American Idol: In Which Everything Goes Haywire

It may have been the most suspenseful "Idol" in four or five years.

Photo Credit: Michael Becker/FOX

Back when Ryan Seacrest and Brian Dunkelman introduced the inaugural episode of American Idol—12 years ago next month—the media world was a different place. Those people who were accessing the Internet were still mostly doing it via dial-up; on-demand viewing of shows was largely limited to (paid-for) wrestling pay-per-views and recent movies; outer-dial cable networks like the Fox spinoff FX (then eight years old) were only starting to dabble in serious original programming. Not to mention that Friendster had just launched; MySpace was a year off; Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat were but gleams in the eyes of VCs.

American Idol, in other words, was founded on the promise of being a handed-down-from-the-mountains broadcast—sure, it had the votes of those viewing at home as the force guiding its weekly progress through the contestants, but beyond that scope the show was tightly controlled—heavy product placement, cameos from stars of Fox-affiliated shows, flail-filled dance numbers. The producers were running the ship, and even if viewers at home didn't know that fact explicitly, they had a vague idea.

Cracks in the façade have deepened, particularly as the chatter surrounding the show has increased. During Top 3 week of Season 7, third-place finisher Syesha Mercado was handed an inexplicably terrible song choice in order to set up a David vs. David (Archuleta vs. Cook) finale. In 2012, White Guy With Guitar standard-bearer Phillip Phillips coasted to victory, ignoring the suggestions of judges and mentors. Last season the producers' machinations resulted in the big-voiced belter Candice Jones the first female winner since sweet-as-pie Jordin Sparks took the crown home in 2007. This happened in large part because they stacked the deck with lousy dudes; the last one to be sent packing bobbed along on trainwreck fumes until his overdue exit.

This season, though, has shown an ever-deepening fissure between the wishes of the producers, the desires of the singers, and the preferences of the viewers at home, with the final straw being cracked across 19 Entertainment's back last night. Amid ever-lower ratings and chatter about Idol linchpin Ryan Seacrest departing, the show's brass decided to go after the one demographic that appears to be both foolproof and full of fools: Teenage girls. Sam Woolf, an awkward 18-year-old Floridian, was the youngest white dude in the top tier of finishers this year, and from early on the producers decided that he was going to become this Idol season's Harry Styles because he's a popular guy, right?. It was a pretty aggressive play: When girls weren't surrounding him during his performances, the show's directors were forcing cuts to gaggles of them in the audience; the screeches that followed his utterances sounded to this ear if not canned, then pitched up a little bit. He seemed somewhat bewildered by the push; his performances clearly indicated that he was more of a shy, unassuming singer-songwriter type, one who needed maybe a little bit more coffeehouse seasoning before he got in front of bigger audiences.

But the producer's cues worked at first, sort of, until they didn't. Sam was in the bottom three on March 13 (after a wan, uncomprehending take on "Come Together") and March 27 (because who wants to hear "Hey There Delilah" outside of a CVS in 2014), and on April 3, he was voted off—until the judges decided to use their save, thus prolonging his stay for at least one more week. A combination of sympathy and genuinely bum performances by the other contestants led to him hanging around through this past week, during which he took on Ed Sheeran's "Sing" (which was a bit too funky for him) and The Fray's "How To Save A Life" (which was in his wheelhouse, but zzzz). He was also given an extra "ooh, cutie" push via a surprise appearance by fizzy-voiced pop star Ariana Grande, who he'd revealed as his celebrity crush earlier in the show and who cooed over him as she handed him the microphone in a segment that was both poorly executed and marked by Sam clearly wanting to just get on with things and sing.

With the strong performances by the four other contestants and the fact that two of those remaining, Caleb and Alex, had yet to be in the lower reaches of the voting, Sam's exit this week was inevitable—that is, until two and a half hours before the show was set to air, when Seacrest sent out a tweet.

Oh ho. What could this twist be? Would it be a simulcast with the iHeartRadio Awards, which were airing simultaneously on NBC and which were a pet project of Clear Channel, one of Seacrest's many employers? Would it be the return of a long-departed contestant? Would it be the promotion of Season Eight fourth-placer Allison Iraheta, now a backup singer on the show, to the fray? It was none of those things (and oh, how the last one would have been awesome). Instead, it was a mini-foray into Hunger Games territory that showed just how badly the producers wanted whoever was heading home to stick around.

About 24 minutes into the show, Ryan revealed the twist: The remaining five contestants could either decide to have the person who'd received the lowest amount of votes—whose name wouldn't be revealed until show's end—go home immediately, or they could have everyone stick around until next week's show, with the promise of a double elimination in seven days. Ballots were handed out; "yes" meant keeping everyone together, "no" meant for keeping the flow of the show going as is. In order for the five to stick together, the vote had to be unanimous, so one person saying "no" meant that tears would be shed. As the show cut to commercial, good-time rocker Caleb Johnson yelped, "So, yes?" to his fellow contestants; but then the Mraz-in-training Alex Preston turned toward him and said something that was inaudible but that definitely made Caleb's face fall.

