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. Continue reading

Top 5 Most Robbed Finalists Ever

With the emotional wound of Pia Toscano’s elimination fresh, it’s interesting to look back to see how really robbed Pia was, in the scheme of things. Here is a list of the best 5 performances that ever resulted in a contestant being voted off. Unsuprisingly, this list is made up of 4 women and 1 man. Statistically speaking, here are the biggest outliers ever.

5. Carly Smithson

When: Season 7, Top 6 WNTS Score: 70
Theme: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Song: Jesus Christ Superstar
Who should have gone home:
Brooke White (score: 14)
or Jason Castro (score: 15)

Carly Smithson was obviously one of the most talented contestants to ever sing on the Idol stage. With a huge chest-voice range, good looks, penchant for raucus rock, and a bevy of tattoos, there was a lot to recommend her. She started out in the finals with a highly popular, memorable, and well-rated (WNTS score 81) version of The Beatles’ Come Together, still the song I think of when I think of Carly to this day.

Alas, her spotty record on the show began immediately, as a scandal came out that she was a “ringer”: Carly was already a signed artist who had released a record. Her very next performance, Blackbird, also by the Beatles, landed her in the Bottom 3, a place she occupied once more before getting the boot for good.

That fated day came in (for christ’s sake) Andrew Lloyd Webber week, probably the most ill-conceived, contestant contorting themes of all time. Carly was convinced by Webber to sing “Jesus Christ Superstar”, probably her best option. And she did a good job:

The same night, Brooke White turned in horrifyingly bad version of You Must Love Me from Evita, and Jason Castro made hearts swoon but ears hurt with a rendition of Memory from Cats. CATS for god’s sake. But, justice wasn’t served; Brooke and Jason were native-born and seemed more “authentic” to the voting public, and so Carly was sent home.

4. Jennifer Hudson

When: Season 3, Top 7 WNTS Score: 72
Theme: Barry Manilow
Song:Weekend in New England
Who should have gone home:
George Huff (score: 17)
or John Stevens (score: 31)

I think in all this talk about Pia, or even Chris Daughtry, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that one of the best contestants ever got majorly screwed by the public. Jennifer Hudson failed to even make it into the top 12 by vote: the judges chose her in a wild-card round. And then again, right off the bat, Hudson was in the Bottom 3, in a week whose theme was “soul” music. Then again in Motown week, just 2 weeks later.

But it was Barry Manilow week (what the hell were they thinking???) that finally did Ms. Hudson in. She turned in a fine version of a song I believe nobody knew:

Whatever America was looking for that year, it wasn’t great singing. George Huff turned in a dismal version of the equally poorly known Tryin’ To Get The Feeling Again, and John Stevens drew Mandy, significantly better than Huff’s, but still awful by any standard.

The rest is history. Ms. Hudson signed a record deal and went on to win an Academy Award for her part in the musical Dream Girls. She is still often brought up, rightly I think, as an example of women, and in particular black women, getting screwed by the Idol voting public.

3. Trenyce

When: Season 2, Top 5 WNTS Score: 74 and 75
Theme: 1960s
Song: Proud Mary
and Love Will Keep Us Together
Who should have gone home:
Josh Gracin (score: 15 and 29)

Trenyce started out very strong in the Season 2 contest, logging two performances over 81 in the approval ratings. She finally stumbled during Disco week, landing in the Bottom 3 for I’m Every Woman. After that, she was in the Bottom 3 every week until her elimination in Top 5 week. That week had contestants singing two songs each from the 1960s with help from Neil Sedaka. Clay Aiken broke out with Solitaire, while Ruben Studdard, the eventual winner, landed in the bottom 3.

Trenyce, for her part, chose the Tina (and Ike) Turner arrangement of Proud Mary, and Love Will Keep Us Together, a song by Captain and Tennille. Both were rated in the mid 70s, lower than Aiken’s but higher than anybody else.

Nobody really remembers Trenyce, but they should. As a strong contender, her elimination from the Top 5 was a pretty big upset. Viewing that year as a whole, Ruben Studdard sure didn’t seem like the front runner compared with Trenyce in the first few weeks. It was only when the producers started throwing in counter-type themes (like Country) that she started to stumble.

2. Phil Stacey

When: Season 6, Top 6 (ii) WNTS Score: 79
Theme: Bon Jovi
Song: Blaze of Glory
Who should have gone home:
Jordin Sparks (score: 13) or
Chris Richardson (score: 39)

Where to begin with Phil Stacey? He was ex-navy, and curried favor as a country-tinged crooner. However, in the finals he began to struggle, and ended up in the Bottom 3 four out of six times before he was finally eliminated. After the fall of the Great Sanjaya, he was the Vote For The Worst pick, where he was frequently likened to Max Schreck’s portrayal of Dracula in Nosferatu.

