It’s a ritual as old as "American Idol" itself: As soon as Hollywood Week ends, viewers start up the chorus: “The talent is terrible this year! Season [fill-in-the-blank] was much better.”
While we don’t believe Simon Cowell’s assertion that this year’s crop is the “best ever” — he says that every year — as we swing into the third week of the semi-finals, it’s time to cut season 9 some slack.
Yes, there have been some terrible — really, truly awful — performances. But the early weeks of the show have always been made for delighting in the horror of it all. Once the voice coaching, styling and media training kicks in, the singing smoothes out.
So why all the complaints this year (other than the arrival of Ellen?)
(Also read: "Ellen on ‘Idol': Making the Other Judges Better")
The main problem is a lack of an early standout like Fantasia or David Archuleta to get people excited, says Phil Gallo, former Variety managing editor and chief music critic who covered the first seven seasons of the show. “This year looks more jumbled than most because there is not that one really strong singer,” he told TheWrap. “And the lack of frontrunners means even the judges end up being wishy-washy.”
He’s got a point. Give "Idol" a little time to marinate — at this stage in previous years, we were sitting through much, much worse.
A perfect example of our collective amnesia when it comes to this show. The epic battle between pretty-good singer Justin Guarini and eventual pop diva Kelly Clarkson completely overshadowed the fundamental truth: The majority of these singers were painfully bad. Ryan Seacrest was still sharing a stage with Brian Dunkleman (oh, those were awkward days), and most of the warbling girls were clad in midriff-baring outfits. With the exception of Guarini, Clarkson and Tamyra Gray (who ended up fourth), this group was largely a bust. Remember former model Ryan Starr? Not-so-closeted R. J. Helton? We don’t, either.
With all the attention paid to "AI" in season 1, it’s surprising that the talent pool for the second year was so lackluster. In the semifinals (he was picked as the voter’s choice in a wild card round), Clay Aiken had yet to acquire a stylist, and according to Television Without Pity recapper “Shack,” looked “like a cross between Alan Cummings and a troll doll.” Ruben Studdard wasn’t exactly tearing the house down at this point in the game, either — his 205 jerseys were more engaged with the crowd than he was. But hey: If you really, really liked the song “Angel,”Aliceyn Cooney was your contestant: She sang it for two auditions and the wild card round. In the end, it was too bad Frenchie Davis got ejected for racy pictures — she had one of the best voices in the competition.
Fantasia Barrino was the frontrunner early on but battled comparisons to popular-at-the-time Macy Gray. Diana Degarmo’s oddly poised Miss-USA affectation didn’t do her any favors. And everyone likes to talk about how Idol missed the boat on Jennifer Hudson, but her lackluster rendition of “Imagine” during the semifinals only merited a comment of “very spirited” from Randy. (Though Simon did tell her he liked her “leather nurse” look.) How bad were the early rounds? Male contestant Marque Lynche crooned “Wind Beneath My Wings” in a sleeveless blue vest. And the judges liked it.