One of the best moments in what has proven to be a decidedly uneven season for Fox’s “American Idol” came this past Wednesday on Billy Joel Night, when contestant Phillip Phillips took the stage. He sang his own very distinctive rendition of “Movin’ Out” -- and nailed it. Significantly, he did so by sticking to his own instincts and flatly ignoring the advice he had received earlier in the week about his performance style from “Idol” in-house mentor Jimmy Iovine and guest mentor Sean P. Diddy Combs. He also rejected the styling advice he received from the newest member of the “Idol” coaching squad, fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger.
Phillips owned the stage, and he did it his way, which is exactly what the “Idol” experience should be -- a straightforward showcase for aspiring young singers trying to impress the home audience. But in recent years, and especially this season, the show has suffered in the clutches of producers who have toploaded it with all kinds of foolish filler and detrimental distractions. Meddlesome mentors are only one of its problems.
There is much to complain about: the stream of waving girls in the area that separates the contestants from the judges. Host Ryan Seacrest awkwardly putting the judges on the spot by asking them to predict which contestants should be worried about going home. (Calling extra attention to weaker performances could affect voting. Just let viewers figure it out for themselves, Ryan.) The judges continuing to periodically take power away from the audience in a number of ways, including wild-card choices earlier in the contest and the ever-present threat of the unpopular “judges’ save.”
And then there is the actual physical direction of the show, which has been spotty this season, especially in the bloated two-hour episode that identified the top 13 finalists. It seemed that every time a contestant gave in to raw emotion the cameras crisply cut away to show the judges or members of the studio audience watching what the home viewer couldn’t see.
It’s a shame that these problems persist, because they detract from what should be one of “Idol’s” best seasons ever. Has the show ever had so many powerful performers in its top 10? I can’t even hazard a guess on which of them will make it to the final three (though I hope Jessica Sanchez will be in there).
The problems are many, but the mentoring is the biggest irritant, and it has proven detrimental to some of the contestants -- especially impressionable DeAndre Brackensick, who has been ill-advised by mentors at least twice so far. Most of the contestants tend to listen to the mentors and do as they say, as much out of respect as anything else, and that’s a problem if the mentors are flat-out wrong about everything, as they sometimes are.
The politely independent Phillips -- who is everything an “Idol” contestant should be -- innocently exposed these troubling truths. When Hilfiger set about trying to jazz up his clothing choices, he replied, “I’m just a simple kind of guy. It’s not like I don’t care. I don’t want to look like a bum up there. I just kinda want to bring the music first.” And when Hilfiger insisted that the gray shirts Phillips wanted to wear wouldn’t look good on stage, his concerns fell on deaf ears.
In the mentoring clip, Phillips wanted to play the guitar while he sang -- but Diddy asked him to put it down and just sing. Then poor Phillips was made to perform in front of a gaggle of giggling girls. “They loved it!” an exceedingly excited Diddy raved as the gaggle giggled. “Stick with me, Phil. I’ll take you straight to the top, baby!”
Cut to the stage, live, and out Phillips came, guitar in hand, wearing gray on gray. It was as strong a “thanks, but no thanks” statement as an “Idol” performer could make. It didn’t hurt that he delivered one of the best performances of the night.
Judge Steven Tyler said it best: “You took that song and you Phillip Phillips’d it, man.”
Colton Dixon’s amazing rendition of “Piano Man,” which closed the show, was another big win for individuality and another polite dismissal of “Idol’s” mentor mania. In this case, Iovine and Diddy didn’t want to change anything about his performance (though Hilfiger wanted to change his hair). It was strictly Dixon’s performance to rise or fall on, and he soared (with his funky hairstyle intact).
“American Idol” is at its best when it is all about getting to know the contestants as the people they are and watching them take flight or crash because of the choices they make. That is much more rewarding than watching mentor-manufactured versions of them trying to follow the advice of “experts.” This is one of many issues about the show that will need to be examined going forward, especially now that it is starting to show its age and suffer significant ratings erosion.