So why is he on this list? Well, Phil finally found his bearings in the second Top 6 round. The first Top 6 round saw no eliminations due to Idol Gives Back, but Phil put in a decent version of The Change that week, far better than Blake Lewis, Lakisha Jones, or Chris Richardson’s performances. But the results didn’t matter (and were never revealed). The following week the Top 6 were back, this time doing Bon Jovi tunes. And, quite frankly, Phil nailed it:

Although it wasn’t the best of the week (that went to Blake Lewis, with his rendition of You Give Love A Bad Name), it should have been more than enough to get him through. The double-elimination round saw him go home anyway, even as Jordin Sparks’ version of Livin on a Prayer dropped like a lead balloon, as did Chris Richardson’s laughable Wanted Dead Or Alive (something like Justin Timberlake at the Grand Ole Opry would be like).

1. Pia Toscano

When: Season 10, Top 9 WNTS Score: 84
Theme: Rock and Roll
Song: River Deep, Mountain High
Who should have gone home:
Stefano Langone (score: 34)
or Jacob Lusk (score: 45)

The biggest outlier in my entire database, Pia was shockingly eliminated in the Top 9 week of Season 10. Combining supermodel good looks and an unmatched vocal ability, about the only criticism anyone had for her was that she didn’t move around very much (neither did Crystal Bowersox. At all.) Having never been in the Bottom 3 before, Pia was sent packing while the stunned Stefano Langone, agape, looked on with awful guilt.

The performance itself, I have to say, was technically very good. It wasn’t a well known song, River Deep, Mountain High, but it should have been more than enough to get Pia into the next week:

Can this be rationalized? Not really. The only supposition one can make is that because Haley and Stefano had been in the Bottom 3 before, a small subset of power-voters pumped them up, shifting the bottom 2 vote getters up one position, and leaving Pia out. I must admit, I don’t know anyone who voted for Pia, as her performance that week was underwhelming, and she was considered extremely safe.

There is no want of hypotheses, some of which I don’t buy, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. Pia Toscano is far and away the most robbed contestant in all of Idol history.

Another result for the record books

Let’s talk a little about how this never should have happened.

While I personally found it underwhelming, Pia Toscano’s version of “River Deep – Mountain High” rated an 85 in WNTS’s ratings. Dialidol had her at third highest ranked singer of the night, and safe within their margin of error (Dialidol is extremely cautious about calling someone safe). She had one performance before with an even higher score, a 91 for “I’ll Stand By You”. As I’ve noted, very few previous contestants who scored that high in the first few weeks fail to make it to the Top 4.

These scores aren’t theoretical. WNTS score and Dialidol score are statistically significant predictors of the outcome of any given round. While sex is also a major factor, a score like 85 is so high that the logistical model put Pia’s elimination chances at less than 1%.

We have to face some real questions:

1. Could the demographics for Idol be shifting enough to throw all previous years off? With an average viewership drop of only 3% from last year, I find this hard to believe.

2. Is there some systematic reason for the worsening condition of women? I certainly haven’t noticed anything regarding styling, or any other technical reason.


3. Is Idol being honest about its results?

I hesitate to raise this question, but this is a major outlier. I’ve noted that in Season 9 Dialidol had some major sampling problems, but overall they are a highly reliable, scaling determiner of the disposition of a contestant’s performance. The average approval polling, however, evidences none of these problems. Pia had zero votes in Zap2It’s Exit Poll every week. Nobody ever thought she was gone, or even near enough the bottom to risk a bet on. It’s also been noted that ratings after a surprising result (e.g., Casey) raise the show’s ratings (about a 10% bump last week from the one previous).

Yes, sometimes a 22-year-old athlete non-smoker has a heart attack. But it’s extremely rare, and these events are getting to be not-rare enough that my eyebrows are firmly raised.

Song spoilers: good or bad picks

Song spoilers (via twitter):

Michael,Tina,Janice Joplin,Johnny Cash,Aretha,Elvis,Beatles(George Harrison),Creedence + Percy Sledge R&R Hall of Fame Night on #IDOL 2nite!

The overall average score is 50. Here’s a list to give you an idea of how a given artist’s songs have scored (assuming that the song is “When a Man Loves a Woman”, mostly attributed to Percy Sledge and NOT to CCR)

Artist Avg Score Margin
Michael Jackson 50.9 +0.9
Tina Turner 50.1 +0.1
Janis Joplin 61.0 +11.0
Johnny Cash 63.0 +13.0
Aretha Franklin 65.3 +15.3
Elvis Presley 54.8 +4.8
The Beatles 50.9 +0.9
Percy Sledge 44.0 -6.0

If it was Casey who chose Percy Sledge, and I think it is, he picked a terrible song. Aretha is a great choice, as is Johnny Cash (almost certainly Scotty) and Janis Joplin (hopefully Haley). Pia’s pick of Tina Turner is not good at all, and whoever chose the Beatles didn’t make his life any easier.