Did David Cook’s “American Idol” Win Start The Long, Arduous Process Of Fixing The Show?

May 22nd, 2008 // 27 Comments

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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.)

idolator

  1. allyzay

    i’m so glad i’m not the only person reppin for chikezie. it was positively delightful when he set foot on the stage last night.

  2. brasstax

    Yeah, I wasn’t gutted when Chikezie left so early, but I knew I was going to miss him for the next several weeks as the show drifted (or rushed) into a completely boring greyzone.

    And I’ll buy anything Brooke puts out, as long as she’s singing only and not talking.

  3. punkybunky

    For me, the judges have been one of the biggest problems on this show. The people in charge are obviously not interested in running a singing competition, as Randy kept trying emphasize this season; they are instead running a “marketability” competition. If this was a singing competition, the show might have judges who are singers, natch, and not an A&R rep, a producer (who’s content to tout his work with ’90s megastars like Mariah), and a woman who probably can’t string together two notes any better than she can two words.

  4. punkybunky

    Also, in regards to the “adorable looks” portion of this article…. David Cook reminds me of Meg Ryan post-plastic surgery, even more-so in that pic.

    There, I said it.

  5. NickEddy

    Well, see, American Idol was a fad. Like hula hoops.

    Remember N’Sync? Backstreet Boys?

    Like that.

    But the biz, lacking imagination, puts all eggs in one basket and then, when people stop giving two shits, act all shocked.

    The “is is STILL on?” fatigue is showing.

    NEXT! etc

  6. punkybunky

    @Chris N.: It’s strange, but I think his look might’ve got toned down as the season went on. The hair is almost impossible to fix, though it makes it’s way from orangey mess to what looks like the fuzzy top of an onion. The clothes make a slightly more noticeable change. In the beginning, he’s got some kind of Hinder goes to Hot Topic thing: the red tie, the vest, the too short-waisted pants. By the finale, he’s all grey blazers & t-shirts, kinda like David A. I wonder if Randy’s “emo” comment had anything to do with that. Or would D.C. see that as a compliment?

  7. Chris Boeckmann

    “the pro-Archuleta steamroll”

    Huh? The producers were on Cook’s side for (at the very least) the last half of the season.

  8. Hamm Beerger

    @Chris Boeckmann: You really think? I remember every lip-lickingly schmaltzy performance from Archuleta getting a, “You da bomb, dawg!” from Randy and at least a pat on the head from Simon.

    But perhaps I’m misremembering because of their shameless (and totally wrong) evaluations on the final night. All the talk about Archie killing it, and then he lost in a landslide. That rankled.

  9. Anonymous

    BOTH OF THEM SUCK.

  10. Anonymous

    Cook was okay, but like Daughtry, reaping the rewards of what Bo Bice did on the show. Bo really broke the mold and brought something to the show on his own terms(he did a song by Badlands as his personal pick! That’s a lot edgier than Collective Soul.). Unfortunately the Clive Davis machine screwed him(like several others) by giving him an album that not only had awful songs, but left off his number 1 single. The producers had dollar signs in their eyes when they saw a way to break into country with Underwood. She was good, but if you go back and watch the that season, Bo nailed it every night.

  11. Anonymous

    Hang on kids.

    First of all…WAY too many words typed about an American Idol-related topic.

    Second — WHO GIVES A SHIT?! It’s candy-coated Pop music… Fixed or not, what they’re pumping out is garbage and isn’t worth me even finishing this response.

  12. Manola

    This blog should be renamed “The Show We Love to Hate”.

    Who was your overall favorite? Because I have the impression that perhaps some of you didn’t like anyone, yet continued watching till the end. Slightly masochistic, in my opinion.

    This has been a bittersweet season for me. Sweet, in that I liked many of the final 12: Cook, MIchael Johns, Jason, Chikeze, Syesha. Bitter, in that the show continued drifting into obsolete territory, with the Dolly Partons and the Neil Diamonds. The judges always seem to berate contestants that do karaoke versions of a song. Well, the show is now formulaic, not familiar. There hasn’t been enough refreshing material to instill new life (the instruments and the contestant’s diversity were steps in the right direction). And in addition, we’ve had the conspiracy theories and the allegations of the show being rigged, etc, etc, etc.

