Monday, 16 May 2011

Idol's Judging Problem, and the Rise of Haley Reinhart

We have an issue that needs to be addressed: the judging situation, and we're at the point now when it is a "situation". At the beginning of the season, it looked like Steven was going to offer pointed, interesting criticism, while the shockingly beautiful J-Lo would give a “We love you” comment couched in some kind of helpful tip for improvement. It seemed like Randy was trying to make himself into the new Simon...unsuccessfully.

Now two weeks from the finale, it turns out only the thing about Randy is true, except he’s not “the new Simon”. That would imply that he’s giving honest, meaningful critiques that tend toward the mean side until a contestant really does something to impress. Rather, he’s become a little bit of a d-bag on that panel. Case in point, his little shouting match with Haley last week, followed shortly thereafter by declaring a three-way tie for the best between three of the four contestants not named Haley.

Classy, yes?

Now lest you think I loved Haley's performance of "Earth Song", think again. The song choice was indeed not fantastic, as it's the kind of song that requires more than 90 seconds to build. But I can't fault the performance in the same way Randy did. It was pitch-perfect throughout, something that cannot be said for James' and Scotty's performances, which were all given A+++ marks from our "beloved" panel of "judges". Last week was the first time in weeks Steven's "you're beautiful and wonderful and I have no real opinion" comments sounded like a needed defense of a performance that didn't deserve the level of criticism it received.

It’s SHOCKING to me that James could come out and give a surprisingly low-energy, off-pitch version of the most covered song in the history of karaoke, and Randy and J-Lo could claim that he “set the bar”, while Haley delivers a vocally solid performance and gets specific criticism about not reaching her high notes. W. T. H?! Some message board comments I’ve seen about this week’s episodes have mentioned Haley’s “stank” attitude about the judges’ comments (I myself thought her attitude tended toward the stank at the beginning of the season. I’ve since changed my mind), but the kinds of comments she got for that performance of “Earth Song” and for last week’s truly excellent “You and I” were egregious, especially in comparison with the "criticisms" given to her fellow “chosen one” contestants. Even Jacob Lusk's truly painful "No Air" performance last week was given the "you're amazing!" gloss by the judges. I love a good Idol conspiracy as much as the next girl, but even if you don’t, you’ve got to admit that, man, Haley’s really been getting the short end of the producers’ stick.

The bright side, however, is after getting hit in the face a few times for her first performance of the night the last two weeks in a row, she came out for those second performances and KILLED THEM. Seriously, "The House of Rising Sun" and "I (Who Have Nothing)" are the stuff of Idol legends, partly fueled by the ridiculousness of the judges choosing Haley as the only one to criticize each week, but mostly as a result of an emotional and theatrical depth that has been missing from the stage for most of this season. Those two performances were pure magic. Haley is certainly benefiting from the judges/producers backlash vote right now, but she's actually delivering the best performances of the season. Go. Figure.

Which brings me to her competitors, Lauren and Scotty. I genuinely like Lauren. Her voice sounds great on my ipod, she's got an adorable personality, and, in spite of the out-of-nowhere "Lauren's lacking confidence" narrative the producers tried to thrust upon her this season, she's a pretty confident performer ("Flat on the Floor" last week was fantastic!). I think it's a shame, though, that they let her on the show this season, and not two seasons from now, because all of her performances could benefit from some emotional maturity. She's so talented, but she usually comes across as overly concerned with pleasing people (Jimmy, the judges, Lady Gaga, America...). This week's performance of "Anyway" was, I think, a glimpse of what she can do when she connects to a song. She really nailed it. It seems to me like that connection issue is the one thing missing from her "package", but if we're talking about a Scotty-Lauren finale (which it seems like we are, kids), I'd be more than happy for Lauren to inherit the crown that has also graced the head of Dame Kelly, Carrie, David Cook, and Kris Allen (to name my favs).

Scotty, however, drives me insane, and not in a teenage girl kind of way. I need to clarify something here: I am a Christian, a proud American, and a massive country fan (I didn't need Scotty to tell me who Josh Turner is. I saw Josh Turner in concert before Scotty was out of elementary school! I digress), but Scotty singing “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” was the worst kind of manipulation. Whether he really is inspired by that song or whether he was just singing it because he knew it would get a lot of votes and make him immune to criticism (as if the judges have EVER really criticized him anyway), I call foul. That was icky. Not since Kristy Lee Cook’s “God Bless the USA” has a performance bummed me out on an emotional manipulation level like that. The thing that troubles me the most is it seems to be working in his case. Grrr. Voter fail.

I want to make it clear that my beef with Scotty is not the quality and texture of his voice. When he sings smoothly, avoiding the repetitive dips and "flourishes" that he feels compelled (and at this point, it is out of sheer compulsion, not thoughtful attention to vocal detail) to add to every phrase, he can sound lovely. Most of his "You've Got a Friend" performance was fantastic, but you could even see him fighting the urge to slip into old habits as throughout the performance. My main problem with Scotty is that I still find him inauthentic, as if he's imitating the adult country stars he admires. Forget what he says in his interview packages: he's a good boy trying to make people think he's a bad boy in performance. "You've Got a Friend" was the closest thing we've seen to vocal purity from him since his pre-semifinal performance of "Long Black Train". Smooth, flourish-free vocals are what could actually turn him into a beautiful singer.

Like Lauren, he probably could have used a few years to mature before coming on this show, but here we are. I'm pretty sure he's going to win this season, but that doesn't mean I can't moan about it a little bit. I'm team Haley all the way, and if Haley gets eliminated after her sure-to-be shoddy hometown visit edit next week, I'm cheering for Lauren to the bitter end. Please, America, break the "cute boy" Idol winner streak!


  1. So well-written. And agree with everything. Scotty's pandering was just....ugh. Name-checking Jesus and bringing up 9/11 right after Osama's death? It's not like he's desperate for votes. He's already going to win!!!

  2. Thanks. The Scotty phenomenon is just depressing to me. It's like all of the little manipulating things that producers think "America" likes are working in his case. Ugh. Hey, at least Haley got to the top 3!