Tuesday, July 3, 2012

PROGNOSTICATING IDOL'S FUTURE, BASED ON CURRENT TRENDS, PART I

So, as we've effortlessly established here, Idol is a downward slope. Their declining ratings allowed their competitors to smell blood and spawn more singing (karaoke?) competitions, both of which started in 2011 (ahem, X Factor USA and The Voice). But for Part I of this article, we'll only focus on how Idol is shooting themselves in the foot in affecting its future. In part II, we'll focus on how Idol's competitors might screw up Idol's contestant pool and contestant success in future years.

1) Idol is incompatible with the Current Music Market.

Idol probably still takes the cake for promoting its winners among all three shows (for now), due to their reputation as a show that has once spawned stars. Also, the show runs from January all the way to late May (with tons of audition/Hollywood footage as well as being the longest running Finals of all three shows~so the audience could "know" the contestants better). Then, they host the summer tour to cater to the Idol fanbase. Then, they sign with Interscope, which is a label that has had success with marketing current (even if vocally challenged) peops like LMFAO, Carly Rae Jepsen and Eminem. This whole process is why Idol's top five contestants, if they're able to make an impact, always grab over 100K followers on twitter--the process is drawn out such that they are able to get people's attention, at the very least, in increments over time. The contestants get ample opportunity to showcase themselves.

But that's where it ends: notice I said for now. Despite the constant structure and the opportunity for promotion that it presents, it's really the end product that matters, and if that doesn't succeed, it will trickle down into all aspects of the show. Just like analyzing players across sports, we start to look at the last five years as opposed to the whole aggregate. And Idol in that respect is just a case of splits: the last five years were what we in Jork Vs TPTB dub the WGWG-laden Epochs 3 and 4, but that's a stark contrast to Idol's "golden" years in Epoch 2. Through the span of Epochs 3 and 4, Idol has hemorrhaged a huge part of its 18-49 audience, and one could argue the teens as well--everyone knows that, by and large, music that populates the radio is what the teens like (One Direction, anyone?) and if the teens don't like you well enough, then your voice won't get heard. 


Let's get right to it: the average age of the typical Idol viewer is 48 years old, 14 years older than when Idol first premiered in 2002. That's a good and reliable audience for buying Susan Boyle/Jackie Evancho music, and I'd still argue they can have an impact (Lionel Richie's album sold well), but face it, is Idol churning out 10-year old classical singers or 50-year old types singing musical hits? Nope. That's probably for X Factor, which has that age range from 10-google, while Idol only prefers its niche brand of 15-28 types. So if Idol winners (and 2nd/3rd placers) are going to rely on their 48 year olds to purchase their music, well, that's not a recipe for radio to start spinning the tracks. 


Anyway, so if (1) you're not going to get the teen audience, then we have to go to (2) you better have caught fire at a time when your style of music was popular, so that when you start to hemorrhage your fanbase you'd still have enough to buy your album. So, if you're wondering why Lionel Richie is still selling in Epoch 4, during a world of electropop, there's your answer. And if you're wondering why Linkin Park is able to be a chart topper in 2012, also in a world of electropop, it's because they've gained a ton of fans way back when (Epoch 1) to carry over to today. Not to mention that Linkin Park's really a rap rock/nu metal sort of group, and their collaboration with Jay Z earned them a ton of hip hop fans, so the transition to today's music is actually quite easy for them. Anyway, that's why the getting-one-foot-in-the-door aspect is very important. And in order to get the fanbase for (2), you better utilize the concept of (3) piggybacking. That was illustrated already in all of my epoch articles, so I'll spare the words, but needless to say if there's already someone in the charts that's similar to your style of music, then it helps a lot. Some of them turn out to be flashes in the pan (Owl City, Gotye?) but having a similar sound to what's current will pique the interest of radio types.


Get that fanbase by piggybacking and/or teens = get that reputation with radio = get more freedom for sound experimentation. That's the recipe.


We've already discussed at length about how WGWGs are no longer becoming chart toppers or populating radio at large, but that's what Idol keeps producing. So until Nickelback or something catches fire once again, Idol's just in a holding pattern--it's a show that just cannot dictate the flow of music, rather it has to latch on to the "current sound". And the WGWG sound is not it for now (if some consider Gotye a WGWG, I'd argue he got lucky and caught fire internationally before it became a hit here). Idol's promotion starts in the States, and if lucky, it grows outward internationally. But since Idol has had a hard time conquering the States themselves, well, then there's no luck internationally. Again, the sound is not in the "in", and it's obvious why--


2) Idol is lousy at branding its "pop" contestants.


