“American Idol,” in a make or break year, found its footing while facing more competition than ever. Here is my semi-thorough year in review.
1) Cleaning house. Nigel Lythgoe returned to give “Idol’ a facelift after a soul-sucking season nine. Key move: he revamped the judges’ panel. With Simon Cowell already out, he dumped ineffectual Ellen DeGeneres and bland Kara DioGuardi and brought in two A-list music acts Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez. On the most part, it worked. Randy Jackson became the congenial lead judge with no “mean” judge in sight. Jennifer was nurturing and sweet, along the lines of Paula Abdul though her constructive critiques early on degenerated into pablum by season’s end. Steven was wacky fun at times, but he too lost his charms by the end, tending to be more repetitive than insightful. Nonetheless, it was a net gain. Ratings went up for the first time since season five.
2) Variety is the spice of life. The contestants season 10 were a fun, talented crew that brought us jazz, R&B, country, pop and rock. There was something for everyone, whether it was James Durbin’s giving Judas Priest airtime, Casey Abrams and Haley Reinhart scatting or Jacob Lusk emoting. And oddly, the top two were both teen country singers, including Georgia’s Lauren Alaina. But it was Scotty McCreery, the 17-year-old North Carolinian with the Josh Turner voice and Alfred E. Neuman ears who took home the prize. Though country radio hasn’t fully embraced him, McCreery has sold a very respectable 600,000 copies and garnered two top 30 hits.
3) Simon Cowell’s “X Factor” tries to steal “Idol” thunder. Cowell left “Idol’ to try to gain his own glory with his British import. He did fairly endless amounts of media in the 18 months leading up to the debut. Heck, the guy even did a one-on-one phoner with me. Reality couldn’t live up to the hype. And while viewership was respectable at 12 million or so, it fell far short of what Fox and Cowell expected. The show garnered some good talent but from a production standpoint, it was about as charming as multiple kicks in the groin. And we’ve abused the poor host enough already, haven’t we?
4) NBC’s “The Voice” surprises. On the other hand, NBC blanketed the country for good talent that wasn’t necessarily raw but simply untapped to a wider audience. The “chair’ gimmick actually worked and the judges’ panel clicked. The show certainly helped elevate the stars of Blake Shelton, Cee Lo Green and Adam Levine. I’m actually looking forward to season two (unlike “The X Factor,” which needs a major overhaul.)
5) Big time: Kelly Clarkson and Jason Aldean had a major cross-over hit with “Don’t You Wanna Stay.” Soon after, Carrie Underwood and her CMA co-host cohort Brad Paisley found major traction with “Remind Me.” And Mandisa had her first No. 1 Christian hit with “Stronger.” Jennifer Lopez’s musical career revived with “On the Floor.” Fantasia won her first Grammy with “Bittersweet.” Daughtry garnered another top 10 Hot AC single “Crawling Back To You.” Jennifer Hudson garnered a top 10 R&B hit with “Where You At.”
6) Can’t win’em all: Kara DioGuardi’s “Platinum Hit’ songwriting competition on Bravo bombed. David Cook’s latest album underperformed. Lee DeWyze and Crystal Bowersox lost their label deals. Kellie Pickler’s single “Tough” didn’t break the top 20 in country.
7) The play’s the thing: Constantine Maroulis wrapped up a successful Broadway and national tour run with “Rock of Ages,” stopping in Atlanta. Anthony Fedorov came to the Fox, too, with “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Justin Guarini had several theater roles this year, including ‘Women on the Verge” and “American Idiot” on Broadway. Jordin Sparks landed on Broadway’s “Into the Heights.” Sanjaya Malakar did an off-Broadway gig, too.
Personal ups and downs. Fantasia had a baby. Justin Guarini had his first son. Constantine had a daughter. Ruben Studdard filed for divorce. Kellie Pickler and Scott MacEntyre got married (though not to each other). Danny Gokey and Lee DeWyze got engaged (though again, not to each other!). Paul McDonald met an actress and married her within months. Diana DeGarmo is now dating Ace Young!
9) In film: Carrie Underwood had a supporting role in the inspiring film “Soul Surfer.” Katharine McPhee got chomped in “Shark Night 3D.”
10 ) On the boob tube: McPhee earlier this year won a starring role in the mid-season musical drama “Smash’ on NBC as a would-be Broadway star. Though the show doesn’t debut until February 2012, the promos have been airing for months. Degarmo earned a regular soap opera role as a spoiled mob daughter on “The Young and the Restless.” Bowersox landed a role on ABC’s “Body of Proof.” Clay Aiken guested on Lifetime’s “Drop Dead Diva” (and taped “Celebrity Apprentice” this fall for airing next spring.) Pickler popped up on the CW’s “90210.” Kristy Lee Cook continues to hunt on Vs. with “Goin’ Country” and Bo Bice guested on an episode. Kevin Covais had a recurring role on the short-lived ABC Family show “State of Georgia.” Lisa Tucker got a small role on the CW’s “The Vampire Diaries.” Matt Rogers hosted Lifetime’s reality show “Coming Home.” Brooke White starred in an NBC film “Change of Plans.”
11) Not Memorex: I saw plenty of ‘Idols” this year live. I enjoyed a few minutes each with Kimberly Caldwell, Pickler and Bowersox on different days at Ryan Seacrest’s The Voice studios at Children’s Healthcare at Egleston. A very thin Mandisa helped introduced the Dove Award nominations in February at the Fox Theatre. Melinda Doolittle charmed the crowd doing love songs at Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center in March. Jennifer Hudson was impressive at the W Hotel in a V-103 promotion in March. Clarkson entertained the Coca-Cola employees at Centennial Olympic Park in June and pocketed an obnoxious amount of cash. The “Idols Live” tour impressed at a sold-out Gwinnett Arena in July. Michael Johns turned back the hands of time reliving his sodden days in Buckhead at the Tin Roof Cantina in August. And I met the gracious and notably uncontroversial Chris Daughtry for the first time earlier this month back stage at the Star 94 Jingle Jam at Gwinnett Arena. Several others did live shows in town but I missed them, including Clay Aiken, Elliott Yamin, Bice and Josh Gracin.
By Rodney Ho, Radio & TV Talk