The NY Times Gets American Idol Wrong

I thought foreign papers sucked at covering Indian events, so I’m rather surprised to see that the New York Times does as bad a piece on this year’s American Idol as I’d have expected them to do on Indian Idol. Ignorance is the key: it seems unlikely to me that the writer of the piece, Stephen Holden, actually watches the show regularly. Being an Idol buff (and an idle one), I have a few points to make on his piece:

1. David Cook’s triumph can hardly be said to have “reversed last season’s trend, when Jordin Sparks, an unformed talent with a bubbly personality and a big voice, won, and the older and less glamorous but far more talented Melinda Doolittle came in third.” Firstly, both Cook and the man he beat, David Archuleta, are far more talented than anyone last year was, and comparing the two seasons is pointless. Secondly, viewers don’t vote based on one’s age or bubbliness, but on the individual they have in front of them. Extrapolating a ‘trend’ from this is silliness, the immaturity of an observer trying to find patterns where none exist.

2. Simon Cowell wasn’t “flip-flopping” by praising Cook earlier in the season and berating him in the finale. He was reacting differently to different performances. Duh!

3. Holden writes that Cook “refused to follow the unspoken guidelines for the competition.” Well, I don’t know what “unspoken guidelines” Holden has intuited, but the spoken guidelines on the show, constantly articulated by the judges, is that the singers do something different with the songs they choose, and infuse their own personality into it. Cook did this repeatedly, and was duly praised for it. He won, thus, because he followed the guidelines.

4. Holden writes of Cook: “Stylistically he occupies the same broad pop-to-rock territory as Bryan Adams.” This is nonsense. Cook is a hard-edged rocker, far from the pop-rock easy listening that Adams specializes in. This has been evident in his treatment of songs all season, as also in the album he recorded independently a couple of years ago, Analog Heart. (Torrent zindabad.)

5. When Cowell told the Davids, “You’ve got to hate your opponent”, he meant it as a joke, in keeping with the boxing theme of the night. American Idol hasn’t encouraged an adversarial edge among its participants at all. On the contrary, they get rather too soppy when someone gets voted out.

6. When Jimmy Kimmel referred to “19 weeks of karaoke”, I suspect he wasn’t slamming the show but making an affectionate, tongue-in-cheek allusion to Cowell’s tendency to refer to lifeless performances as “karaoke.” It was an in-joke you need to actually watch the show to get.

7. This season’s contestants were certainly not “an uninspiring group of singers.” The judges repeatedly spoke of how this was one of the best seasons of the show, and I agree. Singers like Michael Johns and Carly Smithson would have been credible winners in any other year, and there weren’t any Sanjaya-like weak links in the final 12. Was Holden actually watching?

Phew, that’s all for this piece. I suspect knocking American Idol has almost become an ideological thing in some quarters: It’s big money and big business, therefore it must be slammed. But it’s big money and big business because millions of people are riveted by how it makes the dreams of ordinary men and women come true, and how a good voice alone can get you noticed and change your life. Who would have heard of Cook and Archuleta 30 years ago?

Like Cowell, I liked both the Davids so much that I didn’t care who actually won. And by the time the finale began, it was irrelevant to their careers. They’ve built up substantial fan followings of their own that will be unaffected by the result of the show, and will no doubt have distinctive careers. All this, in just a few weeks. Wow.