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


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)

Comments () | Archives (11)

Come on guys! Only a one of these female contestants (Carly) could stand next to past winners Kelly Clarkson or Fantasia and not positively whither. And NONE of these men hold a candle next to Chris Daughtry.

And seriously, you really dug Katherine?

Does she even still have record contract?


I rest my case.

Best Season?? Are you kidding me?? This is the worst season vocally of all....unbelievable. And don't try to let the ratings fool you. They're high just because it's Amercan Idol.

Seriously, actually pick some fantastic singers for the show.

Go Ramiele!

Kristy Lee Cook & Brooke should have gotten the boot. Brooke's version of "Love is a Battlefield" was a huge bore--as was her "You're So Vain" rendition the week before. I would have liked Danny Noriega to stick around but all the other boys outsang his bad song choice on Tuesday.

This group is not that great at all. My family was reading the newspaper, getting snacks, etc while the show was on. Leaving the room also gives a better perspective as to whether the vocals are up to par. We all agree the group in Season 2 as a whole were better than ALL the other years combined. At the time we were a family divided between Clay and Ruben but we have ALL settled on Clay being the better performer, singer, touring artist, recording artist, business man, humanitarian, likability etc. In 2003 I thought Ruben was better in the beginning, but as the season progressed he was praised more than given honest opinions so he stayed mediocre. Come to find out his recordings, style and singing IS mediocre. Kelly Clarkson to this day has not figured out that a natural professional singer does not BREATHE into the microphone. When you take a breath you move away from the microphone.!! David A is ok but he doesn't have a pure vocal tone. Maybe as he matures he will but I don't think he is the best ever, either. And his supposed shyness, giddyness gets on our nerves. A lot.

Give a nerd some raw data, and this is what happens...

A quick statistical analysis shows these scores actually do a good job predicting someone's final rank. Here are some results:

Starting with a baseline ranking of 13.1 (it's a little bit lower than the expected starting baseline of 14; but still, that's pretty close):

Subtract 1.33 positions for each point of singing
Subtract 1.12 positions for each point of magnitude (thus, singing is more important)

For example, Jon Peter Lewis had a score of 2 for singing and 3 for magnetism. His expected finishing position is 13.1 - 1.33 * 2 - 1.12 * 3 = 7.08. His actual position was 8.

Some additional results:
-There is no additional "bump" for being high (or a punishment for being low) in both singing and magnetism (i.e., there is no interaction effect)
-These scores explain 63% of the variation in the final positions, which is pretty good considering only two dimensions - singing and personality - are considered. Things like attractiveness, annoyance, judges' criticism, etc. are ignored. "Magnetism" may inherently capture some of these things, though.
-45 of the 69 contestants had predicted ranks within 2 spots of their final ranks
-The most surprising contestants were:
Taylor Hicks (expected rank = 6, final rank = 1)
RJ Helton (expected = 9.3, final = 5)

Vanessa Olivarez (expected = 7, final = 12)
Lindsay Cardinale (expected = 8.2, final = 12)

Given these scores, the predicted order of finish for this season's Final 12 is:
12) Kristy Lee Cook
11) David Hernandez
10) Brooke White
9) Shikeze
8) Amanda Overmyer
7) Ramiele Malubay
6) David Cook
5) Michael Johns
4) Syesha Mercado
3) Jason Castro
2) Carly Smithson
1) David Archuleta

However, the scores this year are very compressed (e.g., Kristy Lee Cook's predicted finish is 7.08 in any other year, but that is the worst predicted finish in this particular season, so she is expected to be the first one out). So that might make these predictions a bit more unstable than normal. But that's the whole point of Rushfield's blog entry: this year is tougher than most!

Danny Noriega ruled the world on this show. I voted 6 times for him to stay on the show. I did not cry when he was voted off, I got pissed off.

Give this kid his own sitcom, or even a talkshow! NOW!

if ramielle will only show more confidence and improve her sense of fashion, she will make a cute american idol. she has the whole package-talent, personality and good attitude.

Best ever? Try worst. This bunch rivals the Fantasia year with their lack of talent and personality. Your ratings of the past 6 seasons is out of whack as well. If you watched every season 5 show from the start you would have known that Taylor Hicks and Chris Daughtry were the favorites from the first top 12 show onward. Clay is definitely better at business and career moves, but no, is not even close to Ruben as a singer. Clay is a pop/adult contemporary singer and Ruben is r&b/ gospel, only natural that Clay would have access to a larger radio and video audience. The one I still don't get is Carrie Underwood. Talk about a piece of cardboard, totally void of personality and emotion.

It's an interesting spreadsheet but it's undermined by its (inevitable) subjectivity. First of all, David A. has thus far shown as much personality as last season's Melinda Doolittle. Remember, we all loved Melinda at first-- her aw shucks humility and consistency was appealing. A few weeks later, it was totally grating. I think David A will encounter the same fate so a "5" for his personality is way too high. The high scores for Syesha are similarly misplaced. Her singing is very mediocre, and other than an inexplicable smugness, I don't see any personality there. I think she is an Idol Stepford Wife-- she dresses right, hits her mark, and sings on key, but leaves me feeling icy cold. Most people I know agree.

Most troubling are Season 5 Elliott Yamin's ridiculously low scores. I think it's indisputable he was the best vocalist of that season (including Daughtry). And never have I been more won over by a contestant. Elliott's ascent (climaxing with the hometown visit with his mom) will always be my favorite Idol story arc.

From a watcher's perspective, I don't think American Idol will ever be better than Season 5-- the only irony being that the worst contestant won that year (but that ridiculousness was part of the thrill). Season 6 was undoubtedly the worst. It looks like this year, Idol has returned to form and will be decent. Season 7's singers are competent, if a little lacking in personality. And it will be an enjoyable to watch who wins. But I don't think Idol can ever recapture the magic of Season 5. That was--and will remain--its peak.

The raw data.... the data is nothing more than votes counted, it has nothing to do with vocal ability, and everything to do with popularity contests, and those whose mommy and daddy foot the bill for their kids cell phones so they can text message a 1000 votes. I feel sorry for those mommys and daddies.

Season 1 - Kelly vs Justin Kelly deserved to win and she's proven that she is a star.

Season 2 - Ruben vs Clay - total popularity contest, not based at all on vocal abilities. Clay can sing, Ruben can't.

Season 3 - Fantasia vs Diana - Fantasia blew all contestants in to the dirt. She was awesome.

Season 4 - Carrie vs Bo - Toss up. Both deserved to win. Carrie has gone on to stardom. Best competition ever.

Season 5 - Taylor vs Katharine - Where's Taylor now? A complete travesty. Katharine can actually sing.

Season 6 - Jordin vs Blake - A toss up in my personal opinion, both deserved to win. Jury is still out as to which will achieve a name.

Season 7 - Nobody deserves the title. Not one is outstanding vocally. This is the worst group ever on Idol. Occasionally one of them will really impress me, yet the next week, that person is terrible vocally. Frankly, I think this years group of talent should just be thrown in the trash can.


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