 I'd even argue that the WGWGs get a lot more free rein--certainly, their rate of introducing new songs in what I call my "creativity" marker is well higher. Even country contestants, such as Skylar Laine and Scotty McCreery from last year, have high creativity marks. Just look at the creativity markers here for stark contrast. The thing is, as established at 1) above, unless the WGWG sound is hot, Idol won't produce any hit churners. Idol can easily do that with country--it's a relatively fluid market that doesn't change too much over the course of time, and they feel  a kinship with the "cheesy" coronation songs Idol often churns up--but do they want to be known as country Idol? Not sure about that. 


But look everywhere else--Idol pop/soul singers are forced to do all the ballads and old-school Motown songs that populated by and large the first Epoch. That's an awful way to brand yourself--nowadays, it just appears to be better as a "hey, I look the part, I sing current pop music, albeit halfway adequately" rather than "I'm an excellent singer who can go through all the runs and trills and '60s songs. Oh yeah!". Yeah, the first is more interchangeable, and that's a subject that has long irritated the median-age Idol viewer, as many pine for the days when musicianship, and then singing, was at a premium (probably in that order). For reference, Joshua Ledet, Hollie Cavanagh and Jessica Sanchez had some of the lowest creativity scores of the past year--they were doing a ton of songs that have been done on Idol billions of times to the point of running over a horse, backing up, and running over it again. And that's a songbook issue--Idol avoids music from the 1990s and beyond like it's a plague. While this is fine for the WGWGs and country music--the former can strum their guitar and twist up the song, while the latter can instill the twang--the pop/gospel types have to sing it straight up, eliciting greater comparisons to the original. And that's why Idol's "pop" contestants never win with the audience, although we'll get to that audience even more in 3) below. 


And even if Interscope "likes" a contestant enough to sign them (i.e. Pia Toscano), even they struggle to re-create a more current identity for the contestant, since Idol has already branded said contestant as an old-fashioned type through their constant <3 of old songs. It doesn't help that Pia had zero stage presence, but that's another story. But that's why Interscope, which is largely a hip hop record label, and theoretically should be a good fit for whatever "pop" types Idol churns out, just struggles with Idol contestants. Stefano Langone also attempted to branch off into pop and redefine his image from Idol--again, that's what the "pop/soul" contestants have to do. If you ever wondered why Jessica Sanchez didn't sing the songs from her pre-Idol youtubes on Idol, that's why--she even admitted that she was forced to do "competition-type songs" on the show. Read: Nigel wants all of the "pop/R&B contestants to do Whitney, Mariah, Motown. The list ends there. And like Langone and Toscano, she's saying the typical stuff: Oh, I'm going to do more up-tempo, my sound is going to be more current, I'm going to do more current songs, etc. 


Anyway, let's go back to Langone, or "Stefano" as he's called nowadays. While he has the right idea to "revamp" his image to fit the current market by teaming up with New Boyz (they've been affiliated with Hot Chelle Rae and Chris Brown, both of whom have been able to gain radio presence) and by attempting the currently lucrative pop/electro market, I think that stigma is too deeply ingrained--he was old-fashioned on Idol, with the exception of a few Ne-Yo/Bruno Mars songs, and he probably was forced to act "cheesy" in order to appear less threatening to the Idol audience. That's why Idol never gets any contemporary hip hop/R&B types--they'd probably appear too threatening to the Idol audience. Again, we'll get into that in 3) below.


I'd also wonder if Interscope is giving up on making the contestants current. Two things: in AI10, Jimmy brought in his bandwagon of music producers, like Ron Fair, Jim Jonsin, Darkchild, and Rock Mafia, among others. These are by and large current music producers--in fact, the last three have had hip hop hits in the 2000s, so sheerly by name recognition the prevailing thought was that they'd help to make the Idols more current. But instead, we saw Idols stay in their lane--and apparently the music producers got tired of producing stuff for country, metal, old soul, etc, because even they realize that it just doesn't sell nowadays. On a side note: wasn't it funny to have Darkchild, who's penned hits for Lady Gaga and Destiny's Child, write country songs for Scotty McCreery for the competition? These guys effectively sold out, but just to save face, they have to coin terms like "Darkchild goes country" for the lol factor. These producers had their uses: while Idol still insisted on using old songs, at the very least the producers tried to modernize them to fit the style of current music (i.e. pop/R&B beats), even if it often drew the ire of the median-age Idol viewer. Also, some of the contestants were able to team up with the producers after the show (Pia with Darkchild, Stefano with Rock Mafia) but as mentioned, they were way too immersed with the poor in-show old-school branding that Idol gave them, that even the producers couldn't help re-define their image/sound.