The show returned from break and Ryan began counting votes. A yes. Two yeses. Three yeses. At this point I was like, "OK, we're clearly going to see a second Top Five show next week"—but then Ryan read one no, and then a second, and Jessica Meuse looked shocked, and Sam looked sad. Sam was going home, it turned out, and, thanks to the rigamarole that the producers were clearly hoping would end with a happy moment, he didn't even get a goodbye package.

Photo Credit: Michael Becker/FOX

This made for probably the most suspenseful five minutes on an Idol results show in about four or five years, even though it was surrounded by highly suspect circumstances. The producers' efforts to save Sam for a second time and keep their bankable teen idol had failed, and done so in public in a way that was as hilarious as its outcome was unexpected. Weren't all these kids supposed to be like family? We see them having dinner together every week!

In the hours following the competition, rumors swirled about who voted "no." Jess was thought of as a possibility for two reasons—falling on her sword after being given the extra-picky treatment for the week and, in the eyes of more misogynistic viewers out there, being a bitch. (Which she is not, but the gender views of the greater Idol viewership are not exactly progressive.) Sam was brought up for sword-falling reasons similar to Jess's—his show-closing performance of Imagine Dragons's hoary dorm-bro anthem "It's Time" had an airiness that was lacking from his competition work, plus the defiant "this is who I am" message is a nice shot at those trying to refashion him as a teen idol.

As it turns out, it was neither of those two.

The process of elimination engendered by everyone's responses and Alex's non-answer would seem to indicate that gulpy Michigander Jena Irene and Alex were the two who voted to send someone packing for reasons related to the show's integrity. In what is a bit of an Idol milestone, Alex later took to Twitter to get peevish with the producers:

And Jena got a bit subtweety:

This sort of uppityness has not been tolerated in the past. But we're in a new world, and all this controversy is making people talk about Idol in a way they haven't in a while—even though there was a big (if, uh, sort of weird) three-hour pop awards spectacle going head-to-head with Idol's half-hour results show on the broadcast dial. Next week we'll see if the back-talking results in any more producer shenanigans—the theme is ostensibly love songs, but if either Jena or Alex wind up singing something from the soundtrack to Happy Feet, watch out.

1. Caleb Johnson. The theme this week was "America's Pick," and I'm happy to report that the country for once listened to me and had Caleb sing Whitesnake's "Still Of The Night." One of my favorite movies is the 2001 documentary Tribute, which looks at the phenomenon of tribute bands; there's a bit in it about promoted-to-the-big-leagues Judas Priest tributeer Jake "Ripper" Owens in which he proves his worth (and replaces Rob Halford) by hitting the big note on "Victim Of Changes." Caleb's performance reminded me of that part, so on the money it was, and Whitesnake singer David Coverdale was also into it (In another bit of façade-melting, Caleb complained about having to sing the overused Aerosmith chestnut "I Don't Want To Miss A Thing" for his other selection, although he ably switched it up. But all this backtalking is so great! What is happening on Idol?! I love it!)

2. Jess Meuse. Jess's cracked-leather vocal was well-matched to her picks—Christina Perri's hoary "Human" and Lana Del Rey's "Summertime Sadness." Although the judges called her "Summertime Sadness" performance lacking in charisma, which I guess means they haven't seen Lana Del Rey live, uh, ever.

3. Alex Preston. The current ilk of paper-voiced singer-songwriters is very much not my bag, and he was handed two of my least favorite songs on radio right now—The Neighbourhood's offensively inoffensive "Sweater Weather" and A Great Big World's "Say Something." (What is it with pop radio embracing a Ben Gibbard ripoff every year there's a Winter Olympics?)

4. Jena Irene. Put her "Valerie," with all its histrionics and gasping for air, up against Amy Winehouse's, and you'll see why I don't care much for her voice—it's all showpieces and crowd-manipulation, built for Glee and youth rallies. She's got charisma to spare but she needs to kick it down a notch and let her voice rest on a note for longer than half a second.

5. Sam Woolf. Aw, Sam. He tried! So hard that I almost put him ahead of Jena, because he doesn't have any actively annoying tics and he seemed legitimately thrown by the Ariana Grande cameo! But he still needs to work on his charisma, as his anti-funky "Sing" showed.

MY VOTES: 50 for Caleb, 50 for Jess.

THE BOTTOM TWO: Not revealed.

WHO WENT HOME: Sam, much to his relief.

FILLER ALERT: Jason Mraz, a buddy of Alex's, served as this week's mentor during Wednesday night's broadcast, and he was able enough to make me think that he could come back as a judge next year, a la Harry Connick Jr.'s jump. Note, though, that it helped that all of the remaining contestants are rooted in rock. Varying styles of rock, sure, but rock all the same.

SPEAKING OF NEXT WEEK: "Break-Ups and Make-Ups" is the official theme, but the real theme will involve seeing who went too far with their producer taunting. Can't wait!!!!!

Maura Johnston prefers watching TV on the edge of her seat. She's on Twitter - @maura


Just catching up? Read about the rest of the Idol season in Maura's previous recaps.

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