Final Thoughts on American Idol and the Season of the Robot Women

So, you know how sometime, I stop covering Sci-Fi/Fantasy, and instead write about gender and race issues on American Idol?

… yeah, this is one of those days. I’m sorry. But for some reason, I cannot rest until I finish writing up my thoughts about this season. I need to give my thoughts on the White Guy With Guitars Phenomenon. I need to talk about the continued robotization of Female Contestants. I need to talk about Jessica Sanchez’s race problems. And I need to squee about the awesome singing.

If it makes you feel better I promise that I will not write another American Idol post until… next season.

My fascination with American Idol began in Season 10, when I fell madly in love with Haley Reinhart, the blues-rock singer who never got the respect she deserved.* By all rights, my fascination should have stopped after Season 10 – Haley Reinhart was gone, and I’d never been a fan of the show in the first place. But I kept watching. And then I got obsessed.

Haley Reinhart What is and what should never be led zepplin

Haley Reinhart (still my favorite)

Partly it’s the singing. Yes, in spite of all my cynical presuppositions, there are some bloody incredible singers on American Idol. And I love watching them.

But mostly? Mostly it’s the sociological stuff. I find it fascinating  – and disturbed – that the five last winners were all white men (with guitars). I’m fascinated – and disturbed – by the ways the fans act. I’m fascinated – and disturbed – by American Idol commentary. I’m fascinated – and disturbed – by the producer manipulations.

Frankly, American Idol is a bizarre back window into America’s psyche. And I just can’t look away.

1. The Phillip Phillips Victory and the White Guy With Guitars Phenomenon

Remember when I randomly wrote a giant post explaining why women can’t win American Idol? And then a few weeks later, I wrote a second post expanding on the lack of female winners?

Guess what?

A woman did not win American Idol this year.

Phillip Phillips beat Jessica Sanchez in the finale, making him the fifth “White Guy With Guitar” winner in a row on American Idol. The other four are David Cook, Kris Allen, Lee Dewyze and Scotty McCreery. [White Guy With Guitar is often abbreviated as "WGWG"]

I am shocked [okay, that's a lie. I'm not shocked at all].

Watching the fandom reaction to Phillip Phillips’ victory was… interesting. To say the least.

Someone would say: “Oh, boo, another White Guy With Guitar.”
Then the next person would say: “You’re a racist.”

Or someone would say: “And that’s 5 WGWG winners.”
Then the next person would say: “That’s racist! You’re discriminating against Phillip Phillips because he’s white and male!”

I never entered these discussions –  I was already violating rule #1 of keeping one’s sanity on the internet (Never Read The Comments). I was not going to violate rule #2  (Never Enter A Comments Argument).

The thing is, I’m one of those people who thinks that the five-year winning streak by white men is troubling. And it’s not because I hate all white men, or because I think Phillip Phillips is untalented, or because I think Phillip Phillips’ gender and race disqualifies him from victory.

So let me explain myself.

First, I want to clear something up: it is not racist, nor is it sexist, to point out that Phillip Phillips is a white man. It is not racist, nor is it sexist, to point out that he’s the fifth white man in a row to win American Idol. These are facts. If you’re arguing that Phillip Phillips doesn’t deserve to win idol because he’s a white man, then yes, that is discriminatory. And if you’re arguing that the WGWG streak proves White Men are better singers, then yes, that is racist. But to remark upon the phenomenon is not discriminatory in-and-of-itself.

When potentially problematic patterns emerge – when, for example, five white men win a competition in a row – it is normal and responsible to ask questions about the process.

And that’s the key here: the pattern. If you voted for Phillip Phillips over Jessica Sanchez, good for you! If you prefer a male contestant in any given year, I have no problem with you. If you prefer a white contestant in any given year, I have no problem with you [if you always like the white contestants and never like contestants of color, however, you might want to examine your internal biases]. The problem is not with any one person’s individual voting decision. The problem is with the pattern. Because once we rack up all the individual choices made over the last four years, and we map them out, the pattern is pretty damn clear: white men have a much easier time on Idol.

Again: I think it’s perfectly fine a white male singer to be the best, most consistent and most original singer on any given year. My problem is when people start trying to argue that every white male singer was the best, most consistent and most original singer on any given year. I don’t care what you say, there is no way you can argue that every single white male winner was a better, more consistent and more interesting singer than all his competitors. There is no way. And yet all five of these white male winners not only won their seasons, but none of them ever appeared in the bottom 3 contestants, no matter how poorly they performed

Women have a much harder time on Idol. People of color have a much harder time on Idol. And women and people of color cannot win Idol anymore. This is a fact. At this point, there is literally nothing a woman or a person of color (or a woman of color) can do to win the show. It has all been done.

This year was a case study in proving that no matter what female and non-white contestants do, they cannot beat a white male contestant. With Elise Testone, Jessica Sanchez, Skylar Laine and Hollie Cavanagh, we had the best group of female singers on Idol in at least five years. They were original, they were interesting, they had an enormous amount of talent, they all had huge shining moments.With the exception of Hollie Cavanagh, who had a few bum weeks but then came roaring back, all of these women were consistent: they made very few mistakes. Meanwhile, with Joshua Ledet, we had – as far as I’m concerned – the best male vocalist on Idol since Adam Lambert. Joshua Ledet was incredibly consistent and high-powered; he almost always exceeded expectations.

I will gladly admit that Phillip Phillips had a good run. But I defy you to argue that he was more consistent than Jessica Sanchez or Joshua Ledet. I defy you to argue that he was more original than Skylar Laine or Elise Testone. I defy you to argue that he had as many standout performances as Jessica, Joshua or Skylar. I defy you to argue that Joshua’s take on Runaway Baby, or Hollie Cavanaugh’s turn on Bleeding Love deserved a bottom three finish while Phillip Phillips’ Time of the Season didn’t. I defy you to argue that Phillip Phillips’ pitch problems were any less egregious than Skylar Laine’s country twang.

My point is: Phillip Phillips had flaws; he had bad performances, but they never seemed to matter. No matter how good, how exceptionally incredible Phillip Phillips’ competitors were, or how terrible Phillip Phillips was, he was never shaken. He never went to the bottom three. And they had no chance of beating him.

And that’s my problem with the White Guy with Guitar phenomenon. White men have it unfairly easy, while anyone who isn’t a white man has it unfairly hard. It’s a perfect example of white male privilege at work. It’s not that the five WGWG winners were untalented. It’s not that they didn’t work hard. It’s not that they don’t deserve good things, or that they’re bad singers. It’s just that, for them, things were easier. The standards were obviously lower (again: they never landed in the bottom three. Ever). Meanwhile, as I’ve detailed in my prior two posts on American Idol, the standards were much higher for women and for people of color. To completely purloin John Scalzi’s explanation of white male privilege: white men play the Idol game on the lowest difficulty setting. And women and people of color play it on a much, much higher difficult setting. [If you haven't read John Scalzi's post on the Lowest Difficulty Setting, you should; it's brilliant]

As Michael Slezak once put it: “Am I going to argue that women have had an easy time on Idol in recent years? Absolutely not. You have to perform better than the men to stay in the competition [...] and sometimes that doesn’t even work.”

The playing field is not level.

That’s my problem.

2. All Women are Robot Members of the Robocalypse

Speaking of American Idol and Gender issues! I’d like to share the #1 thing I learned on American Idol this year: all women are robots. They’re probably also all preparing to kill us in an attempt to institute the robocalypse… but I’m not sure about that yet.

a) All Female Contestants on Idol are Robots

Jennifer Lopez, critiquing Elise Testone: “they [the audience] want to know that you’re a person. That you feel things.”

After Jennifer Lopez said this to Elise Testone, I may or may not have thrown a magazine at the television screen (there were no witnesses. You can’t prove anything).

First, Elise Testone is a person. She doesn’t need to prove it. This isn’t Battlestar Galactica; contestants aren’t required to take Cylon detection tests.

Second, Elise Testone is the last person I would call robotic. Elise Testone is the anti-Lady Gaga. She has no poker face. Over the course of the season, it was nearly impossible for Testone to hide how she was feeling [a problem, since she couldn't hide her disappointment, anger or sadness].

Then again, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that Elise Testone was called out for not being “human” enough. Because there is not a single female contestant this season who has not been called “a robot” or “inauthentic” or “soulless” either by the judges or by the fans.

Every. Single. Female. Contestant. has been called a robot. Every single one.

Men, on the other hand? Almost NEVER get the robot criticism.

