Editorials and Articles Archive
Is it true that singing lesser-known songs on AI is a risk? It's time to find out.
18 April 2009
Arguably the most obscure song ever performed on the American Idol stage arose in Season Four. At a critical juncture in the competition, a popular contestant chose a long-defunct, ill-fated 1990s band that only a handful of rock die-hards had ever heard of. Then he picked a forgotten album that seems to have earned so-so reviews at best from its contemporary critics. To top it all off, he pulled the closing, shortest track on the album. Not only is the original song unavailable on iTunes, there isn't so much as a single cover version listed for sale. We couldn't find an audio clip on any popular Internet radio site, nor any videos on YouTube by the original artist (though there's a surprisingly competent cover by a Japanese bar band), nor does the song even have a Wikipedia entry. Quite honestly, you would have to be out of your mind to pick something from this far out in left field...
...So naturally, Bo Bice turned it into the second-highest rated performance of the first eight years.
"Never choose an obscure song" is one of the most widely-repeated tenets in Idolville. Yet, the #2 song in our database was a total unknown to AI viewers when it aired in 2005. But then, #1 wasn't exactly a household name either: a World War II-era swing number from Betty Hutton that was dusted off for the soundtrack of a 1991 movie starring Bette Midler. But like Bice, Kelly Clarkson recognized that a well-constructed song doesn't always earn a gold record. Web reviewers were in near unanimous agreement that their Idol arrangements (or in Bice's case, the lack thereof) were inspired, their vocals were pure and flawless, and their unusual presentations were thoroughly captivating.
"Hold on!", we hear someone shout. "Those adjectives surely apply to Fantasia Barrino's third-ranked performance too, and it's hard to imagine a song less obscure than her Porgy & Bess classic!" (Well, if you're over a certain age, that is.) One music website places it second only to Yesterday as the most-covered song of all time. Another site goes a step further: it's entirely dedicated to cataloguing the thousands of artists who've recorded it.
Oops, did we forget to mention the three song titles? Silly us. But you didn't need them, did you? If you're a longtime fan of American Idol, you know all three of these songs by heart. Obscure is a relative term, and to Idol aficianados, Stuff Like That There, In A Dream, and Summertime are anything but.
That said, perhaps the conventional wisdom is correct. On balance, picking a song that few viewers have ever heard of might carry a certain risk. After all, arguably the second-most obscure song of Season Four had a very similar title to Bice's choice: When I Dream, an all-but-forgotten Crystal Gayle ballad from 1975 that got the popular Nadia Turner shockingly sent home.
"Hold on!", another person yells, "Wasn't Turner's popularity partly due to her first semifinal performance, an 86-rated The Power Of Love by some nobody named Ashley Cleveland?" And now comes an outraged "Hold on!" from the other side of the audience: "A nobody?! Cleveland is a leading Gospel Rock artist who's won three Grammy awards!" Obscure is not only a relative term, it's also kind of dangerous to discuss.
Not that that's going to stop us, of course.
Hold On Loosely
Movie Night brought America four more previously-performed songs out of seven, bringing this season's Retread Ratio to an astronomical 56%. (Your thoroughly depressing WNTS Statistic Of The Week: even if every song performed on the show from now to the end of the season is an original, AI8 will still wind up with the highest repeat percentage of the first eight seasons. Try not to whimper.) Of the three tunes making their Idol debut this week, two were pop standards well known by virtually everyone from ages nine to 99.
The seventh song was Falling Slowly, and we can hear the "Hold on!"s flying already. "Don't you dare call that 'obscure'! It just won an Oscar for Best Original Song, for crying out loud!" Well, yes, but it's from an Irish indie motion picture that, according to one enterprising forumist's estimate, only a little over a million people in all of North America saw in a theater. We'd wager that the vast majority of American Idol viewers had previously heard the haunting ballad from Once at most, er, once: on the Acadamy Awards show this February.
In fact, the song choice was only one of several highly unusual things about Kris Allen's performance. A solo backup singer sang the female half of the duet, which is something we can't remember happening on Idol before. More significantly, owing to the ill-advised judging format, Allen, along with Anoop Desai and Matt Giraud, gave the first (and hopefully last) three Idol performances in history not to be critiqued by Simon Cowell. Falling Slowly got a halfhearted thumbs down from Randy and an enthusiastic thumbs up from Kara. Without Simon serving to break the tie – he ultimately called it "brilliant" on the results show – the discord spilled over into the Idolsphere: Allen, who normally posts one of the lowest standard deviation numbers in the field, garnered the highest this week, a 25, to go along with his final approval rating of 64.
(By the way, judging by some of the glowing reviews and articles published from Wednesday night on, which fell outside the 24-hour window we use for compiling ratings, we'd estimate that Allen lost somewhere between 8 and 15 points off his score because of Simon's enforced silence. Such is Mr. Cowell's influence on the viewers, and it illustrates in a nutshell why the producers would be wise never to try the rotating two-judge format again.)
So was Allen's song choice inspired, foolish, or something in between? Is "Falling Slowly" a passing cult favorite or an emerging standard? Most importantly, is it really the case true that choosing an obscure song on American Idol is, all things considered, a losing proposition?
We'll leave the first two questions for the Idolsphere to debate. We're on the third.
