With this year's Top 10, has American Idol finally kicked its "cute white guys with guitars" problem?
It looks like American Idol may have finally kicked its “white guys with guitars” problem.
Among the five male finalists chosen by viewers this week to move forward on the show, only one isn’t African American or Hispanic – in a recent first for the show. And that one male, country singer Paul Jolley, isn’t quite the unassuming, cute guitar-strumming singer-songwriter who has won the show over the past five years running.
(In fact, judge Keith Urban told Jolley to “un-cabaret” his performances, leading the gay-focused website AfterElton.com to accuse Urban of homophobia, presuming the country star was making vague assumptions about the singer’s sexual orientation.)
Idol’s judges and producers had already assured that the show wouldn’t get another Phillip Phillips or Lee DeWyze by packing its Top 10 male singers with a wide diversity of performers – from half Chinese, half Mexican 18-year-old crooner Elijah Liu to Devin Velez, a Chicago-based restaurant worker who often sings in Spanish and English.
Some knowledgeable fans have carped that the show also ensured a woman would win by fielding a crop of male singers who can’t compete with the ladies.
But this week’s performance shows revealed a core of talented male singers who outshone the women in many ways, with Velez, Naples, Fla.-raised Lazaro Arbos, New Orleans singer Burnell Taylor and 25-year-old gospel/soul wonder Curtis Finch Jr. turning in spellbinding performances. The Top Five didn’t even include two men who did admirable jobs the last two weeks: Nick Boddington and Vincent Powell.
Women can struggle on Idol. In 2011, the first five people ejected by audience vote were all female, including the show’s then-strongest singer, Pia Toscano. Shannon Magrane, the Tampa teen who made the show’s semi-finalist roster last year, told me “"It is so tough on women…I kept saying 'girl power, girl power.' But you had all those little girls dialing for Phillip (Phillips) and Colton (Dixon). … It's those Justin Bieber fans who are dialing in and crying."
This year, what surprised me most as a longtime Idol-watcher was how much soul, R&B and gospel flavors have taken over the contest this year. Taylor, Finch and powerhouse soul diva Candice Glover easily have the competition’s strongest voices.
But Idol has often not been a particularly welcoming home for soul singers. Top among the list of Idol injustices was the seventh-place finish for Jennifer Hudson – who would go on to win Oscar, Grammy and Golden Globe awards, developing a career outstripping most Idol winners – and an early exit for St. Petersburg competitor and soulful singer Michael Lynche, who was saved by the judges from his first ejection vote, ultimately placing fourth.
As past Idol contestants have noted, the biggest unseen obstacle on the show is the nerves and emotions of contestants, who can turn in performances above or beyond their typical abilities depending on how well they respond to the hothouse of attention the program provides.
Viewers most love to see singers blossom as the live episodes progress. But it is easy for longtime favorites to bore if they don’t find ways to up their game every week, and some of the best singers stumble by trying songs they can’t quite pull off or letting the tsunami of attention undermine their confidence.
Whatever happens, Idol producers will be relieved to see an end to snarky pieces about white-guy singers winning like this one.
That is, unless Jolley gets a sudden urge to pick up a guitar and grow a little beard stubble.