    I love AI, and I am very glad David Cook won, because Archie’s win would have sunk the show.

  13. Maura Johnston

    @punkybunky: And it’s not even “marketability” on a current scale! It’s based on this weird pre-diamond record award idea of popular music that had a bunch of amber glopped over it right before “…Baby One More Time” got played on the radio for the first time.

    @punkybunky: Dude, the Guitar Hero ad totally threw me over to the “David Cook is hot” side of the fence. That’s all I can say. It could be Stockholm Syndrome but it’s totally my now.

  14. punkybunky

    @Maura Johnston: I just commented on that vid with an EEEWW! So I guess it threw me, too. In fact it flung me… the other way. Ha.

    I bet Simon and Randy like to get together on the weekends and listen to Whitney Houston records, while Paula sits in the corner, holding a conversation with the CD booklet. But seriously, with D.C.’s win, they got a step closer to acknowledging (and profiting from) the current state of pop music. I’m just irked it had to the inescapable, bland, trudge-rock that I hear every time I turn on the radio.

  15. Chris N.

    I would have been a Cook fan all along if he would only have combed his hair. The carefully-cultivated-messiness look offends me on a moral level.

  16. revmatty

    I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: the judges on Next Great American Band were a far better panel than the AI panel. Keep Simon if you must, though I thought Dicko gave more actual constructive advice than Simon does. Even Paula for comedy value (but seriously: picking between Sheila and Paula for actual judging ability is a no brainer). Randy should be replaced by Johnny ASAP. I think the allowing of instruments is a step in that direction, frankly.

  17. Chris Molanphy

    I want to get this down, because a friend e-mailed me after reading this post (thx for name-check, Maura) requesting a synopsis of the Chris Molanphy Grand Unified Taylor Hicks-American Idol Theory, and I realized I’ve referenced my theory in comments before without actually just stating it. It’s pretty simple, really: old people are ratings poison.

    In the early ’00s my sister worked for about a year as an “audience wrangler” at Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? at ABC Studios in midtown Manhattan. It was a thankless job – on days when volunteer audience members wouldn’t fill the studio, the staff had to wander the streets begging people to come fill seats – but what made it increasingly more thankless by, say, 2001 was the edict from the producers: Fewer gray heads visible on-camera.

    When Millionaire materialized as a midsummer replacement in 1999, it did the seemingly impossible: not only becoming a massive hit in the dead of August, but temporarily unifying the fractured TV audience and making the TV gameshow, and Regis Philbin, momentarily hip. The audience was a pre-Idol dream: young, old, male, female were all watching the show.

    The story of how ABC killed the Millionaire golden goose by running it three, even four nights a week by 2000 are well-documented. But the real problem wasn’t just ABC’s desperate overscheduling of the show; it was the steady drift in its demographics, away from the advertiser-friendly 18-49s and toward the Matlock set. Even as the overall numbers settled from the ’99 explosion into a respectable Top 10 show, the suits at ABC began to panic when a plurality of the audience was seniors.

    Hence, the edict handed down to my sister et al. And it was tough – by mid-2000, the most fervent, excitable Regis groupies showing up for tapings were grandmas and doughy Dockers-wearing men. My sister would come home with gently heartbreaking stories of having to seat these true fans in Siberia just to get a few unlined faces over Reege’s shoulder on-camera.

    The ageist policies didn’t work. By 2001 (I think…’02 at the latest), Millionaire was retired from prime time and became the pleasant, granny-friendly syndicated fare with Meredith Viera that I only ever see when I’m on the treadmill on a weekday at 3 p.m. Its fall was remarkably swift.

    My point in recounting all this – the lesson I learned from my sister’s experience – isn’t just that TV execs hate old people (I knew that a decade ago). It’s the media complex’s belief that perception is everything. Once audiences perceive a show isn’t for them, it is thought, they begin to drift – or, in some cases, flee in droves.

    The ratings erosion we’re seeing at American Idol has been much more gradual, but my Grand Theory is that we’re in the middle of a slow-motion-car-crash version of the two-year Millionaire phenomenon. And Taylor Hicks’s 2006 win is the cornerstone of this theory, because his win may have begun to cement a new perception in young audiences’ minds: This show is not for me anymore.