Case in point: On the final performance episode, the top 2 singers have to repeat their favorite performance. So both singers are, by definition, doing something unoriginal. And neither Jessica Sanchez nor Phillip Phillips (this year’s top 2) made any radical changes to their re-interpretations of their chosen songs.
Let’s look at Jennifer Lopez’s critique of the two, shall we?

“I’ve seen Jessica do that before. And I just feel like that’s authentic Phillip right there.”

Wait, what? You’ve ALSO seen Phillip Phillips do that before. You’ve seen him do exactly. the same. thing.

Two contestants repeat a song. The female one? Inauthentic. Mimic. The male one? Authentic.

Yeah, no.

This whole thing leads me to believe that the “inauthentic” and “robotic” criticism is a lot less about the individual singer, and a lot more about… their gender.

Yes, indeed, all female contestants are robots.

b) All female fans are robots

Random fan critique: ” Oh Please. WGWGs win because young girls always vote for the cute guy.”

There is no myth floating around the idol fan-o-sphere that drives me more nuts than the myth that “teen girls are ruining the show because they always vote for the cute guys.” It’s also, sadly, the most pervasive myth. [And it's the reason behind my original Why Women Can't Win Idol post]

One of the more disgusting things about this critique is that it makes “cute guy” equal to “white guy.” So men of color can’t be cute? Girls aren’t attracted to guys of color?

Joshua Ledet Crazy Little Thing Called Love

I must not be a girl because I find this young gentleman (Joshua Ledet) very attractive.

Also, it’s incredibly heteronormative. Has anyone heard of lesbians? And bisexual women? They exist.

But what’s most annoying about the “teen girls always vote for the cute guys” myth is that it assumes that teen girls are entirely ruled by their hormones, and that they’re thus incapable of making an informed decision. They can’t just like Phillip Phillips because they like his music. No, it has to be because he’s a cute guy. That’s why.

And it needs no evidence! No market research, no rigorous studies, no sample size, no nothing. Because everyone knows that when a cute white guy strums on his guitar, teen girls become mind-controlled drones and start speed-dialing the cute white guy to safety.

Teen girls are robots. Their programming?
Vote for the cute white guy.

… Does anyone else see a trend here?

I find it endlessly hilarious (and by hilarious, I mean rage-inducing) that if fandom isn’t blaming the White Guy With Guitars phenomenon on teenage girls being completely mindless robots, we’re blaming it on female contestants being robotic.

What is it about being female that makes it so easy for people to compare you to a machine?

Female performers cannot be authentic. They can be great  singers. They can even be perfect singers. But they cannot be authentic, real, human singers.
Heart and soul? Only guys have that. Women just sing the notes.
Authenticity? Only guys have that. Women can only mimic.
Charm? Only guys have that. Women are cold and soulless.

Female fans cannot be authentic. They cannot vote for a contestant because they like that person’s music. They cannot vote for a contestant because they enjoy their performance style. They don’t watch Idol because they want to see true music.
No, they can only watch for the cute boys. And they can only vote for the cute boys
Only men can be real fans. Men vote for the best singer. Men watch the show because they care about music. Women watch the show for eye-candy.

So, from my viewing of American Idol, I have concluded that men are people and women are robots.

It’s the robocalypse, people. And I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.

3. Jessica Sanchez and Racism

Okay, let’s be clear. I am supremely unqualified to discuss this topic. I am white. I also know almost nothing about discrimination against Asians in the United States; I know even less about discrimination against Filipinos in the United States.

Thus, my ability to analyze the discourse surrounding Jessica Sanchez is… limited. To say the least.
Usually in these circumstances, I go: “hey, look at all the smart, qualified people who have written about this! Read their stuff!”
But unfortunately (and bizarrely), no one else has really talked about this issue.** Or if they do, they aren’t doing it in any depth – it’s all “Jessica Sanchez was voted off, so America is racist!” Or”No, America isn’t racist!”

But the issue of Jessica Sanchez’s race, and how it played into her run on Idol, deserves some discussion.

So I’m going to try here. [If you've seen or read any pertinent commentary, please let me know. I'm begging you.]

Point the first: Jessica Sanchez is American. [This will be important later]
Point the second: Jessica Sanchez’s father is Mexican American. Her mother is Filipina. Jessica Sanchez is thus of both Latin@ and Asian (Filipino) heritage. She’s mixed race.

Jessica Sanchez Stuttering

Jessica Sanchez performing “Stuttering”

Crucially, Sanchez’s Mexican heritage was almost never discussed, either on the show, in American Idol commentary, or in fan circles. She was described as primarily Asian-American or Filipino-American.

I’ve written two long posts about how American Idol systematically disadvantages female contestants. But in the case of race – at least, in the case of race this year – I did not see a lot of institutional discrimination. The show itself was not putting Jessica Sanchez at a disadvantage because of her race (although they did put her at a disadvantage because of her gender).

But the fans and the critics are another story.

I’ve seen loads of comments on fan sites and on American Idol articles that say that Jessica Sanchez’s talent is a “cheat” because her “Asian parents” have been raising her to “compete” from “childhood.” She’s a “trained-since-birth” robot. Because her family is Filipino, they’ve “chosen one child to train as a prodigy.” She has a “tiger mom” who has trained her “since birth” to “win Idol,” and thus Sanchez doesn’t “deserve to win.”

It’s the “Well, of course she’s doing well in Math. She’s Asian” argument.

This, to me, is on the same level as the “Asian-Americans are stealing all the science jobs” rhetoric we see in the news. Or the massive”Asian-Americans have an easier time getting into college” freakouts.

As I like to put it when I’m being particularly sarcastic:”Oh no! Americans of color are actually doing okay! They’re doing well in school! They’re doing well on TV shows! They’re getting decently-paid jobs! Only real [white] Americans are allowed to get those things! We have to panic now!”

And the whole makes me want to throw myself off a cliff.

[Fortunately, I don't live near any cliffs]

This “She’s successful because she’s Asian” argument is a particularly vicious way of dismissing Jessica Sanchez’s achievements. By these standards, Sanchez didn’t get to American Idol through hard work, determination, talent and luck. She didn’t get there because she loved singing. No, she got there because her family was Asian, so they “trained” her.

Moreover, Idol commentary and fan discussions have made Sanchez’s hard work the equivalent of an “unfair advantage.” No one is going “look how focused and dedicated Jessica Sanchez is.” Instead, they’re acting like her hard work is the equivalent of cheating.

I’m sorry, someone’s going to have to explain this to me: Jessica Sanchez is a hard worker, therefore she’s a cheater? Wait, what? Isn’t working hard to achieve your goals the opposite of cheating? [If working hard makes people cheaters, I think I'd best turn myself in to my University's Academic Counsel]

I keep wanting to tell these people: You don’t think Phillip Phillips worked his butt off to get where he is today?

But somehow, it’s okay for Phillip Phillips to work hard. On the other hand, it’s suspect for Jessica Sanchez to do the same thing.

Frank Wu, a critical race theorist, explains this better than I will: “The model minority myth hurts Asian Americans themselves. It is two-faced. Every attractive trait matches up neatly to its repulsive complement, and the aspects are conducive to reversal. [...] To be hard working is to be an unfair competitor for regular human beings, and not a well-rounded, likable individual.” (Wu, Frank. Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White)

People perceived Asian-Americans as being an “unfair competitors” for regular human beings – and by regular human beings, they mean “white Americans.”

I think this is exactly what happened to Jessica Sanchez. Because she was perceived as a hard-working Asian singer, people saw her as having some kind of “unfair” advantage over other (mostly white) contestants like Phillip Phillips. Where Phillip Phillips’ hard work makes him a likeable individual, Jessica Sanchez’s hard work makes her robotic and unlikeable.

So yes. It’s racist. And it’s disgusting. And I’m sick of reading this kind of commentary. If you don’t like Jessica Sanchez’s singing, fine. Just say that. If you prefer another singer, fine. Just say that. If you think Jessica Sanchez has no emotional connection to her lyrics, fine. Just say that. But don’t accuse Jessica Sanchez of being some sort of Asian dragon-lady with “unfair advantages” over her competitors. Because yes, that’s racist.

The other really disturbing thing I see in commentary and fan forums is the discussion around Jessica Sanchez’s appearance.

Around top 8 week, I started noticing that, on the fan forums I visited and on youtube clips of Jessica or Hollie Cavanagh’s performances, there was a kind of universal consensus that Hollie was the beautiful one, and Jessica was…  not. Even people who said they preferred Jessica as a singer would say things like “but she’s not pretty like Hollie.”

