Yawning Bread. May 2007

Singing, voting and the unknowables




Every week, I ask myself, "How do people vote? What considerations play in their minds?" And when the results are announced, I wonder, "How close was it?"

But I never get any answers. The poll doesn't even tell you who won. Not yet, at least. Only who lost.

I'm referring of course, to American Idol, now down to 4 contestants.

It's a huge exercise in popular democracy, now in its sixth season. For the last few weeks, the results were based on something like 30 million votes submitted, but, unless I misheard Ryan Seacrest, after the 1 May 2007 round, there were some 130 million votes. Partly, I think, that was because the producers extended the voting time window from 2 hours to 4.

Somewhat amazingly, the last 4 finalists remaining are probably the best 4, which sort of validates the theory that collective decisions of vast numbers often produce the best outcome. The one possible quibble that some may have may be that Chris Sligh should have been among the final 4 or 5 still standing; his early elimination deprived him of the chance to show how much potential he had.

By this stage, it probably doesn't matter who eventually wins. Each of them has had enough exposure to have imprinted their names on the American (and foreign) public. How successful they will be post-Idol depends more on what records they make than on whether they're number 1, 2 or 3.

For example, according to some websites I've surfed -- not that I was paying much attention then, so I can't cite them now -- 2006's fourth-place finisher, Chris Daughtry has far outsold the 1st and 2nd place winners Taylor Hicks and Katharine McPhee. Daughtry's album went platinum (i.e. sold over 1 million copies) in December 2006. Again, though I can't recall where I read it, someone said that the main reason was that Daughtry had a clear identity. He was a hard rock musician before Idol, was one through Idol and remained a rocker after. It produced loyal fans. People knew what they'd be getting when buying his albums.


If that's the case, then whatever happens in the next few rounds of American Idol, 2007's clear winner in the years ahead is most likely going to be Blake Lewis (right). He has a unique style and voice, very entertaining stage moves, and good looks too. But most of all, he is very intelligent in the way he remixes the songs he chooses. He has stood head and shoulders above the rest in terms of his creativity. It's what gives him branding.

Creativity is seldom a priority in a singing competition. In fact, it presents risks because new renditions of known songs tend to have people hating it. Singing is primarily an exercise in delivery. A good singer is one who has technical mastery of his or her voice -- pitch, volume, colour, etc -- understands the lyrical and emotional meaning of the song and how to convey it, and knows how to work well with the instrumental accompaniment. The ability to inflect rhythm quite often makes a huge difference, lending character and pizzazz to the performance.

Yet it's still working within a known palette – not that we should turn our nose up at it. When done well, as so often seen on American Idol, the experience can be spine-tingling.

Creative musicianship is something at a different level altogether. It's that intangible, inspired thing that allows someone with this gift to imagine a whole new way of presenting even an old song.

Blake Lewis' gift is not always on display, but every other week or so, we've seen a glimpse of it, as when judges Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson complimented him on giving the 1960s song, Time of the Season, a very fresh, contemporary feel. But the most breathtaking example -- it was so far off the beaten track, you could say it was dangerously experimental -– was during Bon Jovi week when he performed You give love a bad name.

The problem that Blake faces is that American Idol is not a song-writing or song-rewriting competition. It is a singing competition, and his singing skills aren't all that great. It's not bad, by any means, e.g. listen to Mack the Knife (reminds me a little of Michel Bublé) and Lovesong, where there's that inimitable cool factor, but then, he's up against 3 fantastic female singers. When he does not bring his interpretive and remixing skills into play, but tries to sing a song "straight", as in the week he did Imagine, it comes across as just competent. Nicely delivered, but no wow factor.

Melinda Doolittle on the other hand, is always flawless in her vocals. Over the weeks she's also shown herself remarkably versatile, doing very well across different genres. Her stage presence is good too. I don't recall any week where she was in the bottom three after voting. She's another one with a virtually assured future after Idol, though she may do better on tours than on recordings. Watch her in Trouble is a woman, As long as he needs me and Heaven knows.

But is she topping the poll week after week? It's frustrating not knowing. Is the American public voting on the basis of vocals and delivery? Knowing human nature, I would be surprised if other factors aren't also important, such as looks and likeability,

Then there may be some crazy factors at work. Apparently there's a campaign called 'Vote for the Worst' that encourages people to take perverse pleasure in being the spoiler. It was widely blamed for keeping (seventh-placed) Sanjaya Malakar in the competition for as long as it did. 

This teenager really didn't have what it takes to go far, at least not until he matures a lot more as a singer. He has a safe, lyrical style that really isn't suited to the hip demands of American music. His best performance was Besame Mucho, but even then, as you can see from the video, he didn't follow the advice given to him to slow down his last words. I had the feeling he didn't understand the musical imperative to do so, which shows a lack of musicianship. He was singing -- accurately, pleasantly no doubt -- merely by the notes on the songsheet.

The spoiler effect reminds me of how in political elections, when a segment of voters feel disadvantaged by the rules, or otherwise disgusted with the overall system, they boycott or disrupt the election. But why would so many people feel this way in the case of an innocuous singing contest? It seems inexplicable.

Perhaps the spoilers aren't numerous, but they have technology aiding them. There is apparently software out there that dials votes repeatedly -- kind of like brute force voting.

Of course, the spoiler theory may be wrong. Sanjaya might really have had a big fan base who thought he sang wonderfully. If so, I shudder to think how many millions of tone-deaf people there are out there.

Chris Richardson (L) and Blake Lewis (R) at a keyboard

But the bottom line is, these are only theories. There's just no way of knowing why people vote they way they do. Not even how many votes go to whom. Here we have a huge experiment in popular democracy, and it frustrates me no end not to be able to mine data from it.

All I can do is to sit back each week and enjoy the show.

© Yawning Bread 


The other 4 of the top 6:

Jordin Sparks has enormous potential. She's a big chest girl, but she knows how to give a controlled delivery, with fantastic inflection of tone and timbre. She needs to work on her stage presence though; she seldom uses to effect the space available to her. Listen to A broken wing and You'll never walk alone.

Chris Richardson (fifth-placed) was the other guy who, along with Blake Lewis, had many American girls go gaga over. Like Blake, he had a good grasp of musicianship, something you can see in the way he improvises, but unfortunately, it didn't amount to an identifiable style. However, his very likeable, and yes, sexy, personality shone through. Listen to Don't let the sun catch you crying and Smooth.

Phil Stacey (sixth-placed) was probably the best vocalist of the 3 guys in the final 6, but in the early rounds, he didn't have the musical nous to choose the right songs for himself. By the time he did, the other contestatns had locked up many of the fans. Watch him perform Where the blacktop ends and The change.

The one who may have a likeability deficit is Lakisha Jones. She's too reserved, which may come across as aloof. She's the woman with the "big pipes", and when she does her kind of songs, she's without parallel, as in This ain't a love song and God bless the child. Her limitation, however, is that she doesn't cross genres well.