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'Idol' Tracker: Best season in history? The numbers speak

March 7, 2008 |  8:38 am


Many a doomed mission has begun with a jubilant send-off.  The ANZAC force sailed off from Australia for Gallipoli, “Amid all the cheers, crowd waving on piers.”  The Light Brigade charged into the Valley of Death, as P.G. Wodehouse improved on Tennyson “Half a league, half a league half a league onward, with a hey nonny nonny and a hot cha cha.”

But that said, a cheery launch does not actually mean that a mission is in fact doomed.  The Apollo 11 astronauts got a pretty decent hip-hip hooray blasting off from Cape Canaveral, which did not turn out at all to be a precursor to doom. 

In any event, whether foolhardy bravado, propagandist's bluster or laughing in the face of peril, the mood at the Pacific Design Center on Thursday night, where a crowd of 200 or so gathered to coronate their newly named Top 12, was indeed brazenly, incautiously jubilant.  Although 11 of these 12 are being crowned tonight just so that one by one they can have their final conference with Angel of Death Seacrest in the next three months, the sense in the room, in conversations with executives and barely contained grins was that this year, "Idol" really had gotten it right.  After a shaky Season 6, many were able to say with straight faces that this may in fact prove to be the best of all "Idol" seasons.

Even the early departures of widely enjoyed candidates Danny Noriega, Kady Malloy and Asia’h Epperson, (as well as the more expected exit of Luke Menard) seemed to give proof to the quality of this season. Whereas in seasons past the Top 12 have contained a fair amount of chaff and several more weeks at least were spent culling singers who had not risen to the challenge, this year the knife was hitting bone before even reaching the Top 12. 

David Since Hollywood Week, I have been setting forth the notion to acquaintances that this may actually turn out to be the Archetypal "Idol" Season. This group, I have offered, contains a higher median level of singing than any before and a greater assortment of unique and compelling personalities likely to gather followings than previous seasons. What’s more at the center of the drama is built around the epic showdown brewing between The Chosen One, David Archuleta, a child singer seemingly genetically engineered to fulfill the "Idol" prophecies of greatness, and The Duende From Down Under Michael Johns, likely the most rawly charismatic male contestant ever to step foot on the "Idol" stage. And waiting alongside the battle to claim the female caucus’ rightful place at the table rages Carly Smithson, a dark and supernaturally gifted singer who still remains a bit of a wild card but has the potential to overturn all conventional wisdom about the race.

This is the case I have made, and it has been met in equal measures by hoots of derision and wild exclamations that Yes!  This is the year!  Along with great enthusiasm for a broad spread of the candidates.

Instinct tells me we are on the brink of something amazing here.  However, instinct also tells me not to trust my instincts. A perusal through columns of last year will unearth a fair number of similar bursts of mad, unabashed enthusiasm for the field.

Thus, coming to a place where thought accuses and feeling mocks, I have decided to trust not my unexamined impression but turn to science instead to gauge the question: How does this season stack up to the others? Assisted, to provide a second opinion, by fellow "Idol" scholar Ryan Shiraki, a screenwriter, director and former music booker for "Saturday Night Live," we looked at the Top 12 contestants of each season (excepting Season 1, which only showcased a Top 10, which we examined).  We gave each contestant two scores on a 1–5 scale –- one for raw singing talent and the second for personality.  We totaled the scores of each season’s cast and then averaged them to find which season had the highest average score in each category.  The results were staggering.

Before unveiling the results of this study a few disclaimers:

+ The numerical scores for each contestant are of course subjective.  However, coming from very different perspectives (Shiraki is a Clay Aiken loyalist, I carry the banner of Katherine McPhee) we attempted to reach consensus numbers between us.
+ The personality score should not be taken to mean likability; it is an attempt to measure the extent in which the candidate projected a very strong personality -– positive or negative -– that altered their fortunes and reshaped the complexion of the race.  Thus, some of the more likable contestants, Melinda Doolittle for example, scored poorly in this category not because they are not “nice” but because they failed to project a strong personal presence beyond their singing.  Thus, both Kelly Clarkson and Sanjaya Malakar earned fives in this category.
+ Admittedly, the judging in some ways is tilted toward this season’s contestants.  Past contestants have already completed their oeuvres, with all the inevitable stumbles a season will bring and are thus penalized for them.  Some whom we prize highly at this point in the season may wilt under Idoldom’s white-hot glare.  On the other hand, some like Kristy Lee Cook who have failed to excel musically thus far may yet surprise us –- as Jordin Sparks came from the back of the pack to win last year. So in the end, we feel the stumbles ahead are matched by the subterranean potentialities.  We have also sought above all to be sober and conservative in our assessments of this year’s signing talents, to look coldly at their qualities one by one and judge each individually according to what we find.

Disclaimers away, here are averages in each category, season by season of "American Idol":

                    Singing/Personality (1 – 5 scale)
Season 1 (Kelly vs. Justin): 2.7/2.3
Season 2 (Ruben vs. Clay):     3.1/2.9
Season 3 (Fantasia vs. Diana: 3.1/2.4
Season 4 (Carrie vs. Bo): 2.8/3.0
Season 5 (Taylor vs. Katharine): 2.7/3.0
Season 6 (Jordin vs. Blake): 2.6/2/6
Season 7 (TBD): 3.6/3.7

I have little to add in the face of these stunning results. If our findings are accurate, the next three months could change the history of competitive singing as we know it.

I invite all those skeptical of these results to view our raw data on each candidate (Download idolspreadsheet1.xls ) and e-mail or leave comments on your differences and where you think we have completely and totally blown it.  If there is a popular outcry in any particular line item, we will consider adjusting appropriately.

Meanwhile, back at the Top 12 party, the contestants, just three weeks ago unknowns to the public, basked in the glow of hordes of assembled media on the red carpets.  In a side room, a broken-hearted pair, Kady Malloy and Danny Noriega commiserated and cheered on their friend Ramiele. In any other year, these two would have been certain Top 12ers, but in Season 7, the pain began early.  However, in this potentially unprecedented season perhaps the curse of spots 13–24 will be reversed as well.   My colleague Maria Elena Fernandez and I, in earnest reassured them that while they were in "Idol," the impish, mischievous pair had made legions of fans across the globe.  Kady suggested that they should have a reality show together.  I proposed they take over and revitalize "The Simple Life" series, now vacated by feuding Paris and Nicole.  The pair seemed game and Maria Elena and I prayed that such things can happen.  It seems much too early to say goodbye to young Kady and Danny.  But if Season 7 delivers on its promises, the pain unfortunately, is just beginning.

-- Richard Rushfield

(Photo of Danny Noriega and Kady Malloy by Maria Elena Fernandez; photo of David Archuleta by Richard Rushfield)