This turned into a mini-phenomenon. I saw it everywhere. If you do a google search, you’ll find that there are a whole lot more results for “Jessica Sanchez ugly” than for “Hollie Cavanagh ugly.” And most of the negative commentary on Jessica’s appearance also talks about her race.

There were also entire lines of comments that argued that Jessica Sanchez shouldn’t win Idol because she doesn’t “look American” and it would be confusing if the winner of Idol wasn’t American. I counted fifty of those comments when I was compiling youtube clips for this post, and then I couldn’t do it anymore.

Pardon me for the temporary rant: Jessica Sanchez is an American. Jessica Sanchez looks American. Because she is an American. The End.

Someone, somewhere, will have to explain to me what these people mean by “looking American.” Because I think they mean “white.”

And, you know, I realize the internet can be a terrible place. I do. I really do. I know that people are asshats. But that doesn’t make their conduct okay, and it certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it.
Let me put it this way. If there were no racial bias, Jessica Sanchez and Hollie Cavanaugh would probably get the same amount of “ha ha, she’s ugly” trolling. But because we tend to see white people as the “standard” of good looks, Jessica Sanchez gets the brunt of the “ugly” criticism.

Hollie Cavanagh American Idol Season 11

Hollie Cavanagh

Jessica Sanchez American Idol Season 11

Jessica Sanchez

Oh, yes. Now that I see their photos right next to each other, it’s SO CLEAR that Hollie is prettier than Jessica.

//sarcasm//

I would probably have let the ugly/pretty rant drop if it weren’t for the fact that the exact same thing happened with Phillip Phillips and Joshua Ledet.

Again, many commentators pegged Phillip Phillips as the winner, because they argued that women and girls would vote for the cute boy.

But no one ever said Joshua Ledet has a chance of winning the “cute boy” vote. Once Colton Dixon was gone, everyone assumed that Phillip Phillips was the show’s only male heartthrob.

Phillip Phillips Heartthrob American Idol Season 11

Phillip Phillips

Joshua Ledet

Joshua Ledet

Oh, yes. It’s so obvious that Phillip Phillips is the only attractive one of these two guys. SO OBVIOUS.

[This is one of those cases where my personal taste goes completely against the public consensus, because I happen to think Phillip Phillips is somewhat bland, while Joshua Ledet is a Stone Cold Fox.]

My point here is: there’s a pattern where only white contestants are labeled – either by fans or by commentators – as attractive. The entire “girls will only vote for cute boys so White Guys with Guitars will always win” inherently assumes that only white guys count as cute. This is probably not that surprising to anyone who has studied race issues in the United States, but it’s still disturbing. And we should talk about it.

So yes. Racism has an impact on American Idol. And we should talk about it. We’re probably not going to, and if we do, it’s going to be along the lines of “white people experience discrimination too!”… but I’m holding out hope.

AHEM!

Now that I’ve finished covering the year in misogyny and racism, let’s… end on a high note, shall we?

Here are some of the great things about American Idol this year:

1. Michael Slezak, Melinda Doolittle and Jason Averett

Michael Slezak remains my favorite American Idol commentator of all times. There is no one who is funner to read or to watch. His boundless enthusiasm, his passionate love for the show and the singers, his burning hatred of producer manipulations – he’s amazingly addictive.

Slezak is my hero. Someday, if I work hard enough, and hide my female roboticness long enough, I might aspire to be half as entertaining and incisive a writer as he is.

Some actual quotes for our edification: “I can’t fathom what (aside from Uncle Nigel sending volts of electricity into their chairs) prompted the judges to give Deandre a Standing O for a vocal this week that was about as pleasant as listening to a Snowy Owl sink its talons into a frightened prairie dog and carry it back to the nest for disembowelment.” (Top 9 recap)

On Skylar Laine’s “Show Must Go On” “It was like watching the very first space shuttle take off, and you didn’t know if it was going to make it up into the atmosphere, and then it was like – oh my god, we’re in outer space. We’ve conquered outer space.”

Michael Slezak is also one-third of the team behind Idology, a weekly American Idol video recap where Slezak joins Melinda Doolittle, the third place finisher of American Idol Season 6, to discuss the week’s results.

Melinda Doolittle Michael Slezak Idology

Idology with Melinda Doolittle and Michael Slezak

I love Idology with the passion of a thousand hopeful American Idol contestants. I love it because Slezak and Doolittle are having so much damn fun – sometimes Doolittle makes Slezak laugh so much I worry they’ll have to call an ambulance. The two have incredible chemistry.I also love Idology because the producer, Jason Averett, intercuts each video with amazing, hilarious clips from movies and TV shows. And it is glorious.

Averett is the invisible third commenter who makes himself known through his editing and his hilarious captions. During the first few weeks of the competition, for example,  Slezak and Doolittle argued over whether Colton Dixon or Phillip Phillips had a better shot at the title. Averett kept intercutting their discussions with a photo of Phillips and the caption “Spoiler: This Guy.”

Anyways. I love Michael Slezak. I love Jason Averett. I love Melinda Doolittle. I love Idology. I can’t wait for them to come back next year.

I only have two small quibbles [because you know me; I can't ever just like something. I have to find all the problems]

One: Idology is too short. Last year, we had thirty minute episodes, so Slezak could really get into the nitty-gritty details. And he could invite guests, he could have guest performers etc. If possible, I’d like the longer length back, thank you very much.

Two: I really appreciate Slezak’s commitment to calling out the anti-female shenanigans on Idol. But I would also really like it if he stopped calling JLo a skank. Look, she’s a terrible judge, and I’m fine with you making fun of her and her singing and her terrible critiques. Just don’t use gendered slurs to insult her. You don’t use racist terms of insult Randy Jackson; don’t use misogynistic slurs to insult Jennifer Lopez. And stop saying that she’s setting back the feminist movement, or women’s rights. It’s annoying. One of the main points of “rights” is that they don’t go away just because one woman acts badly.

Reason #2 American Idol was awesome this year?

2. There were some damn fine Singers

It bears repeating: there were some damn fine singers. I don’t think there’s been a season where I’ve liked as many people as I did this year. Moreover, when we got to the top 10, there wasn’t a single singer that I actively disliked. I wasn’t a huge fan of Hollie or Phillip, particularly near the end, but I thought they were fine.

In contrast, last season there was exactly ONE singer I still liked by the time Top 9 rolled around (the inimitable Haley Reinhart).

Haley Reinhart House of the Rising Sun

Gratuitous Haley Reinhart Cameo!

This season, I fell madly, passionately in love with Joshua Ledet and Jessica Sanchez. They were phenomenal. Unbelievable. And earth-shatteringly good. Joshua was all whiskey-soaked raspiness, unbridled emotions and glorious, explosive energy; Jessica Sanchez was gorgeous, finessed vocals; lovely rawness combined with a perfect range and a magnificent, terrifying power.

I don’t care what they sing. I will buy all the CDs. And the singles. Whatever. Everything. All the time.

Jessica Sanchez Joshua Ledet Knew You Were Waiting For Me

My personal top 2 this season

I was also deeply in love with Skylar Laine and Elise Testone. They are tremendous. Elise Testone is bluesy and rocky and her voice is so wonderfully bizarre. Skylar Laine proves I can enjoy country music: she was artistic, original and gutsy, and she had a massive voice on top of everything else.

Skylar Laine The Show Must Go On

Skylar Laine

Elise Testone Whole Lotta Love

Elise Testone

So yes. In spite of the misogyny, the racism, the producer manipulation, the judging issues… there were still damn fine singers on American Idol this season, and they gave some damn fine performances.

Because it’s my blog, and I’m ridiculously self-indulgent, I’ve compiled a list of my favorite twenty performances this season. And because it’s my blog, I don’t even have to be embarrassed that more than 1/2 of them are Joshua Ledet or Jessica Sanchez performances. [Okay, I am embarrassed. But I'll live]

In conclusion! Hurrah for Season 11! And thank god I’ve got six months to recuperate before Season 12.

[These performances are in NO PARTICULAR ORDER. Don't hurt me]

0. Jessica Sanchez You Are So Beautiful (also known as “suck it, trolls)

1.Elise Testone Whole Lotta Love (also known as “Hey, robots sing pretty good, don’t they?”)

