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Five lessons from American Idol Season 11: Talent-rich competition promises another male winner

Five lessons from American Idol Season 11: Talent-rich competition promises another male winner

After a roller coaster of a season, American Idol’s final two will duel for the crown tonight on part one of the Season 11 finale. Whether you were captivated, frustrated or inspired over the past four months (I was all of the above), there’s no doubt this talent-rich season has proven to be one of the most memorable in Idol history. Before the confetti falls on Phillip Phillips or Jessica Sanchez Wednesday night, let’s take a look at what Season 11 taught us:

Steven Tyler digs melody, Randy Jackson played with Journey and Jennifer Lopez has abs

Oh wait…

Even in its double digits, there’s no shortage of talent on Idol

In all seriousness, while I’m partial to the characters in Season Five and still enamored by the sparkle of Season Eight, I think Season 11 may go down as the best season in Idol history, based on the sheer amount of talent.

Looking back, no season was without a moment that transcended the competition, a la Adam Lambert’s “Mad World” or Fantasia’s “Summertime.” But by simple math, none had as many as Season 11. Between Skylar Laine’s “The Show Must Go On,” Joshua Ledet’s “To Love Somebody,” Jessica Sanchez’s “I Will Always Love You” and Elise Testone’s “Vienna,” just to name a few, this season raised the bar for the kind of performances judges and viewers alike expect.

 It wasn’t just about promising contestants displaying their potential; it was about promising contestants realizing their potential.  

It wasn’t just about promising contestants displaying their potential; it was about promising contestants realizing their potential. Remember when we were left wanting more when Ledet only sort of slayed “A Change is Gonna Come”? Or how rewarding it was to see Hollie Cavanagh finally display guttural emotion on “Bleeding Love”? Season 11 ushered in a new set of standards.

That’s quite a feat, considering Idol’s machine has been churning for 10 years this spring, seven seasons past what’s generally regarded as Idol’s peak season. Singing competitions may be a dime a dozen these days, but make no mistake: the undiscovered talent is still out there, and Idol –be it via the producers, judges or luck—tapped into it this season.

Idol is boring television

And amen for that. While similar shows have recently made splashy headlines thanks to judges’ feuds and celebrity announcements, Idol’s remained the drama-free adult in the room – traditional, predictable and focused. Its biggest stories came from Jermaine Jones’ mid-season ouster, Sanchez’s “save” and Phillips’ health battles, none of which made much of an impression.

What’s slowly become apparent over the past few years – following the rotating exits of Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell and Ellen DeGeneres—is that Idol is a show that relies almost solely on its format and contestants. Even when you remove its most infamous judge and replace him with a gentle, incoherent rock star, the talent, for the most part, prevails.

That’s not to say I’m opposed to a shake-up next year –-I’m looking at you, Randy Jackson — that could give the show a sharper critical eye. It’s just that I’m frankly unfazed that the ratings are down slightly this season. Until they pull Idol from my TV, I’ll continue to judge the success of the show based on the strength of the contestants and the quality of their post-show endeavors (I don’t care if Allison Iraheta only sold 100,000 albums; those are killer tunes).

And in this regard, Idol is still kicking the cool kids’ asses.

There’s a special place in music heaven for Idol’s third place finishers

My Idol heart broke a little last week when 20-year-old Ledet joined the ranks of superb third place finishers Elliot Yamin, Melinda Doolittle and Haley Reinhart. Over the past several weeks, Ledet proved he not only has that voice, but also the instinct, artistic maturity and emotional depth to match some of the best recording artists in the music industry.

Every once and awhile, Idol is luckier to find a contestant than the contestant is to find Idol. Ledet is one of those contestants. (#whatcouldhavebeen)

A girl may never win Idol again

Here’s the thing: five years ago, I would’ve found this season’s finale exciting – the coolly confident singer-songwriter versus the teenager with diva-sized chops. Optically, it has the yin-yang effect of Carrie Underwood and Bo Bice’s Season Four finale.

But I already know how this story ends. Because for all the faith I have in the Idol franchise, there’s one thing for which I’ve lost hope, and that’s a female Idol winner.

 Personally, though, the singer’s singers are usually the ones to strike a chord with me, and 16-year-old Sanchez is no different. Her talent outsizes almost any contestant we’ve seen on this show in 11 seasons. 

Maybe tomorrow night’s finale will prove me wrong, but the voters' gender bias is undeniable. I remember the first time I read about the WGWG (“White Guy With Guitar”) theory, thinking it was the spawn of melodramatic fans with a chip on their shoulder. But years later, it’s not only played itself out three times over on the show, it now makes a lot of sense to me. As a country music writer, it’s a topic I come across often, albeit in a different sense. 

With that said, blindly applying theories is ignorant and discrediting, especially when you have a contestant as good as 21-year-old Phillips. I don’t believe he floated to the top simply on his gender and genre, even if the odds may have been ever in his favor. He’s genuine, creative and has a firm grasp on his identity. He delivered a small but impactful share of rousing performances this season, and he clearly connects with viewers in a way others didn’t.

Personally, though, the singer’s singers are usually the ones to strike a chord with me, and 16-year-old Sanchez is no different. Her talent outsizes almost any contestant we’ve seen on this show in 11 seasons, and while Phillips has the deeper sense of self right now, I think her potential exceeds his. I keep coming back to what producer Jimmy Iovine said about her yesterday in an interview: “Jessica is born with one of those gifts that you see very, very rarely… there are so few people who can sing like that in the industry today.”

Sanchez lacks the experience to fully tap into the reservoir of her emotions, but when she gets there, I have an inkling that her explosive voice is going to make a mark on the industry. 

Tune in tonight and Wednesday for the two-part season finale, and chime in with your thoughts on Season 11 below. 

Get more of Tara Seetharam's pop culture musings on her website www.taraseetharam.com and follow her on Twitter @TaraAshley

News_American Idol_Phil Phillips_May 2012
Phillip Phillips is the likely winner. FOX
News_American Idol_Jessica Sanchez_March 2012
Jessica Sanchez's talent outsizes almost any contestant we’ve seen on this show in 11 seasons Photo by Michael Becker/Fox
News_American Idol_Joshua Ledet_May 2012
Joshua Ledet’s “To Love Somebody"  was a season highlight. FOX