Five Questions on American Idol: Between a Rock Week and a Hard Place

Michael Becker/FOX American Idol

Whatever doesn’t deafen you makes you stronger: Grantland’s Jay Caspian Kang, Mark Lisanti, and Emily Yoshida have returned, bowed but not broken, to tackle another season of American Idol. Only seven contestants remain. Things are getting real.


We’re down to the Top 7, and usually at this point there’s at least one or two contestants who are primarily rock singers. This season none of them are, and they decided to go ahead and do Rock Night anyway. Is Nigel Lythgoe even watching his own show anymore, or has he switched to The Voice like the rest of America?

Yoshida: Sometimes on Wednesday afternoons, during a quiet moment in the Grantland office, when my mind starts to turn to thoughts of that night’s Idol and whether or not it’s too late to switch to a career in nail art, I’ll turn to Mark Lisanti and just casually list some interesting facts about the NBC television program The Voice. “You know, The Voice was only an hour long this week,” or “You know, they don’t even have themes on The Voice,” or “You know, Adam Levine is very engaging and charismatic as a judge.” I’m not watching this season of The Voice, because last year I learned that if I try to watch more than one singing show at a time, they’ll find my body in a Television City Dumpster among discarded craft service finger sandwiches and green M&Ms from Mariah’s dressing room, an audition tape duct taped to my shirt, but I’ll just say it: At this point it is a superior show, and not just in terms of ratings. Sure, you’re even less likely to find the next pop phenom on this show than you are on Idol, but we’re on, what, Week 12 of this show? And I sincerely doubt that “I don’t think the winner of Season 12 is going to have a no. 1 hit” is higher on our list of concerns than, say, “I’m really not sure if I can afford a new flat-screen every week if I have to keep smashing it during these godawful theme weeks.”

Since The Voice can’t offer the title of American Idol as a hook, it has poured more of its production energy into making sure the episodes themselves are actually, you know, entertaining. Sure, there’s backstory and padding like any other show, but there’s also sing-fighting. It’s not too late to switch over, Mark. I guarantee you nobody will notice.

Kang: I support this change. I’d rather watch chairs spin for two hours than watch Kree Harrison fart around and point like she really means something (she doesn’t mean anything at all). Honestly, I can’t really tell what is wrong with Idol this season. The judging panel improved, there’s no clear-cut cute-boy winner who ruins the finals, and Ryan Seacrest has somehow gotten better than his usual, delightful self.

I actually think it might be the song arrangements. Some of the best songs in the history of the civilized world have been sung on the Idol stage over the past two weeks — no number of backup singers and weirdly promoted, pouty Australian lead guitarists can save what the Idol music team did to those songs. I think I listened to about 20 seconds of Kree Harrison mush-mouthing and country-stompin’ her way through Janis Joplin before finding the fast-forward button. Then, because I sometimes feel guilty thinking of Lisanti alone at home in his drafty mansion, watching every minute of the live show, I knocked the batteries out of the remote and fed them to my dog. Because at least then I had an excuse for also fast-forwarding through Lazaro.

Lisanti: I think I know what happened to this season: The theme weeks destroyed whatever momentum the show had. Amazingly, there was a point &#8212 not even that long ago, relative to Idol‘s 500-week run — where the three of us were excited about how things were going. We swooned at the feet of our cotton-candy-wigged, celestial-bus-driving, Cockney-channeling goddess Nicki Minaj. We allowed ourselves to believe that Curtis Finch Jr. would pan out. We became obsessed with flawless, burgeoning superstar Angela Miller, who’d evolve into some lethal combination of Tori Amos, Taylor Swift, and the switchblade-check girl at the Cask and Flagon. There was hope. Beautiful, crazy hope.

And then we got the theme weeks, the crackly shower radio playing the tail end of Breakfast with the Beatles while hope is being drowned in the filthy bathtub below.

You can talk about The Voice all you want. It’s not going to pay for the laser surgery to have my full back tattoo of Simon Cowell removed or clumsily morphed into one of Adam Levine making a truly unfortunate V-neck sweater choice.

We’ve chosen our sad lot in singing-competition life, and it is Idol. We, like the stubborn, tunnel-visioned producers of this show, have to go down with the sinking ship. But maybe we can install some spinning deck chairs to make the ride a little more fun.

Kang: [With shaking fingers, opens the cyanide pill box.]

Lisanti: Fast-forward to the heaven part, old friend. Some of us have unfinished business here on Earth.


Let’s agree that at this point, we’ll seize upon anything even vaguely resembling a personality from these smiley embryonic singing machines. Rock Night also happened to be “let’s lightly roast our competition while trying not to look like total assholes” night, a.k.a. our rare glimpse into what the Idols are like offstage and among themselves. Who came out looking the best/least insufferable?

Yoshida: I think right now Burnell is, righteously, furious at the idea of going home before Lazaro, and decided to take this week’s opportunity to just fire on every cute cylinder he had. He knows he can’t win the whole thing, but he could at least try to win America’s heart, and possibly Amber’s. Seriously, when the annoying quality that others accuse you of is that you “laugh too adorably,” and you manage to implicate yourself in everybody else’s segments as either a fun-loving little brother or lovestruck puppy dog, it’s clear you’ve done your homework. Burnell definitely read The Hunger Games for research before the show. He’s such a Peeta.


