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Reflections on American Idol‘s Season 10

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Now that we are hours away from the American Idol finale, it is time to reflect on Season 10. It is a season that is both frustrating and intriguing and I have never recalled a time when I came so close to yanking it off my evening schedule. Four hours a week is a big investment, after all, on a show plagued with so many flaws. Not that the season has been all bad.

With the unpredictable Steven Tyler and lovely Jennifer Lopez behind the judge’s table, the show came out of the gate with so much promise. It didn’t hurt that they had a bumper crop of diverse talents, from jazzy contestant Casey Abrams to Celine Dion-ish Pia Toscana to Alan Jackson sound-alike Scotty McCreery and Vandross-reincarnation Jacob Lusk, all impressive in their own way.

At the outset, Pia’s outstanding vocal range, which she used sagely on dramatic ballads placed her on a league of her own with screeching rocker James Durbin, Lusk, and Abrams nipping at her heels. The rest of the contestants made up the middle of the pack including what would become the season’s two grand finalists, Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina. At the bottom of the pile in what could only be considered the dregs of the talent pool stood the chronically “almost-eliminated” Haley Reinhart, she of the bluesy screams, growls, and uncontrolled runs who against all odds managed to wheedle a spot in the top thirteen.

When the finalists began making their case to the public on the glitter of the Idol stage, it only took three episodes for me to roll my eyes at the gushy and oft-repetitive comments made by the judges who habitually overused words like “beautiful” and “amazing” to describe the performances as if those were the only adjectives in existence in the dictionary. The critiques or lack of it had no constructive value and seemed to serve no other purpose than to swell the heads of the contestants. I half expected the judges to leap from their seats, hug the singer, and sing Kumbaya. Footage of record producer Jimmy Lovine–he of the annoying baseball cap–giving advice to the contestants only served to slow down the pacing. I was sick of looking at his face. It therefore comes as no surprise that by the time the Top Eight episode rolled around, I was so bored with the judges’ syrupy comments I wished Simon Cowell had stuck around to impart his wit and in-your-face criticisms to the contestants. It prompted me to watch the recorded version of the show so I could fast-forward it past the judge’s annoying “critiques.” But something happened that saved the show for me. The lovely Pia, anointed by many as the shoo-in grand finalist, got eliminated unexpectedly. This elicited a lot of disgust from the non-teeny bopper viewers. Conspiracy theories took shape and a lot of venom was thrown at producer Nigel Lythgoe with accusations of rigged results. All of a sudden, there was drama.

The controversy stopped me from clicking off and convinced me to give Idol a second chance. I’m glad I did because the real star of the show was about to emerge from her cocoon: the throaty and seemingly invisible Haley whose voice I liked but who in the beginning had a tendency to show off with undisciplined runs. Many have said that Haley’s coming out started when she sang Elton John’s Benny and the Jets, but I happen to think her popularity took wings when she belted out a raspy take on Adele’s Rolling in the Deep. Until that time, Haley had consistently been relegated to the bottom three. Many, including yours truly predicted that she would be going next. But when she didn’t, people took notice. They became genuinely intrigued by her. As if by magic, we saw her grow in giant leaps, week after week, becoming ever more polished in her performance and stage theatrics. And with it came a growing fan base. Yet, there were just as many detractors to Haley, some them with so much venom in their comments one wonders what this poor twenty-year-old had ever done to them.

Needless to say, the show hooked me again. What more can a viewer want? It has drama. It has intrigue. It has a terrific come-from-behind story. In a span of three weeks, we were seeing something that has never happened before on Idol: a mediocre singer’s complete metamorphosis into someone fantastically accomplished. And that’s an understatement. The girl is really that good.

Haley was not alone in the morphing, however. Even silly-hatted Lovine had metamorphosed into someone entertaining. Unlike the judges, the guy actually handed out sound advice. He grows on you.

I began to look forward to his coaching segments, which adds another dimension to the show. It helped that the judges were being harsh on Haley to the exclusion of everyone else. They seem to deliberately throw her under the bus every chance they could, all good as far as entertainment. It added conflict and passion by inciting Reinhart to do better.

By the time Haley belted out a scorching rendition of House of the Rising Sun in a Top 5 performance (taking her anger out on the stage), and followed it up with passionate dramatics in I Who Have Nothing a week later on Top 4, her metamorphosis was complete. With it came a change in attitude, a cocky confidence other performers seem to lack.

As in a book of fiction, her heated sparring with judges Jackson and J.Lo added to the onscreen drama, but I really think that her morphing had more to do with her hunger to be the best than the harsh critiques she received. Her swan song after she got eliminated in Top 3 (Benny and the Jets) was defiant but it was also the best exit performance I’ve ever seen on Idol as evidenced by the crowd decibel.

Now that Haley is gone, I only hope that her fans will still watch the show. Scotty and Lauren, themselves underdogs in the beginning of Season 10, deserve an audience, no matter how lukewarm. Haley was my mid-season pick and based on the number of views she garnered in YouTube (highest among her Idol peers and sometimes more than triple those of grand finalist Lauren), her future looks Daughtry bright.

In the end, no matter how boring and conflict-free the finale may be, I give American Idol Season 10 a big thumbs up. (Tip to the producers, get rid of JLo and bring in someone tough and witty).

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