    Hicks really was unprecedented in the Idol universe pre-’06: an act whose style, repertoire and appeal was virtually imperceptible to anyone under 30, a dog-whistle signal to the middle-aged. Prior to him, oldster-friendly acts like the Bing Crosbyesque crooner John Stevens could be appreciated by a certain segment of geeky teens; and anyway, the Stevenses of the Idol world were usually voted off before May. Hicks broke that mold. He wasn’t terrible by any means – I’ll admit to finding his goofy antics occasionally charming (but then, I was watching him as a 34-year-old) – but I share with Simon Cowell the feeling that he wasn’t supposed to win.

    We talk a lot here about the perilous transition by Idol winners and finalists from TV star to recording star, and clearly there are enough successes and failures over the seven seasons that no clear pattern emerges. (We can’t even agree whether winners like Fantasia are “successes” or not.) But Hicks is singular not just because he’s the lowest-selling winner in the show’s history, but also because – more than Aiken or McPhee or Sparks or whomever – his appeal is entirely TV-based and negligibly music-based.

    In short (and god knows, this comment could have been shorter), Taylor Hicks “broke” American Idol because he severed the tenuous connection between Idol the TV show and Idol the pop-star-finder. Sure, Daughtry came after him. Sure, David Cook stands a better-than-decent chance at radio success. But you really can divide Idol history into pre-Hicks and post-Hicks: the moment when the show became just a reality show, and an occasionally annoying one, and not a barometer of contemporary musical taste, full stop.

    What’s amazing is, since that moment – to bring us back to Maura’s post above – the producers have made a bad situation that wasn’t their fault much, much worse by reinforcing the Hicks approach and blowing the oldster dog whistle louder. How they mistook David Archuleta for the next Jonas brother when he’s really the kind of singer destined to be emceed by Ed McMahon, I’ll never understand. Thankfully, the Idol audience is smarter than they are.

  18. Anonymous

    Some of you are so cynical it’s just sad.
    David Cook is the possessor of a beautiful vocal instrument; he’s not “watery post-grunge”!!! Pleeeeeeeaaaazzz.
    We’re not that easily fooled out here!
    I am insulted for him at the ignorance of some of these comments and for parts of your article.
    David is a dramatic tenor and if you take the time to look that up on wikipedia then you might learn a little something. He has an unusually resonant voice – raw, untrained and not uberpolished like DA’s lyric tenor, but VERY BEAUTIFUL. Also, the studio recordings are NOT typical… most of them are gems. He is very emotionally connected and that cannot be taught. He has a wild, free, beautiful timbre that is not out there on radio today.
    I am an opera singer and was a rock singer/songwriter/musician in my 20s. I am NOT into watery post-grunge! There’s much more to David Cook than you give credit for.
    His singing is unusually vulnerable. That is harder to access than anything as an artist, and he does it so easily – bares his soul for all, like it or not.
    hmmmpph! some of you “get” it. He will sell millions. His appeal is very broad and the talent is massive. More than it sometimes showed but obviously many many people GOT IT! Go listen to the recordings of Music of the Night and Billie Jean and Always Be My Baby and The World I Know…etc etc. Also a very gifted songwriter. VERY brilliant. A very subtle performer that I guess passes by hard-hearted people with an axe to grind. Your loss!
    This is just the beginning for DC so you still have time to come around… better late than NEVER!!!! :D

  19. iheargood

    @Chris Molanphy: I think this is some pretty smart analysis, but as someone who has worked within the FOX machine, I wanted to add some context.

    FOX management has been under the belief that the show would crumble since season 3. There were very verbal factions within the company that crowning Fantasia would be a disaster that would take down the entire enterprise, which is why so much of the ads for the show up until this year have been focused on Simon–he’s a mainstay that attracts viewers despite their tastes in music.

    The fact that the show is only on once a year has staved off the public’s malaise over Idol, but it’s catching up now. Frankly, the format at the back half is so painfully slow, it seems like people get that “when is this going to end?” meme rolling, like Lost seems to do around the middle of every season.

    On a separate, yet equal, note, replacing two out of the three judges would signal a newer direction, especially to kids who’ve grown up watching the show. Randy and Paula have a serious lack of good musical taste, and it’s catching up with them as well. Each signed a five-year contract with Idol’s FOX/Freemantle/19 in season 3, but it would be worth it to jettison both in pursuit of hipper, more constructively helpful voices.

