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Are ‘American Idol’ singers too similar?

No "American Idol" season has drawn as much criticism as this one, and it’s hard to deny that something about the current competition seems off.
/ Source: contributor

Any show that has been successful for as long as “American Idol” provokes regular declarations that it’s peaked and that it’s all downhill from here. No season has drawn as much criticism as this one, and it’s hard to deny that something about the current competition seems off.

Even with the exquisite musicianship of Melinda Doolittle, the old-fashioned belting of Lakisha Jones, and the intriguing, melodic-rhythmic work of Blake Lewis, there’s not a lot about this cast that’s provoking much talk. By this time last season, there was already the Soul Patrol. By this time in the season before that, Constantine Maroulis was a simultaneously loved and hated sleazeball. By this time in the second season, Clay Aiken was becoming what he is today, whether you find that heartening or frightening.

In spite of a couple of weak semifinal shows, especially among the men, the total complement of talent isn’t any lower than it’s been in the past. Chris Richardson is nothing special, but neither was Ace Young. Haley Scarnato is a bland pop singer, but so was Jasmine Trias. Even the widely ridiculed Sanjaya Malakar isn’t consistently any worse than John “Crocodile Rock” Stevens or Kevin “Part-Time Lover” Covais.

Doolittle is a more sophisticated musician than anyone who competed last season, and Lewis is both more creative and ambitious — even though not every experiment is successful — than someone like current chart monster Chris Daughtry, who threw everything into the same growl-rock blender until it emerged as a bland puree.

Even looking at the other side of the equation, this season has already shown the door to two talented musicians in Brandon Rogers and Stephanie Edwards, who certainly compare favorably to last year’s first two bootees, Covais and Melissa McGhee. It doesn’t seem like the problem is that the singers are worse than ever, so what’s the problem?

The best guy in a college a cappella groupThe most likely explanation is a divide in the talent that’s much too obvious. There are Melinda, Lakisha, Blake, and perhaps Jordin Sparks, and then there is an entire field that simply is not nearly as good.

Chris Richardson, Gina Glocksen, Scarnato, Phil Stacey, Malakar — these people are utterly outclassed, which means that one of two things will happen. The first is that the four talented ones will be the final four standing, which means we are about to see six uneventful departures in no particularly important order. The second is that one or more of them will be prematurely knocked out, which will only be disheartening and fuel the constant conspiracy theories that plague the show.

Really, who cares whether Phil Stacey goes home before Chris Richardson or the other way around? They’re both just about good enough to be the best guy in a college a cappella group, and no better. Does earnest but outgunned rock chick Glocksen go home before earnest but outgunned perky chick Scarnato? Now that all the singers who remain will make the tour (which generally takes the top ten contestants), it looks like six weeks of tapping your foot and looking at your watch, waiting to get to what matters.

In past seasons, producers did a better job of balancing the talent so that it wasn’t just an excellent group and a lousy group; it was a clash of styles. The interest came from which style would prevail. Taylor Hicks versus Katharine McPhee versus Elliott Yamin versus Chris Daughtry was largely a matter of what you like. They all had roughly comparable levels of talent at doing very different things: the bluesy bar-band singer with the weird tics; the pretty, stage-mothered warbler with the unsettling tendency to remind everyone of the most annoying girl in a high school theater production; the lovable soul-singing white kid who desperately wants to be Donny Hathaway; the guy who works at the Best Buy who brings down the karaoke bar doing Bon Jovi.

Here, as dangerous as it is to get into the business of lumping black women singers as if they automatically have the same appeal, Doolittle, Jones, and Sparks really do represent (outstanding) variations on a similar, big-voiced theme, stylistically speaking. Doolittle and Jones have been by far the most broadly praised contestants of the season, so their virtues are the best known.

Sparks played into her youth with a couple of treacly numbers from kids’ movies — one from “Mulan” and one from “The Land Before Time” — but she blasted her way out of that theme-park schmaltz with a goosebump-raising performance of “I Who Have Nothing” during British Invasion week. She’s now playing in the same big-lunged field as Doolittle, and she’s probably singing better right now than Jones, the early favorite who has seemed less exciting by the week as she repeatedly performs iconic songs in precisely the way icons performed them.

So while there’s plenty of good singing, there isn’t a healthy competition between a good variety of types. What’s also missing is a realistic possibility of any of the favorites really tanking. Not only is there a yawning chasm between these four performers and everyone else in terms of talent, but there’s one in terms of consistency, too, and that hasn’t always been the case.

Taylor Hicks may have been a favorite from the start, but he was unpredictable, and he certainly seemed capable of making an enormous misstep on any given night. Katharine McPhee’s style carried such a strong odor of cheese that any performance could easily cross the line into low-grade karaoke, no matter how much pure vocal ability she possessed.

It simply doesn’t seem likely that Doolittle is going to walk out on stage and suddenly be bad. It doesn’t feel suspenseful when she walks out on stage, because you know what’s going to happen.

Right now, the same is true of Sparks, and to a lesser degree, of Jones and Lewis. You know what you’re going to get. Simon Cowell may accuse Jones of seeming “old” on this night or that, or the judges may think one of Lewis’s experimental arrangements was a little too experimental. But this upper tier of contestants is not just good but dependably good. They seem highly unlikely to crash, which further detracts from the interest in following the competition week to week.

It’s ironic that by bringing to the show a top group of singers who are remarkably consistent and talented, the show has shot itself in the foot a little. But it has entered a phase that feels flat, in part because every week you tune in, and every week the same people are good. Some performers, particularly Richardson and Stacey, are better in some weeks than other weeks, but they’re always far off the lead.

In the end, it isn’t that this season’s top ten are bad, as it seemed like it might be early on, and it isn’t that they’re too good, exactly. It’s that it doesn’t feel like every contestant does the same death-defying stunt of risking elimination every week. If the six apparently doomed performers meet their appropriate fate, there’s no suspense, and if they don’t, there’s no justice. Who knew this show relied on either?

Linda Holmes is a writer in Bloomington, Minn.