2. Skylar Laine Stay With Me 

3. Jessica Sanchez Love You I do (also known as “C.D. falls madly in love with a contestant for the first time this season”)

4. Joshua Ledet No More Drama (also known as “Wait, why didn’t he make the final two again?”)

5. Jessica Sanchez and Joshua Ledet’s duet I Knew You Were Waiting For Me (also known as “C.D.’s personal top 2 make the world explode through sheer awesomeness”)

6. Hollie Cavanagh Bleeding Love

7. Joshua Ledet When A Man Loves A Woman

8. Elise Testone No One

9. Jessica Sanchez Everybody has a Dream 

10. Joshua Ledet Ready For Love (also known as “Joshua becomes C.D.’s other favorite contestant’)

11. Skylar Laine The Show Must Go On (also known as “Michael Slezak thinks this is the equivalent of conquering outer space”)

12. Phillip Phillips Volcano (I will admit, I’ve never really gotten Phillip Phillips. But I got him on this song).

13. Jessica Sanchez Sweet Dreams (also known as “the best song I’ve bought on iTunes in months”)

14. Jessica Sanchez Bohemian Rhapsody

15. Jessica Sanchez The Prayer (also known as “I’m not religious and I actually started crying in the middle of this song”)

16. Jessica Sanchez, Deandre Brackensick and Candice Glover It Doesn’t Matter Anymore (Candice better come back next year, is all I’m saying)

17. Jessica Sanchez And I Am Telling You (I actually held my breath for the last minute. The entire song was like jumping out of a plane at 10,000 feet and landing in a side-split handstand)

18. Joshua Ledet It’s a Man, Man, Man’s World (with Jessica Sanchez’s And I Am Telling You, the best ten minute block of the season. My brain almost exploded when these two songs happened back-to-back. The awesome was impossible to contain).

19. Jessica Sanchez’s duet with Jennifer Holiday on the finale (I take it all back. This was the best three minutes on the show on this season. Period. No questions asked. Do not mess with these two ladies. They will destroy you.)

Public Service Announcement: Haley Reinhart’s first CD, Listen Up, just came out. Buy it; it’s incredible.

P.S: Apologies for the spotty posting schedule. Fair warning: it may get spottier. I’ve been having some health-related problems, and they’ve been getting steadily worse over the past week or so. Hopefully I can keep a two-to-three post a week schedule… but I just started a medication that’s supposed to help my migraines and the side effects for the first two weeks are brutal. So if I disappear, my apologies.


Why Can’t Women Win Idol? (Hint: It’s Not because of Teen Girls)

I feel quite guilty about my sporadic posting on the blog. But in my defense, it’s finals season at my University… and I’m not getting a lot of sleep. I might as well admit that until finals are over (April 30th), posting is going to continue to be sporadic. If anyone is following the blog, my apologies – I promise, it will get better after the 30th.
Other signs that its finals season?

  • Yesterday I misspelled the word “misspelling” AND the word “typo”
  • I have over 450 unread emails (by the way, if you’ve sent me an email in the past two weeks, there’s a good chance I haven’t gotten it. Sorry!)
  • After my American Literature final, I ate three bags of carrots in a row. Don’t ask me why. I don’t know why.
  • I am slowly regaining feeling in my right hand after the aforementioned American Lit final. My reaction to the numbness is particularly worrying: “well, at least this way my hand won’t hurt during the NEXT final.”
  • I used up an entire pack of pens in less than a week.

Anyways. Back to your regularly (or irregularly) scheduled blog content. Today, I’ve got a rant. Yes, a rant! I don’t think I’ve had a rant on here yet. Oh, sure, I got annoyed at the “Great Science Fiction Books for Girls”, and I had some negative comments about the Hugo Shortlist, but a real rant, with bitterness and snark and anger? Haven’t had one yet.
So yay for innovation?

***

[trigger warning for misogynistic language]

Last week Jessica Sanchez was voted out of American Idol. Fortunately, the judges exercised their power of veto and saved her from elimination. But it was the shock boot of the season: Jessica is widely regarded as the best vocalist left on the show, and everyone thought she was a frontrunner. She’s cute, she’s passionate, she sings brilliantly, the judges love her, the critics love her – she’s got it all. In fact, most commentators have seen Jessica as the Great Female Hope: the woman who might finally break the four straight seasons of men winning on idol.

Jessica Sanchez "Love You I Do"

Why, Jessica, WHY?

With her almost-ouster hanging in the air, now seems like a good time to ask this question: What’s up with American Idol and the Ladies, huh?

I mean, seriously.

It’s been FOUR YEARS since a woman won. And last week, Jimmy Iovine, the producer and mentor for the contestants, said on the results show that this season will come down to a contest between Phillip Phillips and Colton Dixon.*** Well, there you go; might as well stop watching and take a nap now – we’ve got the results! Five straight years of men! Hurrah!

We should stop calling it Idol and start calling it “The White Male Idol… and the Supporting Ladies” (I’m not even going to touch on the racial aspect in this post, because that merits a rant of its own).

The woman problem isn’t even confined to the winners. If there were no gender bias on the show, we would expect some years to be dominated by men, some by women, and most to be roughly equal. But in the past five seasons, only two of the top ten singers had a rough gender parity (season seven and season eleven). By contrast, the top ten singers in seasons eight, nine and ten were mainly male – in fact, by the top eight of all three of those seasons, there were only two women left (vs. six men). Which means that for three out of the last five seasons, it was three times easier to get voted into the top eight if you came equipped with a Y chromosome.

And listen, this rant is not about individual voting decisions. If you prefer a male contestant in any given year, I have no problem with you. My feminist fervor does not extend to believing you should always, in all circumstance, support a woman over a man. Gun to head, I probably would have voted for Adam Lambert over Allison Iraheta in season 8. Gun to head, I would have voted for David Cook over Carly Smithson in season 7. If you prefer Colton Dixon to Jessica Sanchez, more power to you. I’m interested in examining the trend as a whole – not in castigating people for their personal contestant preferences. (As the great Haley Reinhart once said “It’s your opinion, and you’re entitled to it”)

Nor is this rant about how the streak of male winners – Scotty McCreery, Lee Dewyze, Kris Allen and David Cook – are terrible, terrible singers and shouldn’t have won. There are perfectly decent reasons those individual singers won; there are also perfectly decent reasons why individual female contestants were eliminated. But  if we rack up all those individual choices and map them out over the space of the past four years, the message is pretty damn clear. Women have a much, much harder time on idol.

There are two reasons why Idol’s Woman Problem bothers me:

1. Female Talent isn’t as recognized as male talent

Here’s the thing: it’s not like there haven’t been some incredibly talented women up on the idol stage in the past four seasons.

(the links, in order, are Season seven’s Carly Smithson (Jesus Christ Superstar), Season eight’s Allison Iraheta (Cry Baby, exit performance), Season Nine’s Katelyn Epperly (The Scientist), Siobhan Magnus (Paint it Black) and Crystal Bowersox (Up to the Mountain) and Season Ten’s Pia Toscano (I’ll Stand by You), Lauren Alaina (Anyways) and Haley Reinhart (House of the Rising Sun))

And it’s not like this season is lacking in female talent.

(links, in order, to Erika Van Pelt (Edge of Glory), Skylar Laine (Stay with Me), Jessica Sanchez (Love You I Do) and Elise Testone (Whole Lotta Love))

So why aren’t they getting the recognition they deserve? Why is it basically impossible for these women, no matter what they do, to win the show?

And listen, I realize I’m ranting about gender disparity on a reality show. But you know what? It does matter. Yes, anyone who gets onto the Idol stage has a great deal of exposure. But the longer you stay on the show, the more chance there is you’ll be successful. A tenth place finisher rarely gets a record deal, a fourth place finisher often does. And the winner, of course, gets a huge boost in both exposure and sales (not to mention a guaranteed record deal). So when women are continually shut out of those spots, it means that women have a much, much harder time making a career out of their singing by going through Idol than men do. Which, of course, plays into the greater societal problems women have in getting recognition (and equal pay) for their work.

Here’s the other thing: American Idol is watched by approximately 30 million viewers. A lot of those viewers are women. A lot of those viewers are young women. When over and over and over again women on Idol are unable to win, or even to crack the top four; when you have week after week after week of only women going home (Season 10! Good times); when singers like Jessica Sanchez, who do everything it’s possible to do, are still voted out seventh – young women get the message that no matter what you do, no matter how talented you are, there is a glass ceiling, and you can’t break it. Women can be on the stage, but remember, it really belongs to the men.

So, this is bad enough. But here’s the other reason Idol’s Woman Problem bothers me.

(by the way, I realize that a year ago, I’d never watched Idol, and now I can name the ten best female performers of the last five years in a single breath. There is a land called ‘obsessiva’ and I am it’s Queen).

