American Idol 2011-12 and The Amazing Joshua

Long-term readers will know that I am fan of TV talent shows, especially those for singers, as reinvented by Messrs Cowell and Fuller some time ago. However of recent years I had become disenchanted, most especially by American Idol which has always been the benchmark, and has produced by much the highest quality of contestant and winner. Since Season 4 (2005) it has become increasingly formulaic, but more importantly the quality of the contestants had dipped dramatically. Indeed the only competitor of real quality to emerge over the next 5 years was Adam Lambert, who incredibly did not win (see https://movingtoyshop.wordpress.com/2009/06/02/may-miscellany-2/). Then in 2010 (a particularly bad year) it was announced that Cowell was leaving the show to set up X-Factor USA as a direct rival. I was therefore fascinated to see what the producers would do after losing what many would consider their biggest draw. I have little doubt that Cowell himself thought the show would flounder.
All expectations were confounded when the programme’s makers decided that what they needed to do was go back to the music. They did this in several ways. First by bringing in Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler as judges ; you therefore had a panel with these two – plus Randy Jackson – with genuine musical authority and mass appeal (gone was the embarrassing experiment of having a non-musical personality like Ellen DeGeneres as a judge). Secondly they brought in the vastly experienced Jimmy Iovine as mentor. Iovine has immense musical knowledge, connections in all areas of music from Eminem to Bruce Springsteen to Lady Gaga, and proved to be a television natural. Finally the show cut down on the cutesy personality stuff and concentrated on the mentoring sessions and performances.

The amazing development though – and how or why this happened I have no idea – was that the quality of the contestants soared. There was a real range of talent, from the jazz-blues musicality of Casey Abrams through to the astonishing country voice of the eventual winner Scotty McCreery. When I first heard McCreery I almost fell off my chair – it seemed unbelievable that one so young (17 at the time) could have such a pure bass voice. Think Randy Travis or yConway Twitty. As I love country watching McCreery every week was a joy. When 2012 came around I wondered if 2011 would prove to have been a freak; far from it – 2012 was the best year ever in terms of the quality and range of contestants. By the time the Top 5 arrived you had a situation where anyone of them was very substantially better than any of the winners between 2005 and 2010. Two however stood out – Jessica Sanchez who has everything demanded to be a pop star (to resort to cliche) and, much better still, Joshua Ledet.

I do get insanely extravagant over Joshua Ledet. This is a man with a voice the like of which has not been heard for a generation or two – he harks directly back to the likes of Otis Redding and Sam Cooke. He is able to move beyond singing and use his voice as an instrument – on some occasions his vocal riffing reminded me most forcibly of Hendrix’s guitar playing. Every week was of Joshua was pure unadulterated joy; there is a wonderful You-Tube clip of Melinda Doolittle (Season 3 and a great singer herself) watching Joshua http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EozURi6PDzg which gives an idea of my weekly reaction!
As for Joshua himself these are some of the stand-out performances….

The fact that I have included I Believe in this list shows the depth of my appreciation for Joshua, as in any other artist I would consider this lese majeste. But Joshua had already indicated the depth of his reverence for Fantasia and in turn been tagged Mantasia. It was therefore no surprise when the pair duetted in the Finale show ; no surprise but it still instantly created my favourite duet of all time….http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=otJaIZiXzFg.

Having said all of this, and American Idol was the only programme to which we have been addicted this year, problems remain. In the first place Joshua did not win; indeed he did not even come second. The winner in 2012 was Philip Philips who, while an interesting musician who could have a big future if he proves to have some song-writing talent, is not in the class of Jessica or Joshua. His win confirmed a trend for a ‘White Guy With a Guitar’ (WGWG) to win Idol ( see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Idol#Geographical.2C_ethnic.2C_and_gender_biases) – this has happened over the past 5 seasons and with the exception of Scotty McCreery (who won on merit) these winners have been forgettable and disposable. This in turn creates a problem for the show in that these winners have not achieved any significant commercial success. Fortunately they still have the likes of Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, and non-winners like Adam Lambert and Jennifer Hudson to fall back on. But when one considers that the first four winners were a white woman, a black man, a black woman then a white woman again, and since then there have been 7 white men and one black woman one can see the problems (especially as the big commercial successes were the white women!). While I can see why the explanation of what has happened in recent seasons (voting is dominated by young girls and older women who will vote for pleasant white men) I do not understand why this was so different in Seasons 1-4 – I suppose the charitable explanation (which is true) is that Kelly, Reuben, Fantasia and Carrie were so talented that it would have been outrageous if they had not won (as it would). But one must conclude that racism and sexism play a considerable part in determining who will win. Incidentally the wikipedia article cited also makes the point that Idol has a strong regional bias. 8 of the 11 winners have been from the South as have many other notable contestants (including Joshua) and “Data from Nielsen SoundScan, a music-sales tracking service, showed that of the 47 million CDs sold by Idol contestants through January 2010, 85 percent were by contestants with ties to the American South.”  The explanations for this vary from the strength of the musical tradition in the South (gospel, blues, country etc.) to the fact that Idol is more watched in the South and regional/state voting is a factor.

Secondly while the 2011 series was a big success in viewing terms, reversing previous seasons’ decline (much to Cowell’s chagrin), 2012 saw a very marked falling off. There is now a glut of vocal shows – X-Factor and The Voice – and it may be that the public appetite is diminishing. Personally I look forward eagerly to next year’s show to see if the standard of the last 2 years can be anything like maintained. If Jimmy Iovine remains it will be worth watching for him alone – some of the mentoring sessions, especially when he was working with interesting people (like Stevie Nicks or Steven Van Zandt) were brilliant and insightful.

On the other hand the American X-Factor, which I only saw briefly, looked low on talent and high on judges ego. This was doubly so for the (British) X-Factor 2011 (2010 was saved by Cher Lloyd : see https://movingtoyshop.wordpress.com/2011/07/05/cher-hatred/), and triply so for The Voice – watching an episode of this while American Idol was still on was a deep national embarrassment in terms of the quality of the contestants and the inane over-the-top antics of the Judges. Oh well at least a really superb dancing dog won Britain’s Got Talent (and the final showed it really had). Hail Ashley and Pudsey!

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