It’s been a rough season for American Idol, what with the dropping ratings, dismal recording careers of past finalists not named Daughtry, allegations of judges making their pronouncements based on producers’ whims, accusations that bringing in “ringers” with past professional/reality-TV careers had damaged the show’s credibility, and insistence that Clive Davis is still relevant. (Not to mention Paula Abdul seeming more out-of-it than ever and Randy Jackson clearly losing a few pages from his Snappy Answers To Stupefying Performances phrasebook.) But could the victory last night by David Cook–who had a devotion to later-period post-grunge, heartwarming sick-brother backstory, adorable looks, and stubborn insistence on bringing something resembling artistic integrity to the normally pageant-astic finale–be a sign that Idol is still fixable, or at least give the producers an idea of what to fix first after this year’s pretty rough season?
In some ways, yes. Between voters’ bucking of the judges’ consensus that David Archuleta had cleaned Cook’s clock Tuesday–a consensus that Simon Cowell backtracked on last night twice, first in the TV Guide Channel’s preshow then right before Cookie was crowned (a recanting that was accompanied by an apology!)– and the fact that, to be frank, Cook’s brand of watery post-grunge is a lot more commercially viable for a new artist than the syrupy ballads that are Archie’s stock in trade, it would seem that the pop compass of Idol, which has been staggeringly off this season in terms of guest mentors and the judges’ comments about who they did and didn’t “get,” has been at least somewhat recalibrated for 2008. (Not 2007, Randy. Ahem.) In a way, the “you can play instruments” rule change was the advance that opened the door for the show to bounce back in this fashion; David Cook definitely wielded his guitar to his advantage all season, and it only sharpened his “real” edge over Archuleta, whose pageanty stage-kid persona seemed to turn off more people as the season wore on.
If the iTunes Store data dug up by rickey.org is to be believed, Cook’s victory is not a fluke like the Taylor Hicks victory that Chris Molanphy claims “broke” the show; week after week, his flannel-wrapped versions of the popular songs given to him by the Idol producers outsold the competition–and some other top-selling songs on the overall chart–by quite a margin, and his music only seemed to gain steam as the show went on. Commercial viability for the show’s winner could return this year, and Cook’s debut album might well outsell My December–even if that saleability is in large part the result of a wrong from two years ago being “corrected” by voters.
The one problem, though, is that this righting of the saleability ship comes after a season that was, in many ways, disastrous for Idol. Paulagate, the pro-Archuleta steamroll, the erosion in desirable demographics, the obvious cheap way out the producers took when it came to licensing music from this millennium; if Idol wants to fix itself, or at least ensure that last night’s ratings boost wasn’t a dead-cat bounce, it needs to address most of these issues. I would definitely take a page from the judges and say that song choice is the most important thing that needs to be fixed; the graying of the Idol demographic is probably at least somewhat attributable to the fact that finding a song that came out after 2000–even in Mariah Carey week!–was a task that resembled a wild-goose chase. And if relying on newer songs means that new judges, i.e. ones who have if not an appreciation for current popular music at least a vague knowledge that it’s out there (NB: repeating the name “Jack Johnson” week-in and week-out does not count), have to be brought in, then so be it. But the high ratings of this season’s finale shouldn’t be seen as any sort of “success,” or a sign that the show’s problems this season magically resolved themselves on its last night.
And with that, I close out my commentary on this season of Idol–at least until the first album comes out or Chikezie makes some sort of public statement on his recording future, because during last night I realized that he’s actually the member of the top 12 whose future I’m most interested in. When is he going to sign to Daptone? (David Cook and Jason Castro are obviously tied for No. 2, while Brooke White’s Donna Summer medley showing made me wonder if she shouldn’t ditch the singer-songwriter thing, or at least get someone to commission a few 12-inch remixes of her first few singles.)