2. The way people react.

I am not the only person to have remarked on Idol’s gender problem. It’s pretty much a universally known fact; you’d have to have your head buried in the sand to avoid it.

And people talk about it. And they try to figure out why women are voted out so early and so often. They too, wonder why women never win anymore. And no matter what, the answer always, always, always, ALWAYS ends up being (drumroll, please): TEENAGE GIRLS.

Mean Girls

Scarier than Genghis Khan and Nuclear Weapons put together

Yes, everyone. The collective wisdom has spoken. American Idol has been completely ruined because teenage girls only vote for cute boys, and refuse to vote for talent.

A collection of quotes, for our edification:

“American Idol is ruined because all these girls are voting for the same boyfriend –  I mean singer.”

“And hopefully these teen girls don’t vote them out. Stop messing with people’s careers and lives!”

“Teenage girls of America. Look, there are a lot of places to see cute boys. Google is very useful – ” “You know what they can do? They can go get a boyfriend. Or a friend who is a boy who is cute.”

“Of course, they’re going to vote for the cute boys. I mean, come on!”

A female contestant, after getting eliminated: “Once [teenage girls] get a crush, we’re done.”

“These teen girls have no clue, are dumber than a box of rocks. They’re stupid, selfish and vote against the talented ones because they’re not white boys.”

All of these comments either come from well-known idol critics (including my favorite, Michael Slezak, who is usually SO GOOD with the feminism) or from message boards on well-reputed idol fan sites. I edited some of these comments for misogynistic language. Believe me when I say that these are some of the least insulting comments I’ve seen. There’s a whole lot worse out there, and most of it involves references to prostitution or female dogs.

Over and over again, the commentary turns into an attack on teenage girls. Teen girls ONLY vote for people based on attractiveness. Teenage girls ONLY vote for boys (come on!) And then it turns into: Teen girls are stupid. Teen Girls have no taste. Teen Girls suck. Teen Girls are ruining people’s lives. I hate Teen Girls.

Inevitably, these discussions turn into a giant excuse to talk about how much teenage girls suck.

This drives me NUTS. Just… NUTS.

Community Annie

And you don’t want make me nuts.

The implication is that teenage girls can’t possibly have taste that is unrelated to their sexual attraction to contestants. They can’t like a male contestant because they like his music. It can only ever be about his cute looks. Oh, Culturally Disoriented, you and your cute beliefs that young women can make rational decisions! You’re so funny! And so ridiculous! (but then again, you do have lady bits, so the logic thing can’t come easily to you).

Yes, let us reiterate again  that teenage girls always have terrible taste, and anything they like is terrible. Hey, remember Twilight!

And it bothers the hell out of me.

Listen, I’m not sure people are aware of this, but when you dismiss an entire gender’s taste level, intelligence and ability to make rational decisions? Where I’m from, we call that sexism.

Dictionary

Dictionaries! Read ‘em.

Teenaged boys are allowed to like Jessica Alba and Transformers and the first three Star Wars movies. And even though we as a culture have decided that Jessica Alba is a bad actress and Transformers and Star Wars (the prequels) are terrible movies, we don’t insult teenage boys for liking them.  When people point out the misogyny in comic books, or the ridiculous way women are drawn, the reaction isn’t “don’t the teenage boys who read this suck?” The reaction is “well, boys will be boys.”

I ask only for consistency. If “boys will be boys,” then  girls should be allowed to like what they like without anyone shaming them for it. Girls should be allowed to like what they like without people questioning their intelligence or generosity. Girls should be allowed to like what they like without people calling them sluts.

I mean, for crying out  loud, people.

Yes, let’s talk about the gender disparity on American Idol. Please. We need to do it. But let’s not try to solve the problem of female singers on idols by tearing down other women. Let’s not get into a game of “every teen girl sucks, except the teen girls on idol, who are so awesome they need to be protected from OTHER teenage girls.” (hello hypocrisy). Let’s stop taking the gender disparity on Idol as a giant excuse to talk about how much we hate teen girls, and how much teen girls are clearly always ruled by their hormones. It’s insulting. It’s misogynistic. And most importantly, it’s not true.

That’s the most infuriating thing about this whole discussion: no one actually knows whether or not the majority of voters are teenage girls, and no one knows who they’re voting for. There’s no data. There’s no concrete information. We’re just guessing. All of these allegations are unsubstantiated.

Frankly, I don’t buy the “teenage girls are ruining idol” explanation in the least. There are so many better reasons women don’t win idol. There are so many provable reasons women don’t win idol. But of course, to acknowledge those reasons would be to acknowledge that the show itself has a gender bias. And it’s so much easier to blame it on the girls.

So if teenage girls aren’t to blame for the gender disparity, who is?

The show itself.

I’ll start with the judges.

Judges are important on American Idol. Despite Nigel Lythgoe (the executive producer’s) claim that viewers aren’t sheep and will vote for whomever they want the contestants only get to sing for 90 seconds or so. And then the judges get to talk about it for at least as long, if not longer. You think that kind of power doesn’t matter?
Please. The people the judges like are almost always the last people standing. Last year’s Haley Reinhart was one of the few exceptions to the rule.

Haley Reinhart House of the Rising Sun

You Will Respect her Authority

There are two “special” advantages the judges can give: opening up the top 24 (having an extra performer or two allowed to compete for America’s votes) – and the judge’s save, where they prevent a performer from being eliminated. The judges must be aware that there is a gender disparity – and yet they continually these “special” advantages onto male performers. This year, after selecting the top 24, the judges decided to choose an extra “surprise” contestant from the people who had already been eliminated. Of course, that person got an automatic boost because they were “saved” from elimination. It was a man.

…Yes, the perfect solution to the problem of women appearing in the top ten less is to add an extra guy. Well played, judges. Well played!

The Judge’s save, meanwhile, has been used three times. Until Jessica’s elimination, all the “saved” people were male. And even more importantly: none of the men who were saved were frontrunners. No offense to Matt Giraud, Casey Abrams and Michael Lynch, but when they were eliminated (and saved) almost no one thought they were going to win. They were really talented people who went home too soon. Simon Cowell even said to Matt as he was saving him that he didn’t think Matt could win. The people who got the save weren’t people like Adam Lambert or Scotty McCreery – male singers who had a shot at the title.

Jessica Sanchez, our sole female “saved” contestant, on the other hand is a frontrunner. Before her elimination, many pundits thought she would be the winner; almost everyone thought she’d make the top three. In other words, it wasn’t until a potential female victor was eliminated that the judges were willing to use their save on a woman. Until then, they were very happy to let women get eliminated, all while saving men who probably weren’t going to win.

Speaking of “saves.” Judge Jennifer Lopez has twice begged voters to vote for someone this season. Both times, they’ve been men (none of the other judges have actually asked the audience to vote for a specific contestant)

Outside of these special advantages, there are all kinds of invisible, informal advantages that the judges give male contestants. Now, I want to be clear: I don’t think either the production or the judges are doing this on purpose. I don’t think they all sit in a room and go “yes, this is the way we will prevent women from ever winning the crown, MUAHAHAHAHA.” But even if their intention is not to cause a disparity, the reality is that the show has created an uneven playing field for male and female contestants. How have they done it?

First, the Judges recognize male contestants more often. Two weeks ago on Idol, the judges gave an unprecedented FIVE standing ovations in the course of a single show. Every single male performer except one got a standing O, and the one who didn’t was mentioned over and over in the show as having “set the bar.” Only one female performer received a standing ovation, despite the fact that most critics thought performers like Skylar Laine or Jessica Sanchez (neither of whom received a standing ovation) performed better than Deandre Brackensick and Heejun Han (both of whom received one).

Second, women tend to be far more critiqued than men. In Seasons 7, 8, 10 and 11, the main person criticized by the judges was a woman: Carly Smithson and Syesha Mercado in season 7; Allison Iraheta in season 8; Haley Reinhart in season 10 and Hollie Cavanaugh in Season 11. And it’s not because the other performers are flawless either.

Look, if you’ve decided that you can’t possibly give constructive feedback to everyone and have to concentrate on one performer and one performer alone… could you at least choose a male punching-bag every once in a while? Variety: it’s the spice of life.

Moreover, the Judges – and the producers – all seem to have an idea that there’s only one template for a female singer: a cute, young, peppy, pop-balladeer. Men get lots of roles they can play successfully – grown-ass men like David Cook, young heartthrobs like Scotty McCreery; dark, edgy rockers like Adam Lambert; masterful musicians like Casey Abrams and Kris Allen.

