Forget artistry, ‘Idol' is all about niches now

As anyone with a computer on which to bang out their disapproval can tell you, there's been a decided lack of magic this season on "American Idol."

The contestants are lackluster to the point where Crystal Bowersox, the rootsy, whiskey-voiced singer — who in previous seasons would have been escorted out the door by the top 10 — is considered the front-runner. The judges are varying degrees of useless: too nonsensical, too timid, too enthusiastically clinical, too already out the door. And Ryan Seacrest ... oy, don't get me started on him.

The host's jumpy nincompoopery notwithstanding, though, there seems to be a more fundamental shift in the show's very goals. It used to be that "Idol" celebrated mass appeal and aimed to discover a pop star whom we could all, in theory, agree on. It presented itself as the great dream machine of the new century.

Now "Idol" seems to have abandoned the dream altogether, and is emphasizing niche appeal instead. No wonder the contestants this season haven't been breaking a sweat or taking any kind of risks — nobody's competing against one another anymore.

They're just doing their respective things and getting eliminated whenever, satisfied that they've gotten enough exposure to turbo-boost their careers. The contestants stay confident in the knowledge that they never "betrayed" themselves by, say, putting down the guitar and being anything other than a watered-down Jonny Lang, Casey James.

Conformity is the name of the game
Despite the show's reputation for conformity at all costs, it wasn't always like this. Contestants were once expected to run the gauntlet of a whole host of different styles in order to make it to the end. Versatility was a virtue.

It's not for nothing that Kelly Clarkson's most celebrated performance wasn't any of her three Aretha Franklin songs or anything resembling her later pop-rock hits, but "Stuff Like That There" from Big Band Night. Similarly, Carrie Underwood's cover of Heart's power ballad "Alone" is widely considered her crowning moment.

This season, by contrast, the contestants aren't just expected — but are encouraged — to make the themes conform to what they do, rather than vice versa. There's no denying that that's been a tactic in the past: Chris Daughtry was notorious for turning the dial for every song — from Johnny Cash to Stevie Wonder to Bryan Adams — to "maximum Creed," but it's never been taken up by just about the entire lineup at once. Instead of exploring contestants' stylistic ranges and discovering their untapped strengths, we're watching them dig in at the first spot of cover and wait their opponents out. It's trench warfare, with melisma.

In that sense, this season's Shania Twain show was a masterstroke despite seeming at first glance like an oddly limiting choice. (She probably has the smallest song catalogue of any single-performer theme in "Idol" history.) But as Twain admitted, her songs are designed to be molded to any genre. Her 2002 album "Up!" was released in three different mixes for three different markets. That made her the ideal artist to be covered this season, allowing the singers to honor her by disregarding her originals entirely.

The judges seem to have given up on the prospect of a multifaceted, pan-genre winner as well. If the contestants won't budge from the specific thing they do, the question then becomes: Is the thing they're doing saleable? It's clearly on the judges' minds. They don't talk about talent or artistry anymore, though the word "artist" is certainly tossed around enough to make the contestants seem a lot more substantial than they actually are.

What they've started talking about most of the time is marketing. Any time Simon Cowell refers to a contestant as "relevant" or Kara DioGuardi mentions the "format" where the singer could fit in, it's purely business talk.

After wee Aaron Kelly's performance of Twain's "You've Got a Way," Simon told him, "This is the kind of record, if you're going to make records, that you should make." Granted, that's been the subtext of the show from day one, not to mention probably an accurate reflection of an increasingly fragmented music industry. For some reason, though, the judges are just flat out admitting it this season.

That's been at the core of a lot of Simon's arguments with Kara: They're fighting over which radio stations to market the contestants to. In previous seasons, they wouldn't have bickered about, say, whether Kelly would do better in country or in pop. They would've simply marveled at or tsk-tsked what he could do in one or both.

The judges may couch it in terms of the singers not knowing who they are, but it's really just a problem of uncertainty over the best promotional push to give them. That's one reason Simon usually gets a twinkle in his eyes whenever Crystal Bowersox performs. He's thinking, "I know how — and where — to make money off of this girl."

It's not a new look for Simon, and "get back in your box" has been a boilerplate judges' comment of long standing. But the singlemindedness with which they've insisted that the contestants stick with what works for them — the push to get James to take a risk has been about his one-note performances, not about his stylistic consistency — has given away the game more openly than ever.

And the singers have been all too willing to play along. They may not ever achieve the level of broad popularity as Clarkson or Underwood, but they're not interested in it. The audience at home might not be, either. But it would be nice to know that somebody on "Idol" at least dreamed about it.

Marc Hirsh is a writer in Somerville, Mass.

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