Editorial: Good singing does not mean good contestant

Nigel Lythgoe, the producer of American Idol, has said a lot in the past few days about Pia Toscano’s elimination. In particular, he might advocate a system like So You Think You Can Dance? has, where the Bottom 3 is chosen by popular vote, but the decision of who among them should go is left to the judges. Personally, I think this is a fine idea, and it wouldn’t make Idol any less fair, or probably any more fair either. Yes, the judges would have saved Pia, as they saved Casey, and maybe even Karen. Stefano may have gone home already, as would Paul.

But what of Ashthon Jones? The public rejected her in the vote for the Top 10, and the judges chose her as a wild card pick. That entire process was overseen only by the judges. No vote in the entire contest kept Ashton in. Her first week in the hands of the public, they voted her out. Lauren Turner arguably would have been a much stronger contestant, scoring significantly higher in the WNTS scores, and with a more distinct personality, reminiscent of other contestants such as Carly Smithson. The judges whiffed on that one big time.

The other revelation of Lythgoe’s is that Pia was, in fact, an average contestant when it came to vote totals. This wasn’t unforseen: she was frequently the tops according to the judges and critical review, but significantly underperformed on Dialidol. And Dialidol didn’t go far enough. While it often had her in the top 50% of the field, Lythgoe reports she wasn’t even there when the votes were counted. She was middle-of-the-pack.

I find this wholly believable. A good singer, which Pia most certainly was, does not necessarily make for a strong contestant.

If I were to list the contestants from Idol past that I favored, it would be made up of some very average singers. Blake Lewis, for instance, was not a great belter of tunes, had a somewhat limited range, and the texture of his voice was plain. But Lewis was a good contestant on Idol because he did interesting things. He put in beatboxing, popping dance, interesting and unusual arrangements. In short, he had verve. Nobody would accuse Pia of having that.

The same was true of Katharine McPhee, an equally attractive woman to Pia, though with a decent but not incredible voice. McPhee was a good player of the game, however. She chose Black Horse and a Cherry Tree, and was flanked by drummers on the stage. The whole thing was memorable. That kind of thing gets you votes not just that week, but for weeks to come. It earns forgiveness for bad or mediocre performances, which she surely had. She followed it up with an arrangement of Over The Rainbow that I didn’t care for, but I knew was shrewd. Again, nobody would accuse Pia of being shrewd. Her song choices were poor.

Yes, Pia might have been saved if not for Casey Abrams. But all the people crying that the save was wrongly used are contradicting themselves. Pia had weeks to establish herself as a strong contestant, and she never did that. She ran middle of the pack until she chose a Tina Turner song, and then she was gone. Casey, I would guess, is going to go much farther in the competition: that’s the mark of a good save. The question isn’t whether Pia was eliminated before the Finale, it was when. And we got our answer: when Tina Turner was involved, when her outfit was bad, and when other people performed more memorable songs. Even Jacob Lusk’s provocative statement generated some pre-results press. Pia had nothing. It was a shock when she was eliminated because, well, nobody was talking about Pia.

If her vote standing is being reported accurately by Lythgoe, which is not implausible, I don’t think we should lament this too much. Pia has gone on to do what people liked her doing: singing, on a record. And the contestants in the contest called American Idol keep on doing what they do, which is decidedly a lot more than just singing. Casey will bring out the upright bass again this week. What would Pia have brought out?

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