Women are far more restricted. Many critics (and fans like me) believe the reason Haley Reinhart was torn to shreds on a weekly basis by the judges (despite her near-flawless performances) was because she was a blues-rock singer. Meanwhile, her competitor Lauren Alaina, a country-pop balladeer, was almost never criticized. Simon Cowell spent a good ten hours of Season 11 making fun of Siobhan Magnus for being “weird.” Allison Iraheta, a sixteen year old Rocker, received critiques from the judges for not having any “personality” and being too “dark.”

Siobhan Magnus

Why don’t the judges like weird women?

Iraheta who had a delightful sense of humor, once replied that it’s “not like I’m cutting myself.” These remarks are particularly ironic because Allison shared the stage with Adam Lambert – possibly the most provocative, darkest performer to come on the idol stage (I say with love – I’m a huge Lambert fan) – and who was never critiqued for his performance style.

Allison Iraheta Adam Lambert Slow Ride

Adam and Allison: They are the Rockers. And you will respect Their Authority (regardless of gender).

A subset of this problem is the clothes issue: while I’ve never heard a man criticized for his fashion choices by a judge, many, many female contestants have had their style questioned. Allison Iraheta and Carly Smithson being the two who come to mind first – and they were, of course, women who didn’t dress like pop stars. They dressed like rockers.

(possibly because they WERE rockers)

Allison Iraheta Cry Baby

Allison Iraheta: She will Rock You

As Michael Slezak once said, “Simon isn’t happy unless the women are Whitney Huston and singing “Against All Odds” in a pageant gown.”

Unfortunately, even though Simon Cowell has left American Idol, his attitude remains. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Whitney Huston. The problem is that while men will be praised by the judges for all kinds of performance styles, women will only be praised if they fit the One True Female template.  Men have all kinds of roads to the title; women only have one. And it’s all kinds of ironic, because the women who dominate the pop-charts right now – Kei$ha, Lady Gaga, Adele – are not cute, peppy pop-balladeers.

(I should add: Lady Gaga’s fanbase is primarily young… and female. So the “teenage girls only like cute conventional boys” narrative? Not so much.)

Women also almost never get credit for “artistry.” Judges will tell contestants like James Durbin or Casey Abrams that they weren’t just singers, they were “artists.” Usually these praises come after a contestant has done something really interesting with their song, rearranging it or reworking it in order to prove that they’re not just singing Karaoke. Which is great, and they should be praised for doing something original. “You have the heart and soul of an artist,” Jennifer Lopez said to James Durbin last season. Randy once said to a male performer that he was proud to be judging “artists” as well as “pop stars.”Kara DiGuardi called Matt Giraurd a “true artist.”

The trouble is, I’ve never heard a judge call a woman an artist. Or give her credit for song rearrangement. I’m sure it’s happened – it’s not like I’ve watched the show for that long. But again, as Michael Slezak said “somehow, it’s always easier for a guy with an acoustic guitar to get credit for song rearrangement than a girl.” Female contestants like Crystal Bowersox, Carly Smithson, Haley Reinhart, Katelyn Epperly, Allison Iraheta and Siobahn Magnus would make radical – and successful – changes to songs, and the judges would never praise them for it. And yes, this does matter: I don’t always know when a song has been rearranged, because I’m not always familiar with the original. So when the judges tell me Adam is a great song re-arranger, but never mention Allison’s endeavors, I assume Adam is a more well-rounded singer/artist than Allison.

While a man can be a great singer and a great artist, a woman on Idol can only be a great singer. It’s another weapon in their arsenal that men have, and women don’t.

Speaking of things men can do, but women can’t: women can’t make the judges emotional. I realize this sounds like the weirdest critique ever, but seeing a judge cry or lose it because of a performer makes a huge difference. After listening to ninety critiques, I always remember the ones where Jennifer Lopez started crying.

And when you think back, the people who have made the judges cry? Men. James Durbin. Chris Medina. Joshua Ledet. Adam Lambert. Michael Lynche. Lee Dewyze. Listen, I can’t necessarily yell at the judges for crying – it’s not a reaction they can control. But when the judges don’t cry, they’ll often say things like “this touched my soul” etc. And even then – even when no physiological reaction is needed – they usually say those things to men. Well, of course, Culturally Disoriented. Don’t be ridiculous. Men are artists. And they can affect you emotionally. But women? Women can be pretty, and perfect – but they can’t make you cry.

And, in a case of hitting someone when they’re down, women tend to get the “cold and emotionless” critique far more than men do.

Speaking of which, I’m going to turn back to the teen girls issue to talk about the “cuteness” factor. You know what group of people are really, really, REALLY obsessed with cute boys? (hint: it’s not teen girls).

It’s the Judges (and the Production).

Listen, maybe teen girls are voting for male contestants because of their looks. But the judges are practically begging them to do it. During critiques, they’ll pause to ask the audience: “Ladies, what do you think of this man?” Or Jennifer Lopez to Casey Abrams “I think you’re sexy!” Or Simon Cowell will tell Kris Allen that it was a mistake to reveal “the wife” too soon (because Kris should pretend to be an available heartthrob).

And this kind of critique happens all the time. The message? You should pay attention to these boys looks. They matter. (Sometimes they seem to matter more than the actual singing – I remember a Casey Abrams performance where all the judges could talk about was his “sexy” appearance).

During Top nine week of Season 11, Nigel Lythgoe (the executive producer) actually went into the audience and pushed a group of girls onstage to hug Scotty McCreery. The host, Ryan Seacrest, started calling Scotty “Scotty the Body” (urgh. God. No. Please. No. (he’s sixteen, you maniacs)). The judges and the production basically frame these men as sex objects.

Scotty McCreery Elvis Girls

(Seriously, judges/ producers. Don’t you have google? Don’t you have access to boyfriends or hot-friends-who-are-men? Why else would you constantly comment on the male performers looks, or turn them into sex objects?)

But they judges don’t do the same thing for female performers. Despite the fact that Haley Reinhart, Pia Toscano and Lauren Alaina were all attractive women, the judges never said to them “the boys at home are really going to eat that up.” (excuse my heteronormativity here). When Crystal Bowersox had a boyfriend, Simon Cowell didn’t tell her she should “hide” that information in order to seem available. Nigel Lythgoe doesn’t send a group of teen boys to hug Jessica Sanchez or Skylar Laine.

I know the judges call the women “beautiful.” But there’s a difference between calling someone “beautiful” and “sexy.” Sexy frames you as an object of desire. And desire… makes people vote. It reminds me of So You Think You Can Dance, where Cat Deeley introduces the contestants by saying “these are the girls… and here are your boys.” The “your” makes it more personal; as an audience member, you’re instantly more engaged. Comments like “ladies, what do you think of this man” have a similar effect.

Listen, I’m kind of grateful for the lack of sexual objectification, to be honest. I don’t want to see the judges framing sixteen year old Lauren Alaina, or sixteen year old Jessica Sanchez, as an object of lust. Steven Tyler’s already crossed the line a few times, and it was super-awkward. But I don’t want to see the judges framing sixteen year old Scotty McCreery as a sex object either (gaaaaaah). There’s got to be a happy medium. Maybe dial back the sexualization of the boys, and throw in a few remarks like “I’m sure all the boys appreciated that song, Jessica.”

Commentators are right on one count: sex sells. And when only men are framed as sex objects, when only men are “cute,” when only men are desirable – then men have a distinct advantage. And if you’re not going to give the “sexy” edit a rest for men, then girls should get it too. At least sexualize equally, damn it!

(*AHA. Last night Steven Tyler said that Elise’s singing struck a chord in every man’s heart. Clearly, he’s reading my mind.)

Here’s my point (which has been almost twenty paragraphs in the making – I prefer my rants long and bitter). Maybe people aren’t voting for the best singer anymore. But neither are the judges. Over and over, the judges emphasize that you should vote because of “artistry” and “emotional connection” and “hotness.” The standards have changed.

Perhaps this wouldn’t matter if women were praised for artistry, looks and emotions. But they’re not: only men are “hot” “artists” and “emotional.”

It’s no wonder women can’t win American Idol. They’re thrown into the ring with only one path to victory – cute pop-ballader – and no weapons. They must fight their way through judge critiques of their personality and clothing, and pray they won’t be a scapegoat that season. Their male competitors, meanwhile, get the weapons of “hotness” “artistry” “emotional connection” and “overpraising.” They get the “special advantages” of Judges saves and extra spots in the Top 24. And they have many, many paths to victory – from rock to pop to soul.

