Pop Culture

New ‘Idol’ season should learn from last year

Going into the 2009 season, "American Idol" was in a slump, if not on a downward slide. While the reality competition series remained the number-one television program in the United States, its ratings were lower than in the past, and the show seemed to lack creativity.

Then came season eight, and along with it, fresh life. The show had its stumbles: overrunning its time by as much as eight minutes, for example, and persisting with things like awful lip-synced group numbers, poorly conceived theme weeks, and weak mentors.

But the latest “Idol” season was definitely the highest high the show has had in recent years, and even the post-season drama of judge Paula Abdul quitting and Ellen DeGeneres being hired didn't do much to deflate that.

While it may seem like a season's success is due to chance, there's a lot from last season that this upcoming season can — and should — learn from.

That starts with runner-up Adam Lambert, the standout star of "American Idol 8." He was a performer unlike anyone the show had ever seen, and that originality came along with a lot of personality. It didn't hurt that there were persistent rumors about his not-so-secret sexual orientation, which he discussed publicly only after the show concluded.

As his pre-Thanksgiving AMA performance proved, Adam knows how to get people to watch, pay attention, and talk, never mind buy his records, which Kris Allen, however talented, can't really claim to do. And while the other contestants contributed, too, Adam knew how to make people tune in.

It's all about the performers
That's the biggest lesson season eight has to offer season nine: Contestants matter more than anything else.

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    Kevin Winter / Getty Images North America

    Image: 2009 American Music Awards Press Conference

    The many looks of Adam Lambert

    From motorcycle jackets to snazzy suits, the “American Idol” runner-up knew how to dress for each song.

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    Vested interest

    Adam Lambert, right, joins Snoop Dogg and Paula Abdul at the 2009 American Music Awards news conference held at the Beverly Hills Hotel on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2009.

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  • American Idol Season 8 Top 2 Performance

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    Finding the 'Boundaries'

    Adam Lambert performs "No Boundaries," an original song written by judge Kara DioGuardi, on Tuesday, May 19, his final performance of season 8 of "American Idol."

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  • American Idol Season 8 Top 2 Performance

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    Making a 'Change'

    Adam Lambert performed "A Change Is Gonna Come," a song selected by "Idol" producer Simon Fuller, as his second song on Tuesday, May 19. “That was the best I’ve ever heard you sing! Ever, ever, ever!" cooed Paula Abdul of Lambert's performance.

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    A 'Phantom' performance?

    Adam Lambert reprised his version of Tears for Fears' "Mad World" during the final sing on Tuesday, May 19. Simon Cowell questioned his attire and said he thought the performance as a bit too much like "Phantom of the Opera."

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    Big time

    Adam Lambert made it into the final two on "American Idol" by singing two songs by enormous rock bands -- U2's "One" and Aerosmith's "Cryin'." Judge Simon Cowell bragged that U2 leader Bono called him personally to OK the use of "One."

    Fox via AP / Fox via AP
  • American Idol Season 8 Top 3 Performance Show

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    Name-dropping

    Judge Simon Cowell bragged that U2 leader Bono called him personally to OK Lambert's use of "One."

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    O say can you see

    Lambert, a San Diego native, returned to his hometown as part of the "Idol" final three hometown visits. While there, he made a trip to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and sang the national anthem for service members and their families.

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  • American Idol Season 8 Top 4 Performance

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    Rock this town

    Lambert was in his element on rock night, tearing into Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love." Said an appreciative Randy Jackson, "you are a rock star tonight!"

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    Classing it up for Rat Pack night

    Would Sinatra perform in anything but a suit? Lambert dressed up, but still kept his own personal style, on Rat Pack night. There's now a cat figurine wearing a white suit for sale on eBay imitating Lambert's outfit from this night.

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  • American Idol Season 8 Top 7 Elimination Show - Backstage

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    Does caffeine calm backstage jitters?

    Lambert is seen backstage before elimination night on the week that Lil Rounds and Anoop Desai were sent home. Note the Coke machine in the background -- Coke, of course, is a major "Idol" sponsor.

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  • American Idol Season 8 Top 7 Performance

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    Suiting up

    Maybe this should have been the night for the white suit? Lambert went formal for disco night, where he sang his own version of "If I Can't Have You" from "Saturday Night Fever."

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  • American Idol Season 8 Top 7 Performance

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    Get your motor running

    On movie-song night, Lambert pulled out the motorcycle jacket and blue jeans and sang "Born to Be Wild" from "Easy Rider." Said Paula Abdul, "you dare to dance in the path of greatness."

