Who not to sing

How smart is it to sing a Luther Vandross song on Idol? What about a Tina Turner song?

What you might say is that there’s no real answer to this. If you sing a great rendition of a song by one of those artists, you’re likely to be safe, right? I would mainly agree. But the artists whose songs are covered on Idol vary in popularity, and their songs lend themselves better or worse to the contest than other artists, surely. And it ought to be at least somewhat quantifiable.

Singing a Shirley Bassey song (I Who Have Nothing, As Long as He Needs Me) is pretty safe. 7 people have done so, and none of them was ever put in the bottom 3 by doing it. Singing an Adele song is pretty unsafe. 7 people have done so, and only 1 was ever safe.

So, accepting the premise that the success of a song choice is somewhat dependent on artist, here I’m going to discuss a way of rating these artists. It’s imperfect and somewhat subjective, but it is at least consistent, and gives a convenient way to rate song choice. The result is the composite index calculated below.

More after the jump

Here are the rules. First, I compile a list of all artists

  • whose songs have been sung more than 3 times, and
  • who have had more than one of their songs sung

I do not include instances where a contestant was forced to choose the artist, such as a theme week. Barry Manilow week was unsurprisingly the only week (other than one)* in which a Barry Manilow song was ever sung on Idol (thank merciful god). Focusing on those does not inform us as to how safe choosing a Barry Manilow song is. On the other hand, Stevie Wonder songs have been sung outside of Stevie Wonder week, so those instances are counted. We also shouldn’t include songs that were reprised in the finale. Finally, we should only count it if the artist is primarily known for the song. So, I don’t count all the renditions of Respect for Otis Redding (the original artist); instead, they count for Aretha Franklin.

The first important statistic is what fraction of the performances landed someone in the bottom 3, or had somebody safe. One could just calculate this and be done with it, and that statistic, the safe-ratio is displayed in the table below.

However, this by itself is too facile, since it would indicate that Johnny Cash is a sure thing, even though Cash songs have only been sung 3 times. So, the first step along the way is to incorporate uncertainty into the calculation, and weigh artists that have been sung more times more heavily. Another thing that should be taken into account is how likely someone was to be in the bottom 3 regardless of the song. In particular, if someone has already been in the bottom 3, then when he sings a given artist all things aren’t equal. That is, the number of performances by people who had already been in the bottom 3 is a mitigating factor, and should pull the index up.

Below is an attempt at such a composite index, the “safe-artist index”, for lack of a better term. The third column shows the total instances of an artist’s song being sung (subject to the criteria above). The next column shows the ratio of such performances where the person was safe (not bottom 3, wild card, saved, or eliminated). The column after that shows how many of those performances were by contestants who had already been in the bottom 3 prior to that performance. Finally, the last column is the index itself. The people at the top are the safest to sing, and those at the bottom are the least safe.

More analysis after the table.

 

