influence the outcome.

If “Idol” fans are going to choose a guy for the sixth year in a row, they’re going to have to get out of their comfort zone to do it. One way to make sure the winner looks and sounds different than the previous five is to make sure that there are no such candidates to vote for.

There was only one singer among the final 10 guys who resembles the past five winners even superficially: Paul Jolley. Even he needed a Jimmy Iovine “tiebreaker” vote to get that far.

Among the other men in the finals, Curtis Finch Jr. has a big voice, but his background is as a church singer, and church singers tend to fall short of the mark on "Idol." Lazaro Arbos and Devin Velez are both unpolished and would have to grow a lot to be true contenders.

For all of Nicki's gushing about Devin’s ability to sing in both English and Spanish, Jorge Nunez went out the first week of the season eight finals, and Karen Rodriguez lasted just one week longer in season 10. The freshman judge may think those skills are marketable, but so far, fans haven’t made them popular.

Burnell Taylor is the wild card. He’s a good story and has a big voice, but he’s also 19. Scotty McCreery is the only teenage boy to win “Idol” so far, and he and season seven runner-up David Archuleta are the only two to even make the finale.

Bottom line is that unless one of the five unexpectedly both catches fire and breaks out a musical instrument every week, we’ll have a different sort of “Idol” winner this season. And to have a chance, the guys would have to soar past five women who look both more talented and better prepared.

Winning women

Of course, there’s a second way to make sure a woman wins “American Idol.” It’s a wacky strategy, one that hasn’t been tried much in recent memory. It’s called “picking talented women who sing popular music.”

The word of the year for the judges has been “marketable,” but another key one is “relevant.” All five women have radio-ready voices and a style that doesn’t require much imagination to see succeeding at the professional level.

Janelle Arthur and Kree Harrison are country singers. Country girls tend to do well when they make it this far. Carrie Underwood won season four. A really unpolished Kellie Pickler was one of the stars of season five. A really, really unpolished Lauren Alaina came in second place two years ago. So the path to success for both Janelle and Kree is there.

Candice Glover has a huge voice, as does the surprising Amber Holcomb. It’s not hard to see a scenario where either or both lasts until May.

Angie Miller, meanwhile, is poised and polished beyond her 18 years. She doesn’t sound like any former winner, but she combines artistry and vocal talent in a way that makes viewers feel, as Keith Urban said last week, that she’s ready to be a star now and only needed the break that “Idol” provides.”

Watching the finalists perform their victory songs last Thursday was like watching two separate competitions. The boys went first, and the nerves brought out their weaknesses. None sounded particularly polished. When the women followed, it was as if they had been practicing their numbers for weeks. They looked and sounded ready for prime time.

The show's strategy is clear: To ensure a woman wins this year, give people better women and worse men to vote for.

And if we see theme weeks like “Carrie Underwood songs,” we’ll know for sure.

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