But the more alarming thing is that Jimmy seems to be giving up the current sound. The stable of those music producers went away for AI11, and while Idol's had a few vocal coaches, does anyone think that Michael Orland or Peisha McPhee can help contestants "brand" their voices into a contemporary fashion? Michael doesn't appear to have any contemporary credits to his name, and Peisha McPhee is best known as being Katharine McPhee's mom, more or less. Also, considering Jimmy helped the contestants with song selection, the fact that he encouraged all of the pop/R&B singers to sing Idol's old stuff is alarming. Last year, he at least offered "You and I" by Lady Gaga and "Rolling in the Deep" by Adele (before that song became overdone) to Haley, tried to get Paul McDonald to sing the horrible but at least contemporary James Blunt song "You're Beautiful", and at the top three gave Scotty McCreery a contemporary Thompson Square song and Lauren Alaina a contemporary The Band Perry song. That at the very least helped the show appear fresher.

This year, Colton had the lion's share of contemporary songs, but it appears that Colton chose those songs more of his own volition, rather than Jimmy giving it to him. Having done spoilers for this crew, Phillip and Jessica (ironically, the top two of this season) were the two contestants who deviated the most from what they did pre-Idol. Both were dumbed down by Idol's song choices, by and large. Phillip survived in large part due to the audience, which was already receptive to WGWGs, (see below, again) but also because he rearranged the songs beyond recognition to fit his limited range. But before Idol, all I saw was hip hop...more hip hop...and more hip hop. That's why with the success of Linkin Park, his route is probably more that way...and that would explain why he would hate his coronation song as well, most likely because he doesn't want to be known as a Mumford and Sons piggybacker (Mumford, while successful on an album perspective, hasn't had many chart hits at all). Jessica as mentioned was forced by Idol to conform to singing old songs as a play for votes.

So in terms of really branding the contestants the way they wanted to be branded (what they were pre-Idol), both Jimmy and Idol failed on both counts. But to see where Jimmy's really at play with song choices, look at the top three choices: No More Drama (2001), I'll Be There (1970), and We've Got Tonight (1978). In order to make them appear "marketable", he gave Jessica and Phillip 1970s songs *facepalm*. The Joshua song was more recent, but even then that song wasn't too too well known, even among the 2000s kids. Ultimately, Jimmy failed at all three counts here. And then, we get to the coronation songs, where Jimmy showed even worse instincts by giving Jessica "Change Nothing".

He gave Phillip a better song, "Home", and while that song has gotten decent airplay because it sounds better than most coronation songs, considering the market there is for WGWGs he'd probably be better served giving a better song for Jessica and a worse song for Phillip. Considering the popularity of Charice, and considering that AI hasn't tested the rabid Filipino  base since Jasmine Trias all the way back in Epoch 1, it's way better to test those waters rather than to keep dipping yourself into the same median-age Idol audience pool over and over again, because as Albert Einstein once said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. And as X Factor likes to emphasize the international appeal, Jessica also has more international appeal, between the Filipino fanbase and the fact that pop is more receptive to the international masses to begin with. She has more followers (705K)--nearly double as many as Phillips (482K), and even more than McCreery, last year's winner (579K). There's definitely the Filipino fanbase for her. Instead, with the winner, Idol's dipping itself into that water for the fifth time in a row.