Hold On Tight
As part of our season-long study of Idolmetrics, in conjunction with TheIdolGuy.com, we've been soliciting help from our readers on filling in the gaps in our contestant profiles. In particular, we're interested in data on each Idol's pre-semifinals exposure level. That effort has stalled a bit of late, particularly for Season Two where even Ruben Studdard's and Clay Aiken's exact promo levels remain unknown. Once we've collected enough data, we'll run an isolation-of-variables analysis that will help us understand how early exposure correlates (or not) to long-term success on the show. Any assistance you can offer will be greatly appreciated.
In the meantime, it's time to open another front in the Idolmetrics battle, and once more we'll need our readers' help. We'd like to run a study correlating song popularity to approval rating and survival rate. Thus far, 740 different songs have been sung in the competition. (If it only seems like 30, then you've been watching Season Eight for too long.) Obviously, each of those 740 tunes had a debut performance at some point. What we need to determine is, at the time of that first rendition, roughly what percentage of viewers were familiar with the song?
This is a tough job for two reasons. One, as we've facetiously illustrated above, one man's obscurity is another woman's classic. If you're a modern-day music buff, particularly in this digital media Golden Age of MP3s and iTunes and Pandora, you're familiar with vastly more songs and artists than musicologists of a generation ago. This becomes particularly evident when one reads the many "What Should The Contestants Sing?" threads on popular AI forums. Naturally, all WhatNotToSing.com readers are web-savvy by definition, and most are music freaks, so they're likely to have a large sphere of awareness. Far larger, at least, than people who've never been online at all, or ones who use the Internet primarily for answering all those polite Nigerian businessmen who need help getting large sums of money transfered to the U.S. But web savvy or not, a lot of those folks watch American Idol too. So, figuring out the familiarity of any given song requires a lot of educated guesswork.
The second reason is more subtle. Some songs that are enormously popular now weren't well-known at all when they made their Idol debut. In fact, a few songs' current renown can be traced specifically to American Idol. "Stuff Like That There" certainly qualifies – not long ago, one of us heard it performed at a wedding, and we'd bet the groom's house and the bride's car that if it weren't for Clarkson, that would never have happened. Similarly, songs like Geek In The Pink and Black Horse And The Cherry Tree might be pop staples today, but before Chris Richardson and Katherine McPhee introduced them to Middle America, they were mainly just college radio favorites.
Are you interested in helping out? We've prepared a spreadsheet listing all 729 "real" song debut performances on Idol to date (omitting out of mercy the 11 Original Winners' Songs™.) You can download it here or from our Idolmetrics landing page. Using your musical expertise, make your best assessment of what percentage of AI viewers ages 15 and up knew the song at the time it first aired. Full instructions are in the file. There's no hard deadline – when we feel have enough reliable data, we'll run the analysis, which will probably be in about a month's time. Incomplete surveys are fine; we recognize that 729 songs is a lot, and we don't expect everyone to have the time or patience to go through the entire list. (Besides, we can handle the "In A Dreams" and the Born To Be Wilds without too much difficulty; it's the "Falling Slowly"s and Mad Worlds that are difficult to assess.) Feel free to repost the survey on your blog or homepage or to send it to a friend.
Keep Holding On
Our guess, for what it's worth (and considering how poorly some of our guesses have worked out lately, that can't be much), is that the study will show that lesser-known songs indeed carry a higher degree of risk, but a potentially higher payoff too. We suspect they're hit-or-miss propositions: pick a song that most of America will like on the first listen and viewers will be eternally grateful that you introduced them to it. Pick a snoozer or a howler on the other hand and your phone line that night will be lonelier than the Maytag repairman's.
If so, that outcome will be just fine by us. Perhaps it will help persuade the producers that it's safe to freshen up the music for Season Nine. As you may know, the WNTS staff is deeply skeptical of the iTunes performance downloads, although we must admit that we've been delighted to purchase a few. We believe they're the primary culprit behind why the variety of music has fallen off a cliff the past two seasons. The many copyright licenses and legal rights required to make these downloads happen are expensive and difficult to obtain. Thus, 19E usually settles for clearing just 50 to 75 songs for the contestants each week. Most of those are old (read: the rights are cheaper) or recycled (read: they already own a license), and almost all of them are numbingly familiar.
We recognize with mixed emotions that iTunes downloads are here to stay. But, surely more than a few dozen artists are ready and willing to license their music to the most popular (if most exasperating) television series on the planet. If we can show scientifically that the show's fans want to hear good music, be it new or old, popular or obscure, then the producers might decide to broaden their horizons a bit. That would be a welcome first step towards repairing the damage from Season Eight.
"Hold On" happens to be the title of different songs by Tim Armstrong (of Rancid), Good Charlotte, En Vogue, The Jonas Brothers, Kansas, Korn, John Lennon, Sarah McLachlan, Razorlight, Santana, Triumph, KT Tunstall, Tom Waits, Wilson Phillips (a #1 hit), and several dozen other artists. Most of those songs (particularly Waits's) are very good, some are so-so, one is utterly wretched (but we don't want to get bombarded with angry letters, so we won't say which)...and none of them have ever been performed on American Idol. But Against All Odds and two other songs have been done six times apiece. Hold on for one more year, and perhaps that status quo will change.
- The WNTS.com Team