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'American Idol': Why bother with the birth year concept?

March 17, 2011 |  6:40 pm

RM__RAY6359It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the producers of “American Idol” hope to accomplish when they make the contestants perform songs from the year they were born.

Are they striving to present a night of generation-defining tracks, or give those watching at home a refresher course on how far the pop songbook has come in just the last two decades?

Watching a contestant fret over what track to select from 1995 (yes, you’re old) right after a contestant birthed in 1982 won praise for tackling Elton John’s “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” could elicit both frustration and confusion for viewers and the judges.

Hopefuls bred in the late '80s seemed to fare better: Stefano Langone’s "If You Don't Know Me by Now” (Simply Red, 1989), Pia Toscano’s upbeat take on “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” (Whitney Houston, 1988) and Jacob Lusk's “Alone” (Heart, 1987) all won over the judges.

If only more of the '90s babies had gotten the same high marks.

Thia Megia went with Vanessa Williams’ 1995 “Pocahontas” contribution, “Colors of the Wind,” a performance that was promptly called “boring” by "Idol" judge Randy Jackson. And Hayley Reinhart struggled with the Houston track “I’m Your Baby Tonight.”

But the night highlights an "Idol" weak spot: Forcing an age gap on a show where all the contestants are under age 26. Considering the less stringent age requirements on "America's Got Talent" and "The X Factor," it's troubling why a show such as "Idol," which prides itself this season on its teenage talent, only recently lowered contestants' age to 15. Given the narrow range of ages, it seems almost unnecessary to offer up a birth year theme night on "Idol" -- especially if the judges spend the entire night seemingly annoyed at song selection (with Steven Tyler phoning in his critiques: "sorcerer's grasp of melody" and "ethnic what-it-is-ness" were both used).

Casey Abrams,  who last week grabbed headlines for another trip to the emergency room, garnered the most attention for an “Idol” first: the 20-year-old bravely stepped up to Nirvana.

Abrams, the only contestant to whip out an instrument on the live show, tackled “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” winning over the judges for taking a risk and performing a song that defined a generation.

“What I love about you and what you represent like other great bands... you love taking risks,” Jackson said. “I love that you are putting art first and then thinking about commerce.”

Silly Randy, maybe he forgot that the tracks can be purchased on iTunes immediately after the performance. Despite the praise, Abrams felt his year of birth made the song choice harder.

“I felt at a huge disadvantage... Jimmy [Iovine] didn’t like [one song], and some wouldn’t clear,” Abrams said backstage in a postmortem interview with reporters. “Others weren’t me. It was just a miracle that one cleared.”

-- Gerrick D. Kennedy
Twitter.com/gerrickkennedy

Photo: Scotty McCreery performs on "American Idol." Credit: Ray Mickshaw / Fox.

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