Idol show still resilient, but talent loses out

NEW YORK • Even when Lionel Richie is not performing, he manages to remain in the limelight.

On Idol, which began on ABC last month after a two-year hiatus from a 15-season run on Fox, Richie is the godfather, the light of authority around which the show orients itself.

Some of the contestants call him "Uncle Lionel". And when he wants to get the attention of fellow judges Katy Perry and Luke Bryan, he faces and addresses them as he might a class of unruly third-graders.

In all its prior iterations, the only father figure Idol genuinely had was Simon Cowell, a bad dad if ever there were one. At the time of the show's arrival in 2002, he carried with him a new idea: that through the magic of television, a total unknown could be transformed into a multi-platinum superstar.

The decade and a half since then has occasionally borne that out, but more often showed it to be a facade or a pretence. Television ratings are not the same as record sales.

The drama that drives Idol and its many copycats, The Voice primary among them, is its own end.

But the new season of Idol, which has just moved from the winnowing phase to the live-vote one, shows the resilience of talent in the face of a programme that benefits from it, but might not benefit it.

This reboot accesses many of the charms of the original (especially in its early years). More than The Voice, it relies on young, unpolished singers with little professional experience. Time and again, the performances have been sterling.

Mara Justine, for example, has a striking howl of a voice and a penchant for onstage hypertheatrics that the 16-year-old is just learning to bring under control.

Now that the season is at its halfway point, the cracks in the show's alleged star-making process are becoming clear. Thriving in a series of singing-competition performances is a stand-alone skill that has little to do with music-industry viability.

And as the season progresses, even the most idiosyncratic singers get good at Idol-style performances.

They mistake sobriety for maturity and tend towards the mean, losing the quirks that made them stand out in the auditions.

The show was particularly gruelling during the duets round, a new innovation in which contestants perform with professional singers who could still benefit from the broad-scale exposure Idol offers - Colbie Caillat, Bishop Briggs, someone named Banners, and also Luis Fonsi, more famous than all the others combined.

For those contestants sturdy in their identity, such as Southern rocker Cade Foehner, this was manageable but others on less steady ground faded into anonymity.

Perhaps those early exits merely prove the show's lie - that talent is at its centre and there is an abundance of it this year. But again, it is talent suited to a television screen.

In addition to the duets, the other significant change to the show from the original is how the herd is culled.

In the past, finalists were generally sent packing one at a time in a slow drip that could be dull before it was thrilling.

But Idol has thickened the middle and rushed the end. This week, in the first public vote of the season, the 14 finalists will be whittled to 10.

And, in just four weeks, the new Idol will be crowned.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 25, 2018, with the headline 'Idol show still resilient, but talent loses out'. Print Edition | Subscribe