Girls in Armor

Could we give the women some armor, please?

We live in a misogynistic society. It’s sad, but true. I’m not surprised that we see that misogyny manifest itself in the format of American Idol. I’m not surprised the judges favor men.

Like Elise Testone so appropriately sang: this is a man, man’s world…

I’m not, at the end of the day, even that surprised that people refuse to see the very real, provable reasons why women don’t win American Idol. Because to acknowledge those reasons would be to acknowledge that the show itself has problems with sexism.

And it’s so much easier to blame the teen girls.

Ironically, the people who have the biggest problem with women and Idol? The (non-female, non-teen) fans. The fans who, every time this issue is raised, go to the message boards and rant about the “stupid teen girls” and the “sluts” and the “bitches” who keep their favorites from winning. The fans who call teen girls whores, and accuse them of wanting boyfriends rather than voting for talent. The fans who say teen girls can’t have taste.

Those fans? Those fans have serious problems with women.

And so does the show.

But like I said: it’s so much easier to blame teen girls.

And so that we all remember that:

a) Teenage girls are awesome
b) Women on Idol are awesome

I give you teenager Allison Iraheta’s exit performance of Cry Baby

ETA: I wrote a followup a week before the Idol finale: And In Breaking News,  American Idol is Still Sexist.

Related Posts:

Haley Reinhart, or Why I started Watching American Idol

Why is this Blog Called Culturally Disoriented?

Eight Great Books of Science Fiction For Women

Reactions to the Hugo Shortlist

*** ETA: I wrote this post BEFORE the top eight results, when Colton Dixon was voted off the show. Colton’s exit means  it’s the first time in who knows how long that there are more women on the show than men (hurrah!). It also means that Jessica Sanchez is safe for another week (hurrah!). I do think my commentary is still applicable – the Jessica Sanchez  situation is one example of a much wider situation. It should also be noted that this means that all the contestants have been in the bottom 3 except Phillip Phillips (male) – and that no one who has appeared in the Bottom 3 before top 5 EXCEPT Fantasia Barino has gone on to win the show. Which… is a not-so-good sign for the women.

I do hope that the trend of women losing Idol is reversing course. And I hope there is a female winner this year – I prefer the women to the men this season, although I do love Joshua Ledet. And I was a Colton fan, I will admit, so I’m sad he was voted off.


Trainwreck of Sin and Misery: Why I Started Watching American Idol

“There’s going to be a couple of trainwrecks. Haley Reinhart is going to be a trainwreck.” – Michael Slezak, TVLine, March 1st 2011

Trainwreck... of awesome

I don’t watch American Idol.
I mean, I didn’t.
Ever.
Oh, I knew it existed. I mean, I wasn’t THAT far under the rock. But my parents didn’t believe in TV, and they especially didn’t believe in reality TV.
Neither did I. In my teenager idealism, I thought American Idol was a  “commercialized, manipulative, exploitative piece of garbage” (I had a thing for adjectives). And I patently refused to support it. No, I would sit in my room and blast my African Pop, feeling virtuous. Youssou n’Dour was the sound of my adolescence, not David Archuleta or Jordin Sparks.

Yet American Idol crept up on me. Based on seeing his youtube performances, I became an Adam Lambert convert, though I still refused to watch show. And then I discovered a fantastic commentary writer called Michael Slezak. Unfortunately for me, Slezak wrote American idol reviews. But since he was fun and smart and snarky, I started reading his recaps anyways. Sometimes I’d go on youtube to see a performance – but usually Slezak’s writing was more interesting than the singers.

And then Slezak convinced me to watch season 10 contestant’s Haley Reinhart’s performances. One song later (“You and I”), it was all over for me; I was madly in love with her.

And I shouldn’t have loved Haley. I mean, she’s a jazz vocalist (I don’t like jazz). She picks weird songs to cover (I don’t like weird songs). She was on a show called American Idol (I don’t like American Idol). The entire production did everything it could to send her home early (I am usually easily manipulated by producer tricks).

But I loved Haley Reinhart. And I still love Haley Reinhart. In fact, I go all kinds of fangirl when I listen to her. I have listened to her new single “Free” approximately 20 times today. It’s a bit embarrassing.

But why? Why do I love Haley?

Well, I always love the underdog. And there’s rarely been as big an underdog as Haley Reinahart.

She was in the bottom three for her first two weeks on the show. The judges consistently trashed her performances. The producers hated her. She was, in other words, “cannon fodder” – someone who was never, ever, ever supposed to get into the top 10 of American Idol.

But miraculously, Haley didn’t go home. And she started getting better. Much, much, much better. She began at the bottom of the pack of contestants; she ended as someone who turned in the best performance almost every week. She began as someone no pundit could see winning; she ended in third place, knocking out early favorites like Casey Abrams, James Durbin and Stefano Langone.

And she did it without any help.

Even as Haley morphed into a genuine contender, the producers continued to ignore and sabotage her. The judges refused to give her any credit. In a season where the judges were notoriously easy on people – where they almost never called contestants out on pitch problems, missed notes and bad singing (and when I, with my complete lack of expertise, notice that someone is off-pitch, or singing badly, they’re REALLY singing badly) – where everyone got a “in it to win it” and a “gold star” – Haley Reinhart’s treatment was shocking. As she survived elimination after elimination, Haley became the one and only contestant the judges would critique – despite her noticeable improvement, and the fact that she always stayed on key.

Even when the judges finally acknowledged just how incredible Haley was – she did get the most standing ovations of the season (3 in a row, not counting her standing ovation from her duet with Casey Abrams) – it was always more muted than with other contestants. The others were so good that there was “nothing to judge here.” They were “in it to win it.” They were “the one.” On the other hand, Haley was, at most,  “the best performance the night.” Or she had a “good, good, good, good round.” No judge ever discussed her as a potential winner. No one ever said she could make the top three or the top two. No judge ever discussed her appeal as a potential recording artist. There’s actually a recording of Randy Jackson saying of Haley (during top 5 week, before the cameras were on him) “I’m not rooting for her.”

If you want proof of the blatant favoritism, look no further than top four week. After the first round of songs, all the contestants – Haley, James Durbin, Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina – were called back on stage. Ryan Seacrest, the host, asked the judges who did had done best. Randy Jackson said – and I quote – “Uh, I think it’s a tie between Scotty, James and Lauren.”

(notice someone missing?)

I almost threw my coffee at the TV screen on that one. Seriously? Seriously.

When I say Haley was the underdog, I really, really mean: she was the underdog. No one was on her side. Not the producers. Not the judges. Not (initially) the voting public. And usually, when you don’t have all three of those guys in your corner, you are dead in the water. But not Haley Reinhart. And that’s why I love her.

Most contestants would buckle under the pressure; not Haley. Even when it was clear that no one thought Haley would win, she refused to play it safe. She pushed her vocals. She took risks. She choose songs that no one in their right mind would choose – a Led Zepplin song, an unreleased Lady Gaga track, Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”, the completely unknown jazz ditty “Moanin’.” And as Haley was doing everything a contestant should not do, she was also single-handedly destroying the producer’s genius plan for the final five.

Which is what’s so incredible about her: by throwing out every rule in the book (except for: sing like a queen) Haley Reinhart single-handedly destroyed the producer’s genius plan for the top three.

Haley Reinhart: transforming rule books into confetti since 1990.

With all of those things – the judge’s riducata, the production’s sabotage and Haley’s own grit and spunk – it was basically impossible for me NOT to root for her.

But even though I love an underdog – and I do always love an underdog – I wouldn’t love Haley nearly as much if it weren’t for that aforementioned quality: her talent.

And her jaw-dropping singing.

When Michael Slezak erupted with outrage at the Judge’s refusal to praise Haley’s “You and I,” I went to youtube, and watched it. And started laughing. Not because it was bad, no – but because of how ridiculous her voice was. The growl! The passion! The grit! The clarity of her tone as it hit the higher register!

And then I flipped to Haley’s “House of the Rising Sun,” and had a full scale meltdown of hilarity. I didn’t even know singers could do things like that. She looped her voice between low and high notes with a timing that left me gasping with laughter. She slid between champagne-velvet smoothness, and a powerful growl like a DJ flipping tracks – effortlessly.