Kang: Never fear! I gave my dog some ipecac and he puked those batteries right up and so I was able to watch the Angie Miller excited-hand-clap thing, which is so going to ruin whatever “dark girl” image she’s going to be putting on in these next few years. The conclusion I came to from these interviews is that they should combine Kree and Janelle into one contestant and have her just sing Patsy Cline songs at a moderate volume. I think I would actually listen to that for reasons outside of my contractual obligations to the Enterprise Sports Programming Network.

Lisanti: The “Angie Miller Clapping Montage” further cemented my theory that she was cloned from 2008-era Miley Cyrus DNA. Can’t wait to admire her stage-dad’s mullet.

She remains a delight.


Mariah made a reference to waiting for Candice to sing “her song.” What song (obviously a Mariah Carey song) does Mariah want Candice to sing? If we were really bored we could put some money on it.

Lisanti: There’s an old saying: “Never bet against Jay Kang when Mariah Carey is involved.” But I’m going to say “Vision of Love” because no one ever sings that. It’s also the title of a Mariah Carey song I can remember without Wikipedia.

Kang: If it’s “No More Drama,” I’d caution Candice. You might have better pipes than Mary J. Blige, but you will never have more drama. God, I love Mary J. Blige. Can we recap Mary J. Blige YouTube videos for the rest of this? Which reminds me, it’s time for my annual posting of this …



This isn’t a question, but let’s just talk for a second about Angie singing an Evanescence song.

Kang: Evanescence has to be one of the worst band names ever, right? It’s like they looked at a thesaurus when they were all 15 years old and picked out the coolest-looking word without caring what it might mean. That said, I think what Angie did was actually pretty smart. The only people who were going to be offended that Evanescence wasn’t really “rock” are sitting right here in this Google document and nobody cares about our opinions on the matter. She realized that she was one bad week away from being in danger and just did her thing.

I really did think it was a Linkin Park song, though.

Yoshida: Let’s be real, though: Evanescence is more “rock” “now” than anything else anyone sang last night, which is sad because that song came out 10 years ago. It meant the stage managers had to use the industrial-looking CGI blocks background that they break out once a season for when Josh Krajcik or somebody wants to sing a Foo Fighters song (or wait … no, whatever. Not going to go back and correct that. Related: Josh has a new album!). Angie has the whole camera-connection thing down pat, maybe a little too pat, which of course looks ridiculous when you’re singing a song about being dead inside. Even though I hate this song and thought Angie was merely OK on it vocally, her performance did make me wish that they had limited Rock Week to post-1990.

Lisanti: This is about to get weird for me: I don’t think she did such a great job with this. It was, as all the judges pointed out, a really savvy choice, one that allowed her to start behind her beloved piano and then get to the front of the stage and belt one the eff out. But she never got around to the belting. Maybe it sounded better in the room, because the panel seemed uniformly impressed, but I thought she sounded thin on the huge chorus parts that she should have been blowing out the box. (Trademark Sleepy Dawg Industries.) I think she’s got the lungs for it, she just didn’t go where she needed to go. I was disappointed. In Angie. I don’t know what’s real anymore. I’m pining for Colton Dixon covers. The world is a scary and cold place.


Who’s going home this week?

Yoshida: Lazaro actually got knocked down to the bottom three last week, and my hope is that Burnell did enough of a PR hustle this week to save himself for another week, so, fingers crossed, it’s Lazaro. However, I think the really interesting question (not really that interesting, I’m just trying to keep myself awake) is which girl will be in the bottom three. This show may actually start to get a little dramatic interest once it is just an all-girl Top 5, and predicting how those eliminations shake out could be fun in a couple weeks, since, aside from Candice, the talent level seems to be about even between the ladies. Unless they use the save on Burnell, which could very well dash all hopes of an all-girl finale. They WOULD do that, too.

Now I am basically sitting here and mapping out the probability of like seven different outcomes for American Idol Season 12. Is this what it’s like to follow sports?

Kang: You need to come up with a mathematical system for it first and then troll the Murray Chass of Idol recaps, who, I imagine, is either me or Lisanti. Take your pick.

I think Burnell goes home in a shocking elimination.

One note: Why does Amber seem so weirdly invisible? She can sing, she’s gorgeous, and she conducts herself with intelligence and dignity. Did I just answer my own question there?

Lisanti: I have long embraced the advanced statistics. I know that Emotional Journey is just a function of team performance, and Wearing Insane Hats is a meaningless counting stat that only looks good on the back of a Diva Card, and Stank is the voodoo of old-world scouts and A&R people. I can calculate Wins Above Ruben Studdard in my head. I think we know who the Chass is. (Kang. It’s Kang.)

But the point about Amber is a good one. We don’t seem to be headed that way, but an Angie vs. Amber finale might give this show what it needs: two contestants who might actually have a shot at making some noise outside of the competition. Candice and Kree are great, but where are going with them? What do we do with Janelle when we already have a Carrie Underwood?

Burnell might be in danger, but I think this is the way it’s going tonight:

Good night, sweet Laz. You were too moist for this world.

Jay Caspian Kang is always threatening the cyanide thing.
Emily Yoshida is into sports now.
Mark Lisanti has always liked

Filed Under: American Idol, Idol, Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj, Randy Jackson, Ryan Seacrest