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    The song so many missed

    When the Idols performed songs from the years they were born, Lambert chose 1982's "Mad World." Even Gary Jules, who arranged the version Lambert performed, said "it was fantastic." Jules covered the Tears for Fears song in a stripped-down, slow version in 2001 and the tune became popular after it was used in the movie "Donnie Darko" that same year. Unfortunately, Lambert performed last on a night that "American Idol" ran eight minutes over schedule and many fans who recorded the show missed Lambert's song.

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    Lay down the boogie

    When Lambert performed Wild Cherry's "Play That Funky Music," Paula Abdul compared him to Mick Jagger and Steven Tyler.

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  • American Idol Season 8 Top 10 Performance

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    Emerging as a star

    Lambert's performance of "Tracks of My Tears" drew a standing ovation from Kara DioGuardi. Paula Abdul liked his appearance, too. "I love the clean look," she said. "No nail polish tonight!"

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  • American Idol Season 8 Top 11 Performance

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    Middle Eastern music meets Johnny Cash

    Lambert was rarely criticized all season, but on country night, he performed Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" and added a Middle Eastern flavor, complete with sitar sounds. Randy Jackson thought it was "current," but Simon Cowell found it "absolute indulgent rubbish."

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    Taking on the King of Pop

    On Michael Jackson night, Lambert tackled "Black or White," and earned raves. "I hope Michael Jackson is watching," said Kara DioGuardi.

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    Fans got 'Satisfaction'

    Early on in the competition, Lambert tackled the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction." Simon Cowell thought some parts of the performance were "excruciating" and others "brilliant," but Lambert was on his way.

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    You've got the look

    From the beginning, Lambert attracted fans, with some claiming he reminded them of vampire hearthrob Edward Cullen in the "Twilight" books and movies.

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It's not just their singing ability, but their stage presence and personality. While the singers going to Hollywood have already been chosen, the judges and producers should look for and keep as many Adam Lamberts as they can. Not Adam clones, but people who have equal amounts of originality, talent, and personality. They're preferable to someone who can sing but is boring.

As new judge Ellen DeGeneres enters the arena, it's worth remembering that the last new judge, Kara DioGuardi did actually contribute positively to the show, and that moderate shake-ups of the formula actually help rather than hurt. Fox doesn't want to damage its series, but season eight proved that experimentation and change can make things better.

A lot of the negative reaction to Kara seemed to be due to a simple fear of change, as the judging panel had stayed pretty much exactly the same for seven seasons. Sexism may have entered in also, since thanks to Paula, some viewers couldn't imagine a female judge with something relevant to add to the discussion beyond critiques of clothing and inane comments about personality. But Kara offered a mix of specific singing critiques and comments about stage presence, which added to the other judges' comments, rather than merely duplicating them.

Ellen DeGeneres' lack of music credentials already has some people freaking out, but she's a talented television personality and, even better, an "American Idol" fan. The judges may take a few episodes to find their footing, and she won't be Paula Abdul (thankfully). But Ellen will undoubtedly bring something new to their table.

Show should have kept old semifinal formatAnother change that took place last season was in the semifinal rounds. The show started with a top 36, and one group of 12 contestants performed each week. While it still took the same amount of time to get to the start of the finals, the new format delayed the inevitable "Idol" fatigue by not subjecting viewers to the same contestants week after week from February to May.

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    ‘American Idol’ alums

    From William Hung to Carrie Underwood, the hit reality show has produced some unforgettable characters and some true stars.

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    M-I-C, K-E-Y, I-D-O-L

    All seven winners of "American Idol" gather around Mickey Mouse for the opening of The American Idol Experience at Florida's Walt Disney World Resort in 2009. Clockwise, from front left, they are: Taylor Hicks, Fantasia Barrino, Kelly Clarkson, Mickey Mouse, Carrie Underwood, Ruben Studdard, Jordin Sparks and David Cook. The American Idol Experience attraction, inspired by the hit TV show, lets Disney park guests audition with a chance to appear onstage, or vote on their favorite singing performances from the audience.

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  • Kelly Clarkson Plays Sydney

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    She started it all

    Kelly Clarkson won the first season of "American Idol" in 2002, and has sold more than 20 million records worldwide since then. As of April 2009, she is the highest-selling "Idol" winner. She's also appeared on numerous television shows, including "Saturday Night Live," "One Tree Hill," Smallville" and "Six Feet Under."