    Plus, I’m sick of writing wild lines for each. At least with Simon, I get to be pointed.

  20. punkybunky

    @beck4brilliance: Actually, it’s my belief that most of America *is* pretty easily fooled. It’s one of the reasons we’re mired in ringtone rap, vocally-talentless pop divas, and the nu-grunge you speak of. It’s also probably why Madonna will never, ever go away.

    D.C. represents most of what’s wrong with (rock) music today: Doesn’t matter if you go up there and slog through your song with all the passion of a comatose person; if you put a rasp to your voice, pronounce the words just right, and strap on an electric guitar you get to be a “rocker.” An asymmetrical haircut helps as well, I suppose.

  21. Manola

    Not too long ago, at the Grammies, Stevie Wonder took the stage and said that people complain that “they don’t make singer/songwriters like they used to”, and that he didn’t agree with that one single bit.

    Music today is fine and well, and comments like Punky’s are exactly what his/her (?) grandparents were saying about his/her (?) parent’s music some 40 years ago.

  22. Anonymous

    Have you ever heard these live performances. Try them. I knew at the end of Season 5 that AI was going to have some problems. Why? Because Taylor Hicks stole their show. While he was there it was the Taylor Hicks Show. And he never quite gave it back. The cannot match the excitement of that year. I don’t think they ever will. The level of talent from all the finalists that year was the best they ever had. I don’t know if Mr. Hicks will ever have a best sellng album. This one had no chance because he fought with them about his single and never received support for radio play. And it wasn’t the best album he has ever made. His two independents were better. Glad he sold so many of the independents. But I don’t care if he ever is the cd selling success of the others, he has a large and loyal fan base that he has kept incredibly entertained the last two years. Check out the money made on his tours. He was the best all around talent that ever came off that show. He can do so many different things.
    And if you would please look at both of the vids I put up you would get a small sample of his live entertaining and his incredible voice in the second one. He has the most distinctive voice. I think the best of that year. Listen, all the way through.

  23. punkybunky

    @Manola: I guess I should’ve been clearer. I wasn’t referring to music as a whole, rather the stuff that gets repeatedly shoved down America’s throat through radio & marketing. I was probably also being a tad elitist. “Rock music” consists of a huge amount of sounds, and it’s far from me to try to limit the term.

    But most of all, I wasn’t so much attacking the quality of the music, simply the authenticity of what an artist, perhaps one like David Cook, tries to represent, whether through his dress or vocal affectations. The truth is, I can only judge him, or any artist, but what I see them do on the stage, whether I go see them live, on TV, or on YouTube. What I saw from D.C. was a lack of charisma or energy, and for someone who gets called a “rocker” week-in & week-out, that didn’t agree with me. Especially since there are so many other competent, talented new acts that will never get 1/8 the recognition D.C. has. I think I’ve succeeded in making something relatively simple complicated, so I’ll stop here.

    But you’re probably right; people have been complaining about Madonna for at least 50 years or so. Ha ha.

  24. punkybunky

    Also, I’m a “her.”

  25. Anonymous

    The only thing Hicks broke on the show was the record for the amount of votes received. By the producers time after time saying that America got it wrong with Hicks turned a majority of watchers against the show. Maybe if idol had supported their winner things may have been different. A lot of music people don’t see selling 700,000 + cd’s bad with little or no air play.

    The talent the judges picked for the next season sucked.

  26. Anonymous

    That tape of Taylor Hicks was incredible. Thanks so much.
    Laney
    Other comments: David Archuleta was a total experience. Never before did we have a person with such a tremendous voice and so young. I tried to vote for him for the finals. I dialed easily over 40 times and NEVER got through. I cannot figure out how he lost.
    I thought David Cook was very good but, not the total genius that David A. is… so obvious. David A is our destiny. The kid has it all:voice, poise, manners, great family support and a total dedication to working as hard as it takes to make it. Realize he was also doing 3 hours of high school every day. I wish he won but, I think David C was very very good and very authentic.
    I will buy both of their CDs, as I purchased every thing Taylor Hicks ever released. I love them all.

  27. hey there great post! Enjoyed it!

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