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Blame ‘Idol’s’ ratings slide on bad song choices

There are probably a lot of factors behind the impending fall of the house of "Idol." But for a show built around music, the nagging question is: What the hell is going on with the songs?
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

It's been an odd spectacle, to say the least. The seventh season of "American Idol" has, predictably, forced its way to ratings domination, bulldozing anything foolish enough to wander into its path. Resting comfortably atop the ratings heap, it continues to generate controversy — Carly Smithson already had a record deal! David Cook is just copying other bands' arrangements! — and maintain its water-cooler bona fides.

And yet, there's been constant talk lately about how "Idol" is in decline. Ratings are down, both overall and in several of its key demographics, such as women ages 18 to 34, about 20 percent of whom have fled. For a show whose existence is predicated on its unstoppability, the appearance of cracks in its façade might as well herald the death of the entire enterprise.

There are probably a lot of factors behind what's being simultaneously lamented and hailed as the impending fall of the house of "Idol." Even FOX executives and the show's producers admit that part of the blame might lie on the shoulders of the nebulous "show fatigue."

But for a show built around music, a nagging question has been slowly moving from the backs of viewers' heads to the tips of their tongues, and it's simple enough to articulate: What the hell is going on with the songs?

Greatest hits of the '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s Quick: What do Dolly Parton's "Travelin' Thru," Fantasia's "I Believe," Martina McBride's "Anyway" and Our Lady Peace's "Innocent" have in common? The obvious answer is that all are songs performed by the current "Idol" contestants. But there's more to it than that. They also happen to be season seven's only songs released in the last decade.

It's a curious realization, given that "Idol" is supposed to locate and groom the next great contemporary singer. But for a show that keeps telling us that this is its most talented batch of wannabes ever, the current season has given its contestants few opportunities to show that they have what it takes to sing anything remotely modern.

And that's almost a direct result of this season's design. Take a look at the themes chosen for this year's crop of hopefuls: 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, Beatles (two weeks), the Year You Were Born, Dolly Parton, Inspirational Songs, Mariah Carey and Andrew Lloyd Webber. It was only in the last four weeks, at about the competition's halfway point, that the contestants even had the option of picking anything released after 1990.

The problem is particularly irksome considering the show's insistence that it would rely on celebrity mentors less than in the past. That may be a relief after last year, where they flowed fast and furious, as if there were a celebrity hydrant gushing underneath the "Idol" stage. But performer-specific shows have remained the norm, despite the fact that expanding Parton night into a generic country theme would have given the contestants wider latitude to choose more current songs.

The themed semifinals only add to the problem. The open format used in the past allowed contestants to sing contemporary material such as Keane's "Somewhere Only We Know," Corinne Bailey Rae's "Put Your Records On," Evanescence's "Call Me When You're Sober" and Jason Mraz's "Geek In the Pink." (Boom, right there: four songs, and we're barely three weeks deep into last season.) Those songs weren't just hits in the '00s, they were all by artists who came to prominence this decade.

But selecting material by performers who actually have something to do with music as it's being made now wasn't an option this year. Instead, the first three weeks mimicked the playlist of the local feel-good mix radio station. The songs may be tried and true, but they don't speak to the two major demographics — 2-to-11-year-olds and the aforementioned young women — that have been leaving the show in droves.

Bewhiskered themes don't necessarily result in boring performances, of course. You only need to look back to Kelly Clarkson's "Stuff Like That There" (from season one's Big Band Night) and Fantasia Barrino's "Summertime" (from season three's Movie Songs Night), two performances routinely mentioned as the best ever on "Idol," to know that. But neither one sounded like modern pop music.

When in doubt, blame Nigel Lythgoe It's reached a point where it seems that whoever selects each week's theme simply hasn't turned on a radio in years. That would certainly help explain the occasionally baffling songs that "Idol" forces the contestants sing for the results show group numbers.

It's usually the medleys that seem the most confusing, apparently consisting of totally random songs thrown together because they individually fit the week's theme. The 1970s medley, for instance, made no sense; whatever their merits, Todd Rundgren, Bonnie Tyler, 10cc and Carole King seemed a strange summation of a decade on which only one of them (King) actually cast a long shadow.

The medley for the second Beatles week included "Because," possibly the most harmony-laden song in the entire Fab Four catalog. Considering the fact that this year's contestants, like every other year's, can't (or won't) harmonize with each other, the song's inclusion seemed almost like a cruel joke. No wonder the Ford commercial two weeks later used Run-DMC's "It's Tricky," a rap classic that features no singing.

But the season's biggest head-scratcher came during Year You Were Born week, when the audience was treated to a rousing rendition of "Right Back Where We Started From." Its seeming relevance to the theme shouldn't overshadow the fact that somebody behind the scenes clearly thought, "Hey, we should have the kids sing that Maxine Nightingale number!"

How does a 32-year-old song that many viewers probably had to Google end up as a showcase number on the most popular show on television? That's the great mystery, especially for a show whose ratings stranglehold is slipping and whose relevance to the current pop music scene is in doubt.

But don't worry, because relief is around the corner: This week's theme is Neil Diamond. As always, "Idol" has its finger on the pulse.

Marc Hirsh is a writer in Somerville, Mass.