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    First season, first runner-up

    Justin Guarini was the runner-up on "American Idol's" first-ever season, losing the title to Kelly Clarkson. The two later co-starred in an embarrassing, and badly reviewed, comedy film, "From Justin to Kelly." The film won the Golden Raspberry Award in 2005, noting that it was the worst musical of the first 25 years of the infamous "Razzies" film awards. Guarini has released several albums, but musically, has all but dropped off the radar of most "Idol" music fans.

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    Maybe you've seen me on TV

    Kimberly Caldwell finished in seventh place on the second season of "American Idol," but turned her loss into an entertainment career. She has worked as a correspondent for an extreme sports program and as a host for TV Guide Network. For a time, Caldwell dated season-seven "Idol" winner David Cook. They reportedly broke up in early 2009. Before the breakup, Cook had to publicly debunk a Star magazine report that he purchased a $54,000 diamond engagement ring for Caldwell.

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    The big man

    Ruben Studdard won the second season of "American Idol," and since then has released multiple albums and received a Grammy Award nomination. While on the show, he was dubbed "The Velvet Teddy Bear" for his rich, soulful voice. Studdard was also noted for wearing shirts reading "205," the area code of his hometown, Birmingham, Ala. He has repeatedly struggled with his weight.

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  • Clay Aiken

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    Clay by Clay

    Clay Aiken, seen here in his role as Sir Robin in the Broadway production of Monty Python's "Spamalot," had some of the most ardent fans of any "American Idol" alum. Aiken came in second to Ruben Studdard on the show's second season, but his fans, known as Claymates, were incredibly supportive and loyal even after the ouster. Although his sexuality was speculated upon in the press for years, Aiken would not comment on it until 2008, when he confirmed he was gay to People magazine. He has a son, Parker Foster Aiken, whose mother is Jaymes Foster, who has been the executive producer of three of Aiken's albums.

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  • Jennifer Hudson

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    Fame, fortune and tragedy

    Jennifer Hudson didn't win the third season of "American Idol," but she has gone on to have one of the most successful careers of any "Idol" alum. Sadly, her life has also been touched by tragedy. After "Idol," Hudson went on to star in the movie "Dreamgirls," for which she won the Academy Award for best supporting actress. She has also won a Grammy Award, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award, and numerous other honors. But in 2008, her mother, brother and young nephew were murdered, sending the singer into temporary seclusion. The estranged husband of Hudson's sister has been charged with the crimes.

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  • Fantasia

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    An 'Idol' and a mom

    Fantasia Barrino, who often just goes by Fantasia, won the third season of "American Idol." She was the first single parent to win the show's top title, and some fans were concerned that her young parenthood was setting a bad example for viewers. She was just 16 when she became pregnant and 17 when she gave birth to her daughter, Zion Quari Barrino. She has said she broke up with the girl's father because he was physically abusive. After "Idol," she earned raves for her Broadway performance as Celie in the musical "The Color Purple."

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    Taking the stage

    Constantine Maroulis is seen here performing in the Broadway musical, "Rock of Ages," a show packed with 1980s hair-band hits. Maroulis finished in sixth place on "American Idol's" fourth season, and has found plenty of musical and dramatic opportunities since then. In the fall of 2005, it was announced that he would star in "Brooklyn," a sitcom loosely based on his life growing up in a Greek-American New York family, but ABC eventually passed on the project.

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    Hot lava

    Carrie Underwood, seen during the 2009 Academy Of Country Music Awards in a gown she said reminded her of lava, is the winner of "American Idol's" fourth season. By far one of, if not the most, successful "Idol" alums, Underwood has won multiple Grammy Awards and is a multi-platinum selling artist. Her hits include "Before He Cheats," "Last Name" and "Jesus, Take the Wheel." She became only the seventh woman to win the Acadamy of Country Music Awards prestigious Entertainer of the Year honor in April 2009.

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  • Kellie Pickler

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    Pass the sall-mon

    Kellie Pickler endeared herself to many fans of "American Idol's" fifth season with her country twang and ways, once mispronouncing "salmon" as "sall-mon." She also earned praise for surviving a tough childhood. Her father served time in prison for aggravated assault and battery, and was released just a week after his daughter's elimination on "Idol."

