Race, Gender And Average Underwhelming Singers: What’s The Real Problem with “American Idol”?

January 30, 2013  |  

According to USA Today:

American Idol executive producer Nigel Lythgoe says he’s “shocked” by a proposed lawsuit from nine past contestants claiming racial motivations for their public disqualifications from the show.

New York attorney James Freeman has filed a letter with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission seeking to sue the show. Freeman claims the show violates California employment law, which forbids employers from questioning potential employees about their arrest histories.”

An article in Fox News provides a more detailed look at each one of these nine ex-Idol hopefuls, including the following: Corey Clark from season two, who was disqualified after it was discovered that he had previously been arrested and charged with misdemeanor battery on four police officers and his sister; Jaered Andrews, also from season two, who was removed from the show after the discovery of an assault charge; And twin brothers Terrell and Derrell Brittenum of season five, who were axed from the show after it was discovered that they had been arrested and charged with identity theft.

While the Fox News article asserts that the proposed discrimination case against the producers will be hard legally to prove for a variety of reasons, I found the accusations of race-bias intriguing because Idol seems like an equal opportunity reality show. Folks spanning various skin colors, genders and sexual orientations have not only been popular, but have actually won the show. Then again, I admittedly haven’t watched the show since the season after Fantasia won – even then I can’t tell you who won. However, last year, Melissa McEwan, writing for Alternet, too raised the question if Idol had a race and gender problem. According to the Alternet piece, among all the contestants to be eliminated first in the finals of the 2011 season of Idol were women of color. Furthermore, as noted by McEwan, a woman of color hasn’t won a season of Idol since Jordin Sparks took season six. McEwan speculates that the show’s target demographic leans heavily towards contestants with Southern roots, and it might explain the racial imbalance on the show, however, there is no getting around the fact that the show treats contestants differently by gender, “encouraging creativity among the boys and conformity among the girls.”

Last week, I decided to tune into the first Idol show in a number of seasons. I think the last time that I had actually watched Idol with interest is when that Sanjaya kid trolled America. But like most people I know, if I do happen upon it, I’m only watching for the auditions, and even then, I’m only making it an episode or two. However, I will say that this supposed beef between Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj has sparked my interest. And while somewhat entertaining, it is clear from the three episodes I’ve seen that their little squabble is not going to be enough to carry the entire show – well, maybe for a season. I certainly am interested to see how Minaj and Carey will relate to each other during the live shows. However, their tension is not enough to warrant a return for next season. As far as I am concerned, Idol issues go far beyond what a Minaj and Carey beef can fix. I don’t know if it is just a matter of it being racial or sexist, but I can tell you that I have watched Idol judges pass through mediocre singers audition after audition and then basically lie to the cameras about them being the “best voice I think we heard all day.”

I’m not saying that these people can’t carry a tune, but carrying a tune is all that they can do. The typical Idol singer has little range and they tend to all sound the same. They are pleasant in sound but not all that inspiring. What’s missing from Idol nowadays is the real singers. You know, the ones with the heavy voices, who know how to do runs and riffs properly and can hit all the notes in Jennifer Holiday’s “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”? The singers whose voices give goosebumps and reach you to the depth of your soul. I’m not only talking about the Fantasias and the Ruben Studdards, but the Clay Aikens, Carrie Underwoods and Kelly Clarksons too. I’m talking about the powerhouse singers, who wake up early Sunday morning just so that they can tear it up at their storefront Baptist churches, or what Simon Cowell would call “good ole’ fashion belters.” A singing competition without those kind of big voices cannot be taken seriously.

In this regard, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were definitely some filtering and selective-ness at work behind the scenes. If demographics are important, as the Alternet article suggests, then perhaps Idol might be more willing to tailor its finalists to meet the audience’s standards of image, values and personality. And unfortunately, in our culture, images – be it the potential for being racist, sexist or some other way exclusionary – tends to overshadow talent. It’s the reason why Martha Wash has one of the most famous voices, but not as recognizable of a face. And as I suspect, it is the reason why Idol keeps producing season after season these homogeneous non-singers who are a little bit country with a penchant for acoustic guitars and boring contemporary pop-top 40 hits.

In a way, you can’t blame them: having a powerhouse singer amidst a bunch of middling singers is not all that interesting to watch. It’s like, duh, this person is destined to win so why even bother with the competition? Well, unless of course something is off in the voting. I remember feeling that way when Jennifer Hudson, who clearly could blow, was unceremoniously booted from the program by an obviously tone-deaf America. Ironically, the other contestants in the bottom three, alongside Hudson, consisted of two other black women. Clearly, American Idol is a popularity contest. And unfortunately in America, it is still perfectly fashionable in popularity contests to be both racist and sexist.

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