But back to the subject at hand, it's surprising that for a hip hop label, Interscope's really struggling with the pop contestants, between AI10 and AI11. Idol exacerbates the issue and it will forever remain an issue until they completely obliterate their stringent decade/theme weeks, but Jimmy also took a step backwards particularly during AI11. They could get lucky with Jessica though--having done spoilers for other shows, they might be lucky that she didn't join X Factor, because she very nearly did for XFUS1. Instead, she's actually done stuff that's attracted a few 2000s hitmakers, like Akon (incidentally, read the article: Akon subtly disses American Idol by saying that she's "overqualified for the show", and wants her to be voted so that he can sign her--Konvict Music anyone?) and Jesse McCartney (who found success with a sound that piggybacked off Justin Timberlake circa 2006). That sort of outside marketing only helps these contestants. And with the rabid Filipino fanbase which she simply accumulated because she advanced that far into the competition, she might find a few good singles in spite of Idol and Jimmy. Sometimes it's that sort of luck, but still, Idol's and Interscope's track record with branding the "pop" types are horrible. Don't give people the impression you want to be Celine Dion, if Beyonce's your goal. Simple as that. If you've lost the identity, you've lost the branding, and then you've lost the narrative, and simply stated, you've lost the opportunity. Incidentally, some have tried to get into that pop market after displaying their style completely differently on the Idol Stage--look no further than Didi Benami (who was an acoustic guitar strummer on Idol) and Antonella Barba (sang Idol staples during her run).


Let's look back for some precedence on this matter. Kelly Clarkson had a distinct sound on top of being a good singer, but even that's not enough. I've touched a lot about this on Epoch 1: I mentioned that she sort of piggybacked off P!nk with a rock ballad sort of sound, and they also had similar topics about sour relationships. In fact, that's largely what propelled the success of her Breakaway album, so by finding the sound that's hot, and establishing a similar topic across all of the songs in the album, that's how you gain success. She gained a lot of fans that way and even though subsequent albums were more generic, she gave herself more leeway to screw up, so she still sold better than most Idol alums. That's why we keep emphasizing the one-foot-in-the-door aspect. 


Jordin Sparks' sound was more generic--I remember she said that she wanted to be a Beyonce-lite coming off her Idol win, but she portrayed herself as a bit Disney-esque throughout her Idol run, and while her songs were positive and poppy, they were awfully generic. It was only when she did that ballad with Chris Brown and leeched off his followers did she gain a ton more followers. But, the sound never took off because of the Disney-esque stigma that Idol cast on her, her second album was completely rudderless even though she repeatedly kept trying to say it was about female empowerment, and she's been relegated to leeching off Jason DeRulo for his followers and also doing movies like Sparkle. This isn't to say she isn't a failure--for Idol standards, she's actually one of the better ones--she leeched off the right people to gain new followers, and that's why she's 2nd in relevant youtube views and 3rd in overall youtube views. She just can't sustain music by herself, and is casting herself as an actress/singer type. Idol tends to do that with many anyway--many of these types go to Broadway, or just do nothing at the very end. But Jordin shows that even with a lack of branding, as long as you're immersed into pop music, there are still avenues for success.


What's also funny is that Idol has J-Lo to look at for "proper" branding: she established herself as "Jenny From The Block", with the Bronx-tough-girl attitude, teamed up with rappers to solidify the image early on, and projected a dance pop vibe even in the late 1990s/early 2000s when this started out. Yeah, she couldn't sing at all, but that's why branding is more important than singing: the Idol Genentech machine has churned out a ton of singing-bots and musician-bots, but does it matter if they don't brand themselves in a relatively unique way? There's no way to gain fans. And she's continues the dance/electro-pop aspect in her songs today, and is able to maintain, and possibly improve, her base with Idol's help. It's funny how many of the contestants don't understand this sort of branding within the Idolsphere, and they just act as singing-bots, willing to sing all the old songs, cave into the competition, and not really care about the consequences as much post-Idol. That's what hurts them the most.


Ultimately, Idol is holding down its contestants down by improper branding, and I'd say they are just getting lucky because their contestants have some sort of appeal to the outside (Jessica=Filipinos) or because their contestants are lucky to team up with others (Jordin). But in part II of this article, we'll focus on what Idol will have to face if X Factor, where their judges are known for saying, "You look/act like a pop star", produces a pop type that has more success than Idol does, especically with Idol's proclivity for WGWGs.