Rank Artist Total
sung
Safe Ratio Bottom
prev.
Safe-artist
Index
1 Ella Fitzgerald 9 0.889 6 1.62
2 Led Zeppelin 3 0.667 3 1.45
3 Bonnie Tyler 5 0.800 3 1.39
4 Judy Garland 11 0.818 5 1.38
5 Johnny Cash 3 1.000 1 1.36
6 Aerosmith 10 0.900 3 1.36
7 Rascal Flatts 4 1.000 1 1.35
8 The Rolling Stones 4 1.000 1 1.35
9 Shirley Bassey 7 1.000 1 1.33
10 Luther Vandross 18 0.833 5 1.28
11 Keith Urban 8 0.875 2 1.27
12 Bill Withers 7 0.857 2 1.26
13 Dionne Warwick 11 0.727 5 1.26
14 Simon & Garfunkel 5 0.800 2 1.24
15 Bryan Adams 11 0.455 8 1.23
16 Bob Dylan 4 0.750 2 1.22
17 Martina McBride 14 0.857 2 1.19
18 Alanis Morissette 3 0.333 2 1.18
19 Natalie Cole 3 0.333 2 1.18
20 Mariah Carey 14 0.714 5 1.17
21 Nat King Cole 13 0.692 5 1.16
22 John Lennon 6 0.667 3 1.16
23 Sam Cooke 6 0.667 3 1.16
24 Don McLean 4 1.000 0 1.15
25 Linda Ronstadt 4 1.000 0 1.15
26 Sara Evans 4 1.000 0 1.15
27 The Black Crowes 4 1.000 0 1.15
28 Celine Dion 27 0.704 8 1.14
29 Frank Sinatra 10 0.500 6 1.13
30 Joe Cocker 6 0.833 1 1.12
31 Faith Hill 11 0.727 3 1.11
32 John Legend 3 1.000 0 1.10
33 Kenny Rogers 3 1.000 0 1.10
34 Paul McCartney 3 1.000 0 1.10
35 Reba McEntire 3 1.000 0 1.10
36 Richard Marx 3 1.000 0 1.10
37 Rod Stewart 3 1.000 0 1.10
38 The Pretenders 3 1.000 0 1.10
39 The Zombies 3 1.000 0 1.10
40 Wilson Pickett 3 1.000 0 1.10
41 Gladys Knight & The Pips 5 0.800 1 1.08
42 Beyonce 8 0.875 0 1.07
43 Barbra Streisand 9 0.667 3 1.07
44 Creedence Clearwater Revival 8 0.500 4 1.05
45 Lady Gaga 6 0.500 3 1.05
46 Etta James 4 0.500 2 1.05
47 Irene Cara 4 0.500 2 1.05
48 Elton John 15 0.667 4 1.04
49 Heart 12 0.833 0 1.04
50 Bonnie Raitt 10 0.600 4 1.04
51 Smokey Robinson 9 0.778 1 1.04
52 The Beatles 9 0.778 1 1.04
53 Janis Joplin 8 0.625 3 1.04
54 Blood, Sweat & Tears 4 0.750 1 1.02
55 Roy Orbison 4 0.750 1 1.02
56 The Dixie Chicks 4 0.750 1 1.02
57 Donna Summer 11 0.545 5 1.02
58 Marvin Gaye 24 0.667 5 1.01
59 Stevie Wonder 37 0.730 3 1.01
60 Garth Brooks 8 0.750 1 1.00
61 Maroon 5 7 0.571 3 1.00
62 Phil Collins 13 0.692 2 0.98
63 The Drifters 5 0.600 2 0.97
64 Mary J. Blige 5 0.400 2 0.97
65 Gloria Estefan 7 0.714 1 0.96
66 Martha & The Vandellas 8 0.500 3 0.95
67 The Four Tops 9 0.778 0 0.95
68 Diana Ross / Supremes 21 0.571 6 0.95
69 The Temptations 13 0.615 3 0.94
70 Billie Holiday 8 0.625 2 0.94
71 Christina Aguilera 10 0.700 1 0.93
72 Dusty Springfield 9 0.556 3 0.92
73 Queen 9 0.556 3 0.92
74 Bette Midler 6 0.500 2 0.92
75 Bruno Mars 6 0.500 2 0.92
76 The Police 6 0.500 2 0.92
77 Foreigner 3 0.333 1 0.92
78 James Taylor 6 0.667 1 0.90
79 Otis Redding 6 0.667 1 0.90
80 Aretha Franklin 27 0.630 3 0.89
81 Chaka Khan 7 0.429 2 0.88
82 Earth, Wind & Fire 7 0.429 2 0.88
83 Brian McKnight 10 0.600 2 0.88
84 Elvis Presley 13 0.615 2 0.88
85 Donny Hathaway 8 0.375 3 0.87
86 Michael Bolton 15 0.467 4 0.87
87 Michael Jackson 12 0.500 3 0.86
88 Travis Tritt 4 0.500 1 0.86
89 Whitney Houston 37 0.486 9 0.85
90 The Jackson 5 11 0.636 1 0.85
91 Edwin McCain 7 0.714 0 0.85
92 James Morrison 4 0.750 0 0.82
93 Lynyrd Skynyrd 4 0.750 0 0.82
94 Billy Joel 5 0.600 1 0.82
95 Fleetwood Mac 5 0.600 1 0.82
96 Pat Benatar 5 0.600 1 0.82
97 Michael Buble 10 0.500 2 0.82
98 Tina Turner (w/ or w/o Ike) 18 0.389 6 0.81
99 Ray Charles 6 0.333 2 0.81
100 Melissa Etheridge 8 0.375 2 0.77
101 Kelly Clarkson 7 0.571 1 0.77
102 Cyndi Lauper 7 0.429 1 0.77
103 Lonestar 7 0.429 1 0.77
104 Alicia Keys 13 0.385 3 0.74
105 John Mayer 4 0.250 1 0.69
106 NSYNC 4 0.250 1 0.69
107 Lionel Richie 3 0.667 0 0.66
108 Marc Anthony 3 0.667 0 0.66
109 Shania Twain 3 0.667 0 0.66
110 Rufus, Featuring Chaka Khan 5 0.600 0 0.66
111 Meat Loaf 4 0.500 0 0.66
112 Rihanna 4 0.500 0 0.66
113 Patsy Cline 5 0.400 0 0.66
114 Jason Mraz 3 0.333 0 0.66
115 Usher 3 0.333 0 0.66
116 LeAnn Rimes 12 0.333 2 0.63
117 Boyz II Men 7 0.143 3 0.62
118 Carrie Underwood 9 0.333 1 0.60
119 Journey 6 0.167 2 0.59
120 Adele 7 0.143 2 0.51
121 Trisha Yearwood 4 0.000 1 0.36
122 Wham! 3 0.000 0 0.22