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  • Chris Daughtry

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    Fourth place doesn't feel so bad

    Chris Daughtry's fifth-season elimination is one of the most controversial in the history of "American Idol." He was the fourth-place finalist, and when he was voted off, many fans were shocked and refused to believe the votes were fairly counted. The elimination didn't hurt Daughtry much, however. His band's debut album sold more than a million copies after just five weeks, becoming the fastest-selling debut rock album in history.

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  • Taylor Hicks Performs At The Roxy Theatre

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    Many shades of gray

    Taylor Hicks earned plenty of attention for his prematurely gray hair, but he was only 29 when he won the fifth season of "American Idol." Later that year, he was also named People Magazine's Hottest Bachelor. His fans are known as the Soul Patrol, and Hicks would frequently call out the group's name during "Idol" episodes. He reportedly received $750,000 for a memoir of his life, released by Random House in 2007.

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  • Melinda Doolittle

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    The winner who should have been

    Melinda Doolittle finished third behind Jordin Sparks and Blake Lewis on the sixth season of "American Idol." Two days after that show's season finale, judge Simon Cowell appeared on "Good Morning America" and said that the title should rightfully have gone to Doolittle. Since then, in addition to releasing music, Doolittle has sought out charity work. She is a supporter of the Malaria No More campaign, which distributes life-saving bed nets to protect African children from being infected by malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

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    Hair today, gone tomorrow

    Sanjaya Malakar may not have been the best singer to ever grace the "American Idol" stage, but he garnered more press attention than some of the winners have earned. He and Jordin Sparks were both just 16 when they began the sixth season of the show. While Sparks would go on to win, Malakar would go on to be almost-mercilessly pilloried in the press. His voice was not as strong as other competitors, but he made up for it by grabbing the spotlight with attention-getting hairdos, including an infamous fauxhawk made up of multiple ponytails. He released an autobiography in 2009.

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    Sparks still fly

    Jordin Sparks was just 17 when she won the sixth season of "American Idol." Her debut album was certified platinum in 2008. Sparks is an evangelical Christian who wears a purity ring to signify that she plans to remain a virgin until marriage. In all her weeks on "Idol," she was never in the bottom two or three.

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    Still cooking

    David Cook won "American Idol's" seventh season, beating out another David, David Archuleta. Cook originally did not intend to try out for the show, instead accompanying his brother, Andrew, to the auditions. However, Cook had been pursuing a musical career for years before the tryout, reportedly telling his family "I just want to give myself until I'm 26 years old to get a job." He was 25 when he won the title.

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    Everything's Archie

    David Archuleta went up against David Cook in "Idol's" seventh-season finale. Archuleta was just 17 when the show ended, and had been one of the show's youngest finalists ever. "Idol" wasn't Archuleta's first brush with TV contests -- he was the junior vocal champion on "Star Search 2" when he was just 12.

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    She bangs, she bangs!

    Most "American Idol" wannabes have to at least make it on the show to earn their fame. Not so for William Hung, who became nationally known after an extremely off-key audition featuring the Ricky Martin song "She Bangs" on the show's third season. Hung's odd singing and dancing befuddled and entertained both the judges and the viewers, and his positive attitude seemed at odds with his performance. "I already gave my best, and I have no regrets at all," Hung said to the judges. He was able to parlay the audition into a variety of entertainment opportunities, including appearances in commercials and films.

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Instead, there were three weeks of new faces. Those who may have had unfortunate stumbles during their first and only attempt to make it into the top 12 (which became a top 13) had the wild card round to save them, and all was well.

Alas, for season nine, producers decided to return to the old top 24 format, 12 men and 12 women who will perform and be eliminated each week until just six men and six women remain.

The season's tone was set by a significant change that came as soon as the season debuted, one that will hopefully survive to make season nine even better: the audition episodes were better than they'd been in years. For starters, the mean streak that had the show mocking challenged individuals in season six seemed to have completely disappeared, as did the intense focus on the delusional singers.

In its place was a good balance of entertainment, humor, emotional stories, freaks, judge horseplay, and talented singers. Sure, some people enjoy watching the idiots, but a parade of nothing but awfulness isn't a good way to begin.

Not everything good about season eight can or will continue into season nine. “Idol Gives Back” is unfortunately returning with its well-intentioned but boring episodes; Adam Lambert may return to perform on a results show, but can't be replaced; the semifinal rounds have already reverted back.

But television's number one show can continue to age gracefully, if it doesn't forget what it learned in the past.

is a writer, TV critic, and editor of . Follow him on or Twitter.

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