3) Continuing with the first two...the age factor

Face it...Idol's audience skews old. As mentioned, this makes Idol completely incompatible with the music market, as elaborately discussed in 1) above. With the clear lack of overs and young classical girls, the next best thing for Idol's audience is the musicians, and because Idol always casts at least two or three of these every season, the law of averages always state that one will run. Simple logic--if one gets kicked out, they inherit the rest of the votes, unless the judges do some serious depimping (which see below, has never happened in the AI10-11 era). If WGWGs were actually popular worldwide, Idol would be a good business model--that's what it churns all the time. But it isn't, and Idol's left with tons of flops at the end. This also has a trickle-down effect on Idol's "pop" types--because of the audience, many of them, as mentioned in 2), are forced to be docile, sing slow ballads, and not sing anything upbeat for fear of not raking in the votes or being "too hostile".

This also jibes with the fact that Idol has never had any hip-hop or rap types, even though it's been around the US for nearly forty years and has dominated the charts ever since Idol first started. They're too hostile for Idol's "family-oriented" show, and have been left out for 11 seasons as a result. Instead, we see Joshua Ledets and other old-soul types who have their best bet in a relatively profitable, but incredibly niche, urban market. But for those who do have the "pop" aspirations, the Toscanos, the Langones, and possibly the Sanchezes, they end up branding themselves in a completely different way on the show, and their subsequent pop albums, no matter how good they sound, just don't gain traction. It's bad enough Idol's audience couldn't give them the winner treatment, but that they had to sell their soul to sing old songs just to gain exposure, which doesn't pay off because the viewing public never agreed with their sound in the first place. It's a vicious cycle which happens with Idol's "pop" types, and because the WGWG sound has eroded from the charts since 2009-2010, it's why Idol, despite increasing numbers of contestants, is actually seeing diminishing returns. It's a horrible business model  because of the audience.

This is also reflected in various internet websites which receive fewer comments on Idol-related news. There's more chatter reflecting the median-age Idol viewer's concern regarding why their favorite WGWG contestant isn't doing well, and album sales predictions and charts show that only Kelly Clarkson and country artists are doing stuff that's relevant nowadays. Idol-centric blogs find more slow news days because fewer and fewer Idols are enjoying success, so many of them have to cover that up and find more side topics/other competition shows to discuss, but even they know that they are getting fewer hits, getting the same tired comments and seeing fewer articles to post than ever before. Considering everything's progressively being relayed through the Internet nowadays, if you're seeing diminishing returns on the interwebs, that means the business model is getting even worse.


Ultimately, if Idol wants to maintain its audience, it needs to find a perfect medium--getting a relevant contestant to today's music, one has a sound that can piggyback off current chart toppers, and also one that could possibly appeal to the tweens of today and also the median-age Idol viewers who watch the show. WGWGs as mentioned as out of the question, the pop types can't catch on with Idol viewers and have their credibility tarnished by singing old songs, so it's really hard to find this type. David Archuleta was perhaps one of these during AI7, but he came at a time just right after Hannah Montana and right before Bieber as mentioned in Epoch 3. Perhaps it's a tween type, but it's hard to say at this point. Idol would be better served trying to lose those viewers and make itself more relevant, but this being a TV show it's obvious they won't do that.


4) Horrific judging


I doubt judging matters for the future--it might matter with TV ratings, perhaps, but as a marketability blog, it doesn't hurt as much as the three above. Certainly telling "it was beautiful" to a contestant who largely hides behind their guitar and has limited range does zilch to improve them, and it also makes viewers lose brain cells, even if that might not affect the viewers too much. That's why in the fourth epoch we've largely seen contestants who were exactly the same in style from start to finish--Scotty McCreery and Phillip Phillips didn't do anything differently from their initial audition to their performance in the finale. Judging, however, does set parameters for who does well and who doesn't--if you're in college, wouldn't you be pissed if you got all the correct answers and got an "A" for the paper, while a fellow classmate got all wrong answers and also got an "A" for the paper? Stuff like that makes me wonder if people like Jessica gets pissed for the amount of effort Phillip puts in. So judging could have skewed a few of the results had the judges actually had a pulse in doing actual "judging", but they opted not to and let the cards fall as they may, which, just like entropy leads to eventual clutter in reality, leads to a WGWG in American Idol. Idol's lucky XFUS and The Voice didn't do much better at all in terms of actual judging, if better at all, but if one of these shows actually focuses on judging and presents a stark contrast with Idol, then they might be forced to change (No, The Sing-Off doesn't count because no one watches that show). I'll end this first part with a youtube showing Christoph Waltz of Inglorious Basterds just proving how incompetent the Idol judges are. 





See Part II of this article next time.

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