Pop Culture

On ‘American Idol,’ strength can be a weakness

The big news from last week's "American Idol" elimination was not the actual elimination, but the two people who were next in line to be eliminated.

Adam Lambert was all but being christened the next "American Idol" by the judges and apparently by viewers, but he ended up in the bottom two along with eventually ousted Matt Giraud. Joining them in the bottom three? Surprisingly, not Allison Iraheta, who's been among the least-popular finalists, but Kris Allen, who's been strong recently.

History shows the results shouldn't have been all that unexpected. "American Idol" punishes those who peak early, and favors those who improve throughout the competition. If you don't grow, you've got to go.

In the competition, strength is a weakness, as oxymoronic as that sounds.

The problem is that when a contestant starts strong, they establish a baseline that is difficult to improve upon. Mediocre finalists, or those who don't really stand out, have a lot of room to grow, and can end up impressing the judges and viewers more than those who did well earlier.

That was certainly true of Lil Rounds. Her final weeks on the show were a stark contrast from the strength she showed during the semifinals, when she easily found a spot in the top 12. In late March, Simon Cowell predicted a final three of Danny, Adam, and Lil. But Lil peaked too early, and had nowhere to go but down.

Since the very first season, contestants who seemed to be obvious front-runners have been sent home well before they should have been. The first season's biggest surprise came with the elimination of Tamyra Gray, and since then, the show has said goodbye to obvious front-runners such as Jennifer Hudson, Chris Daughtry, Melinda Doolittle, and Michael Johns.

That's why the judges' save rule was created this year, even though it wasn't used to prevent a shocking elimination. Matt Giraud was saved weeks ago not because his elimination was a gasp-out-loud moment, but because he was relatively strong and because the judges were running out of time to use the save.

The rule was in place because the strong sometimes leave earlier than expected thanks to fans who become complacent, and stop voting for someone they're convinced is strong. Likewise, rising stars get more attention from viewers because they seem to be coming out of nowhere. Voters may also reject the idea that they're supposed to support someone who gets universal praise.

Being a front-runner can be a handicapBut all of that adds up to a problem for finalists who start strong. How does an oustanding finalist keep improving each week? It's difficult.

Adam has generally overcome the challenge thanks to his ability to truly brand each song as his own and perform it flawlessly. But last week, he was suddenly at the bottom, almost becoming this season's first actually shocking elimination. That strong start may finally have caught up with him.

There are a lot of factors that affect a contestant, but it's definitely not helpful to appear to be a front-runner while there's still a large group of finalists.

This isn't an absolute rule, of course. Danny Gokey was an early favorite and has remained strong, although he had sort of an unmemorable streak while Adam was producing hit after hit. As last week's vote shows, though, he's back at or near the top. It may have actually helped him to have hovered slightly under the radar.

Likewise, it's helped Kris Allen to have not had high expectations placed upon him at first. The week prior to Matt Giraud's elimination, iTunes popularity rankings for recent sales of finalists' songs showed up accidentally — they're usually not displayed for the same reason the show doesn't reveal vote totals  — and revealed that Kris Allen and Adam Lambert were dominating the chart and selling the most MP3s.

Download sales numbers are not a flawless indication of someone's standing in the competition, as the vote last week proved, but that's still a surprising showing for Kris over Danny. Clearly Kris' music is resonating with viewers enough to lead them to buy it. And last week's results show they're also willing vote for him more often than they did for Adam.

Kris is now definitely the rising star, emerging as a strong contender. He's never been bad, but he also wasn't an early stand-out. That's allowed him to impress the judges and viewers even more than he would have otherwise.

Paradoxically, that strength over the past few weeks may have had the same effect that consistent strength had on Adam: fewer viewer votes due to apathy or complacency. Of course, one week at the bottom of the pack isn't an indication that all hope is lost, but nor is being the front-runner an indication that the contest is over.

Many factors influence popularity on "American Idol," and voters are finicky, virtually unknowable creatures. But time and time again, "American Idol" viewers have proven that they don't always pick up the phone for the apparently strongest singers and performers.

The conventional wisdom that Adam Lambert and Danny Gokey will end up in the final two may still hold true. But as the front-runners, like those that were surprisingly eliminated in the past, they face a challenge that Kris Allen and even Allison Iraheta do not. That makes this season anyone's game.