One of the reasons I don’t watch idol is because I’ve found that, no matter how good the singers are, they don’t do anything I can’t find on my iPod, or in the current crop of recording artists. They’re fine, sure, but other people are fine too, and I don’t have to watch a whole seasons worth of a TV show in order to get my hands on their music. Adam Lambert is of the few exceptions to this rule – Haley Reinhart is the other. She does things that I didn’t even know were vocally possible, like go from her rich, bluesy, simmering lower range to the stunning clarity of her upper register in seconds. I’ve never heard a voice like hers before. It’s a medley of elements that shouldn’t go together – a warm, smooth velvet tone; a passionate growl; a rocker’s intense, sugar and alcohol-laced rasp; a yodel and a haunting, whispery register. Yet somehow, under Haley’s direction, all those different edges combine into utter perfection.

Haley was a convincer. She transformed Michael Slezak, who hated her at the beginning of the season, into an obsessive fanboy. She got the American public to vote for her all the way to the top three. And she convinced me. I didn’t think an American-idol singer would ever top my list of favorite musicians. I didn’t think I could ever love a jazz vocalist.  I didn’t know I needed a singer like Haley Reinhart in my life. But I need her now. She convinced me.

And in honor of the fact that she did the impossible, and made me, an utter music-phobe, care about American Idol – and also because her first single “Free,” just came out (it’s FANTASTIC) – I’m celebrating my favorite Haley Reinhart performances. Please pardon my utter fangirlness.

1. “House of the Rising Sun”

The best performance of season 10, hands down, and probably in the top ten performances on American Idol, ever. The a Capella opening sends chills down my spine. The way her voice loop up and down. The “breaks” in her smooth melodies. The way she handles her notes. Some of them are straight lines; others slide sharply around the edges of bubble, like she’s curving them, drawing a perfect 360 with her voice.
And then she rips into the melody with determination in her eyes and raw power of her tone, and it’s just incredible, especially as she draws back into the haunting stillness of “oh mother” before her voice explodes on the final few lyrics. She felt every word of the song. She, a 21 year old woman, embodied the mood, the power, the despair of a male Louisiana drug addict. Well played, Ms. Reinhart. Well played.

2. “What is and What should Never Be”

My favorite Haley Reinhart performances are the ones where she goes between her creamy velvety register, and her rock-and-roll rasp. And her “What is and What should Never Be” vocal exemplifies that: it’s blues and rock and jazz; it has elements of both ethearality and grit. There’s a magnificent, controlled-yet-raw sense to the vocal.

And you gotta love a girl who can fall down and still deliver one of the best performances all season, right? You also gotta love a girl who performs an obscure Led Zepplin song after being trashed two weeks in a row for bad song choice. Haley “I don’t care about your terrible advice” Reinhart.

I’m going to quote Beyonce on Haley’s song choice (because everyone should quote Beyonce at least once in their lives): “It shows her guts. It shows her *bleep*. It shows her strength and her fearlessness. She is a risk taker, because she didn’t pick a pop song or something that everyone knows. She has conviction. She makes you believe in what she believes in – which is a huge part of being a superstar.”
Oh, by the way? The guy on electric guitar? Her dad. The look that lights up her face as she comes down the stairs and sees him? Priceless.

(I am a total sap, and the first time I saw Haley and her father playing together, I MAY have teared up. Or I may just have had REALLY BAD ALLERGIES.)

3. “Bennie and the Jets” (exit)

Haley’s original performance of Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets” on Top 11 week put her on the map. It was a stunning vocal from a contestant who everyone had already written off – in the space of ninety seconds, Haley the inevitable loser had transformed into a bonafide dark horse.
When she reprised “Benny and the Jets” as her exit song, right after getting cut from the competition, it was even more incredible.
And this is after she’d been cut. AFTER.

I know some people think the performance shows Haley’s arrogance. I don’t get that. I think it shows her passion for singing; her love for her music. And that’s not something that always came across with other contestants. That’s not even something that comes across with professional singers. But with Haley – yeah. You can tell. She’s just living inside every single on of those notes, burrowing deep within, enjoying every second of being up there. And it’s almost impossible not to enjoy it right along with her (which is why I’ve watched this performances approximately eleventy five billion times)

The moment when she leans back and slides down the stairs, and her voice flies up to the rafters like a helium balloon on “magazine” is incredible. And when she changes the lyrics to include the names of the judges, softening into a lovely soprano for “Steven,” – I got chills. Or when she starts rocking out with her fellow booted contestants. Or that final run of notes, right before the end. And then her “This end of this! Shindig!” and hug with her parents was just -

I almost wasn’t upset that she’d been cut anymore.

4. “Moanin’” (duet with Casey Abrams)

I have nothing to say. Because it’s just too wonderful for words.

Oh, I’ve got something to say after all. Whoops. When Haley comes in to the song, her voice it so light and soft and lovely it barely touches the lyrics. And then she scats! SHE SCATS! (so does Casey, who I think is pretty fantastic here).

But the moment I fell out of my seat (figuratively) is at the 1:37 mark of the video. When her voice emerges from nowhere and hits that series of ridiculously high notes –  How do you even…

Just watch it.

5. “I (who have nothing)”

Let’s take a scenario here. You sing your song. You are the only contestant out of the four who is criticized. You are then brought up on stage where you are told that EVERY SINGLE OTHER CONTESTANT is beating you. The camera pans to you, and it’s clear that you’re on the verge of tears.

And then you have less than five minutes to pull yourself together before you perform again.

See, this is when it’s completely justified to be a trainwreck. Seriously.
Haley, though? Not having it. She comes back with a theatrical, bluesy, bordering-on-the-psychotic version of “I (who have nothing).” The performance oozes with longing and pain and is threaded with viciously powerful vocals.
It’s also proof that Haley doesn’t need her signature growl to sell a song.  She only uses it once in the entire song, and it’s still one of the best vocal performances of the season.

6. Oh, what the hell.

Like I could decide on the rest of them! I’m just throwing in her Top 3 rendition of Rhiannon, which is dreamy and cool and lovely in all the right ways. She puts the slightest hint of her growl into her creamy upper register, which gives the performance an undertone of the ghostly. And the way she pulls back her final note into the whisper? Girl’s got skills.

Oh, and her top 5 performance of “You and I,” which the judges hated. And which, conversely, made me fall in love with her. Judges: Go jump in a lake.

I will end with Michael Slezak, who says it all:

“Like a salmon swimming upstream and dodging the vicious claws of grizzly bear Randy Jackson and the gallons of pollutants dumped by toxic she-beast Jennifer Lopez, Haley made what has to be the most sensational (and artistically satisfying) come-from-behind run in Idol history. I’d also argue she scored more “Idol Moments” than any other contestant this season: “Bennie and the Jets,” “Moanin’,” “You and I,” “House of the Rising Sun,” “I (Who Have Nothing),” “What Is and What Should Never Be,” and “Rhiannon. And in what felt like a love note to the fans who watched her grow from awkward, slurry cannon fodder to a poised and confident musical risk-taker, Haley turned what could’ve been a tearful exit performance into a moment of pure triumph.” – Michael Slezak, TVLine, May 20th 2011 

You go, girl.

GROWLER SAVED.

So apparently, the internet has found this post – my blog traffic suddenly spiked around two in the morning when someone posted this on the idol forums  Which is great, if a bit overwhelming (this blog is two weeks old – I have no traffic yet)! Hello, fellow Haley fans! Nice to meet you!

I’m assuming that if you’re enough of a die-hard Haley fan to find this post, you’ve probably heard every song Haley’s played off of her album, but just in case anyone hadn’t, I thought I’d put a collection of links below. I’m going by least-to-most trafficked on youtube.

“Now that You’re Here” – this is the newest I’ve found online, and it’s fantastic. I had the chorus stuck in my head after two listens, and my roommates kept asking me what I was humming while I was cooking.

“Hit the Ground Runnin'” (at House of Blues). My fingers are crossed that this will be her second single. As much as I love “Free,” “Hit the Ground Runnin'” is my favorite song off her album (that I’ve heard so far), and I think it would sell extraordinarily well to radio. Also: lyrics= win.

“Wasted Tears” (at Hard Rock Cafe). Apparently she sang this while sick. Which is ridiculous. When I’m sick, I usually curl up in a ball and die.

The lead single, “Free.” If you have not bought it, buy it. Because it’s incredible. I also highly recommend listening to her performance of it on the American Idol results show – her phrasing of the “let it be/let it be/just a beautiful memory” gives me goosebumps.

If anyone knows of other new videos and leaks, let me know and I will put them up!

Very Vaguely Related Posts:

Why this blog exists: (hint: American Idol is only the tip of the iceberg of the things I haven’t watched)

Nebula Nominations are… better than I expected

I complain about the Hugo Nominations before they even EXIST.

A Review of Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo


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