America is speaking loud and clear. They are calling and text-messaging every week, and what they are saying is that when it comes to the next 'American Idol', teenagers need not apply.
Jessica Sierra was the latest youngster to fall on Wednesday, becoming the third of the 12 finalists to be shown the door. The 19-year-old follows 17-year-old Mikalah Gordon to the exit, leaving Anthony Fedorov as the only teen left in the competition. Since Fedorov's already been in the bottom three once (though he avoided it this week, with Nadia Turner and Anwar Robinson getting the last-minute reprieves instead), it appears unlikely that last season's triumph of 19-year-old Fantasia Barrino indicates any sort of a trend among 'Idol' voters.
When the show's producers made the decision to raise the age limit to 28 for contestants this season, they tapped into a voter base that was sick of the high-school talent-show nature of the early stages of previous competitions. In particular, last season saw finalists like Jasmine Trias, John Stevens, Camile Velasco and Leah LaBelle. All were teenagers and all had their fan bases, but none were ready for this kind of a challenge.
The result was a real lack of drama early in the competition, since more than half of the performers didn't come close to showing they had what it takes to win a competition like this one.
Sure, Fantasia won as a 19-year-old, and 16-year-old Diana DeGarmo came in second. It's not that all the teenagers were mediocre. But did we really need so many of them?
Clearly, the 'Idol' folks decided that the answer was no, that while having a few talented youngsters was perfectly fine, some actual adults would also be appreciated. Thus far, the voters have agreed.
Four of the original 12 finalists were 28 or 29; all four are still in the competition. Four of the finalists were 20 or younger, but three of the four are gone, with Lindsey Cardinale joining Gordon among the unlucky.
Fedorov is left to carry the banner for the teenagers, and given his struggles and the lack of praise from the judges – as well as the lack of love from the Clay Aiken fans of two years ago — he's always a threat to be shown the door.
Does that mean that the rest of the youngsters can go ahead and pack it in, thankful for the chance to appear on national television before heading back to their junior year of college?
Of course not. Carrie Underwood remains one of the favorites to win the whole thing. She's one of only three women left, but at this point that probably helps her because it makes her stand out that much more.
The same holds true for Vonzell Solomon, who seems to win more fans and more praise every week.
Underwood, Solomon and Nikko Smith have gotten as much praise as anyone over the past few weeks, and none of them are older than 22.
Moreover, a few thousand votes either way, and Nadia Turner or Anwar Robinson might have gotten the ax; Turner was in the bottom three for the second time already this season, while Robinson was left standing with Sierra until the final announcement.
Vital importance of consistency
But whether it's that additional year or two of experience or simply a different level of talent, all of the above seem to be a lot better at maintaining a consistent level of performance from week to week. In fact, what likely saved both Turner and Robinson is that consistency.
Turner has lost her status as a contender somehow, but she still brings a ton of talent every week and has one of the best stage presences of anyone. And well she should — it's not like she hasn't performed before, she's in a rock/soul/Christian band back in Florida.
Robinson hasn't been as strong, and the judges finally called him on his tendency to make up for uneven performances with strong finishes after his rendition of "I Believe I Can Fly" this week. But as far as vocalists go, he's been one of the best.
Sierra has been one of the best pure vocalists among the women, but has also been less steady than the rest. While Robinson has been about the same every week, Sierra's either been one of the best — as she was two weeks ago — or eminently forgettable, as she was this week. Her top performances were enough to get her through, but not enough to develop a fan base to keep her around when times were tough.
Her exit didn't please the judges, making this perhaps the first time all season that the Randy Jackson-Paula Abdul-Simon Cowell troika had cause to be unhappy. When faced with the bottom two of Robinson and Sierra, Randy Jackson felt compelled to remind the audience that "this is a singing competition, and those are two of the better voices up there."
Paula Abdul had more advice, admonishing viewers to keep calling for the people that they like. But as any high-school teacher knows, it's not like teenagers don't have cell phones. They, like everyone else, seem to be looking for a little more maturity in their contestants this time around.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.