Every finalist eliminated thus far in American Idol‘s tenth season has been a woman.
The first four contestants eliminated were the women of color.
This show is broken.
I’m guessing the producers would throw up their hands and say, “What are we gonna do? America voted.” And yes: I do think part of the reason that American Idol is such a hard competition for women and people of color is because the viewership is skewed to straight white women who take the most interest in the white dudes they’re attracted to (I’m guilty of this myself: my favorite contestant this season is Paul McDonald, who is kind of terrible at both singing and interpreting music, but has a blindingly white smile and a sexy rasp to his voice. And he dances like he has Go-Go-Gadget spring feet. Swoon.).
But it’s not JUST our fault, and that means this is a problem that can be fixed without waiting for the Revolution to happen first. The first six seasons had four women winners, two of those women of color. Of those two male winners, one was white and one was black. America is capable of voting for Idol contestants who are not attractive white dudes.
How can the show get back to that track record?
Chicks with guitars
The last three winners of American Idol have been white dudes. I do not think it is a coincidence that the last three seasons are the only ones where the contestants were allowed to play instruments on stage. With season 7, the show shifted its focus from a singing competition to a musicianship competition. Again, it’s partly our fault: subconcious sexism and racism probably makes the Idol electorate more inclined to see white dudes as innovative musicians (women and people of color can be entertainers, but it is harder for us to accept them as creative forces).
But last year’s runner up, Crystal Bowersox, shows that a woman on American Idol who shows real musical chops can advance far on the show. Bowersox played guitar, piano, and harmonica on stage. She sang on a rug from her own home with her own mic stand made out of an old lamp. Her talent and her personality were undeniable, and she stuck around till the finale (The previous two seasons had male runners-up as well).
I had hoped the producers would catch on to this and find more female contestants in the style of Crystal Bowersox. Instead, we got a lot of pretty chicks with big voices to function as cannon fodder while America decides which white guy with a guitar it likes best. Maybe the producers thought that Naima Adedapo was close enough to Bowersox because she also had dreadlocks. Hair similarities aside, Naima was a little closer to what we need to see more of in female contestants: she at least tried to give innovative performances, but in my opinion she didn’t have the chops to back it up. But there were 12 semi-finalist slots for women, and pretty much all of them presented as singers, not musicians. The female contestants seem to be at a pageant, the male contestants at a concert.
Find the chicks with guitars (or upright basses or whatever makes Randy Jackson squee), and put them on the finalists’ stage.
Bring back the semis
It seems American Idol does something a little different with its semifinals every year, like the round is a consistent thorn in the producers’ sides. This year they all but eliminated it, with one week of performances for the semifinalists which ended with a bloodbath elimination of eleven contestants. The problem with this is that the semifinals, which are divided by sex, seem to be the only place where men can be voted off. And having a few weeks to get to know the female contestants better gives them more chance to establish a fan base to vote them through week to week in the non-segregated finals. A lot of viewers don’t watch the auditions and Hollywood weeks; and getting to know a contestant from their first 90-second song can be tough (especially when she’s just another pretty belter).
Two judges saves
There was one dude America voted off: Casey Abrams. Casey fits the model of the contestants who have won the last few seasons: he’s a white guy, he plays a lot of instruments, he seems like a nice person you could trust to dogsit for you. And the judges used their one “save” to stop him from going home. Yes, Casey is too talented and interesting for the judges to have not used their save. But the next week’s double elimination meant two women of color went home, one of them the at-least-interesting Naima. I think the judges need two saves: one for a female contestant, and one for a dude. (The save was introduced in Season 8 and has only been used to save male contestants thus far). Sex-specific saves are maybe too much for our pretend meritocracy to handle, in which case, I urge the judges to be mindful of how the save has only gone to men so far, and maybe try to avoid that next season if at all possible.
Those last two ideas do not offer any hope for American Idol‘s race problem, sadly, but I think race-segregated semifinals are out of the question. But I think the key here is finding the contestants that America wants to vote for—interesting, innovative, individualistic musicians—but outside the demographic of “cute white dude.” Give us what we want, in more shapes and colors, and then see if we’re still so shamefully racist and sexist.