The median value is 1.00, corresponding to sort of an average safe-ness. Numbers below that are definitely not a great choice, and those above it are reasonably good choices.

The most safe is Ella Fitzgerald, even though other artists had a higher safe-ratio than her. Why? Because 89% of those contestants were safe even though most of them had been in the bottom 3 already! Singing one of her songs is like a safe play for someone who’s been struggling.

On the flip side, someone like LeAnn Rimes is a particularly bad choice, since even though her safe-ratio is not the lowest (33%), only about 10% of the people who sang her songs had been in the bottom 3 before. Her songs can take a favorite and actively degrade her standing.

To answer the question at the head of this article, Luther Vandross is a good choice, and Tina Turner a bad one. Tina Turner ranks fairly low, fitting since her songs have resulted in so many hopefuls being eliminated (I’m thinking especially of Pia Toscano). Some other artists, who the judges frequently admonish contestants not to try to emulate, such as Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Aretha Franklin, are also rated as worse-than average choices. Mariah Carey, though, is viewed as a good choice, since renditions of her songs have a good success rate even among a pool of people who had already been in the bottom 3.

The safe-artist index above is subjective in the following way: there is no clear-cut determiner of how to weigh the three factors. I have adjusted the parameters to my liking, corresponding to my feelings about what is a good choice and what is a bad choice. So, your numbers might come out a little different than mine, but the ranking shouldn’t be too far off.

For what it’s worth, here is a rough classification:

> 1.16 Very good
1.04-1.16 Good
0.92-1.04 Mediocre
0.75-0.92 Bad
< 0.75 Very bad

If nothing else, this index serves to help handicap a given round based purely on song choice. Of course, if someone picks an artist who isn’t on this list, all bets are off. There’s no telling how the audience will respond to that.

Seriously, though, stop singing Tina Turner songs.

*This article originally stated that nobody had ever sung Barry Manilow outside of Barry Manilow week. In reality, Bobby Bennett chose to sing Copacabana during the semifinals of season 5.

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