Way back in the ‘aughts, before contestants were “artists” and when Aaron Kelley was still in preschool singing “I Believe I Can Fly” (to his mom), Ryan used to open the Idol season with some advice for America. “Expect the unexpected,” he’d caution us, blissfully ignorant of the unanticipated Taylor Hickses and Sanjaya Malakars that the rest of the decade would bring.
Even if his counsel created a slightly brain-twisting paradox (what with the unexpected becoming expected and all), it was fair warning. If you’re a fan of American Idol, you know the outrage of the “shocking elimination”; you have felt the sting of Ryan’s reprimands—”That’s how you voted,” he reminded a stunned America as Jennifer Hudson left the set in 2004—and you have sworn at least twice each season that you will never, ever watch the show again. Say it with me: “America got it wrong and/or is racist. And possibly sexist. Jennifer/Chris/Mandisa/Siobhan was the only interesting thing about American Idol this season. The show is obviously rigged, so I’m going to start watching Dancing With the Stars on Tuesdays instead. Unless Evan Lysacek gets booted—then I am never, ever watching Dancing With the Stars again, either.”
But Idol’s brand of predictable unpredictability is part and parcel with reality TV—”Expect the Unexpected” has been a tagline or motto for both Big Brother and Survivor, too—because in unscripted television, as in unscripted reality, we aren’t supposed to be able to guess exactly how things are going to turn out. The uncertainty principle is what holds our interest, especially in seasons largely devoid of external scandal. (How the producers must miss Paula!) In Idol, we as voting observers have more of an effect on things than a Survivor audience does, but there are always variables beyond our control.
This week, those variables were hard to pin down. We can’t blame our “shocking elimination” on the usual suspects like the curse of the judges’ praise, since they also loved Aaron and he was safe; we can’t point the finger at Vote for the Worst, which by all accounts should have kept Siobhan in the game. And I thought she was the only one on Tuesday who really sounded like she was singing Shania, despite some uneven notes early on. Also, she was definitely the most convincingly undead in Wednesday’s Ford commercial, which—a first, I think—tried to sell us a car based on its vampire-repelling properties. (I suppose that’s a step up from selling a car based on its music system. I gotta get one of those Fords, though—my Volvo is like a vampire magnet.) It’s possible that the lukewarm panel response to Crystal’s frothy “No One Needs To Know” sent folks rushing to her aid and away from Siobhan’s, but I’m not entirely convinced they were sharing the same fan base.
No, I think her elimination has to do—as I surmised when Kara was confused by Siobhan’s “two separate voices”—with the requirements of marketing. Siobhan did not want to put her voice in a box. She was a “funny little thing.” She was quirky. She was spunky and all other manner of adjectives that end affectionately in “y.” (Plus, she had style, she had flair, she was there!) But unless one of them is “GaGa,” adjectives are not enough to sell millions of albums these days. Boxes, though, get the job done. So with one last glorious echo of the Barbra-ic YAWP she came in with, Siobhan has left us alone to “Think!” on what we have wrought.
Another thing Ryan could not have foreseen in ye olden days was that Idol would become so obsessed with the promotion of outside stars that it would forego the weekly group medley in favor of no fewer than four guest acts, none of whom were mentor Shania Twain. And one of whom was a harmonica-playing, Teddy Roosevelt-quoting, “gypsy”-exoticizing, country Shakira. You know what? It’s like we’re getting two separate voices, and it’s confusing. Idol needs to decide what kind of show it wants to be. Is it Star Search or is it American Bandstand? It needs to start being honest, and true to itself, like Crystal. (It also needs a better sound system, because the superstar guests always seem to be a little off pitch when they start, and I could not understand a syllable of the first eight bars Ashley Clark sang on Wednesday.)
Everyone here keeps asking me if I think local girl Crystal will win on May 26. I don’t know. If this is still going to be a girls’ season like Simon thought all those weeks ago, then the wordy and charmingly heavy-handed slogan Crystal’s boyfriend was wearing Tuesday had better be dead-on: “Did you know,” his T-shirt asked, “that America prefers Crystal Bowersox one Bajillion times more than other contestants?” One bajillion times more, exactly, is what Crystal needs—not to take on Casey, or Mike, or Aaron, or Lee—but to defeat the ultimate Idol adversary, the unexpected.