This article was originally published on www.levinovey.com
Season 10 of American Idol is terrific. Whereas previous seasons have lost viewer interest and enthusiasm, I personally think that this might be the best season so far. Why?
In short, the contestants are much, much stronger as a group than in previous seasons. I think a lot of credit should be given to new judges Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez for helping to make this happen. While such a declaration may provoke chuckles, there are some numbers to back it up. According to American Idol, in comparison to all previous 9 seasons, this year the judges brought twice the number of people to the 2nd round of competition. Then they vetted them more thoroughly than any other previous season.
Whereas in previous years it was usually obvious which individuals would make it to the end, this year the dead weight was dropped much earlier. Almost all of the remaining 13 contestants should be able to be successful after the show, and it's impossible to imagine that many won't also land recording contracts. They also have some of the most unique and diverse styles of singing and performing ever seen on American Idol.
In addition to the show having a much stronger crop of contestants, Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez have been excellent additions to Randy Jackson as judges. In a time of national snideness, they are surprisingly kind, thoughtful, and articulate in explaining how they think contestants might improve their performances. Steven Tyler is funny, and has a unique way of saying things that makes watching him a pleasure. Jennifer Lopez is likewise eloquent and charming, and seems to be taking her judging duties with a seriousness that never felt present from Paula Abdul or the other women to judge on the show (admittedly, she doesn't seem to be minding the "dress-up" part of judging either). Most of all, the 3 judges seem to be much more unassuming and graceful in their criticism than judges ever were in previous seasons. It's allowing us to watch a feel-good show full of talented singers without the sense that we are also going to tear some of these people down.
So with that lengthy introduction over with, here are my predictions about who stands the best chance to win the competition. For those who have never watched American Idol, the way that America votes is not always fair -- meaning that sometimes people remain on the show longer because of their personalities even if their talent doesn't surpass that of other contestants.
From Least Likely to Win to Most Likely:
Ashton Jones was one of the 3 contestants "saved" by the judges this week. She was not voted into the top 10 by Americans who voted. Unfortunately for her and the other 2 individuals who were saved, this is almost always a predictor that they will be the first to leave now that the judges will not have the power to "save" people they think deserve another look. Ashton herself even seemed surprised when the judges chose her. For her last performance she choose to sing Monica's "Love All Over Me" (watch video). It was a competent performance but ultimately forgettable and a bad song choice -- which is a death wish on this season of Idol. Prediction: Finishes 13th.
Naima was also saved by the judges heading into the final round of American Idol. She is a terrific singer, but has a style that admittedly is not that of the type of person who tends to win American Idol. She sounds like a great Lounge / Jazz singer, as evidenced by her strong performance of Ella Fitzgerald's "Summertime" (watch video). For whatever reason, however, she is not a fan favorite and doesn't seem to have a voting bloc to keep pushing her through (might it be her unconventional appearance?). I fully expect her to get a recording contract though, and be highly successful as a singer. Prediction: Finishes from 10th to 12th.
Stefano is a talented musician and singer who has written some of his own songs. His style of singing is a little retro though, and that's my guess as to why he hasn't resonated with voters. He sang Bruno Mars' "Just the Way You Are" in his performance this past week (watch video) and had a couple rough notes. When he had his opportunity to sing to be "saved" by the judges, he blew away the other 6 competing for this slots with Smokie Norful's "I Need You Now" (watch video). As I mentioned earlier though, not making the top 10 by votes is usually not a good omen for getting much farther. In any other year, Stephano would probably make the top 5 on American Idol, just another indication of how strong the singers are this year. I'm going to predict that he leaves early, but admittedly, with strong performances it's possible Stephano could stay much longer. A recording contract and success seem likely in either case for Stephano. Prediction: Finishes from 10th to 12th.
Haley sang Alicia Key's "Fallin" in her last performance (watch video). This is a challenging song, and I thought Haley did a good job. She was voted into the Top 10. So why do I envision her exiting so early? In a season chock full of characters, dynamic and niche singers, she doesn't stand out. Neither her voice or personality seem very distinctive, and I think that's a huge disadvantage this year (even though it generally always prevents people from getting to the final spots). Prediction: Finishes from 10th to 12th.
The producers of American Idol have led us to believe that Thia Megia was close to being cut several times. They also can't stop reminding us of how young she is: 16. Her last performance used music to a minimum, and the clarity of her voice was impressive. But singing Irene Cara's "Out Here on My Own" also seemed risk-averse and a tad dull (watch video). I think when Thia's versatility finally is put to the test, she is going to have trouble (this should happen sooner than later). Nonetheless, she seems to have a lot of fan support. Once again, once you get to the Final 9 of this year's contestants, it's hard to predict how things will go. Thia in my estimation will leave early. Prediction: Finishes from 7th-9th.
In most other years, Paul McDonald would seem like a unique contestant. He has a quirky, raspy voice. His performance of Rod Stewart's "Maggie May" was a clever move, that illustrated a willingness to go mainstream when his voice generally dictates that he do something else (watch video). He did the same song for his initial audition, and you can easily notice how different Paul sounds. This tension will ultimately make Paul's difficulty in staying on the show tough -- he is not really fit in the mold of the type of singer needed to win the competition and it almost seems to be going against what makes him special if he chooses to do more conventional songs. Some of his mannerisms on stage are also an indication that he might be nervous or ill-suited for this kind of musical performance. To get a more well-rounded idea of how he sings, watch his version of the Beatles' "Blackbird." Prediction: Finishes from 7th-9th.
Garner, North Carolina
This year, like some others, American Idol has 2 contestants who are primarily country music singers. Scotty McCrerry is a 16-year-old, Southern boy who sounds a lot like an unpolished Josh Turner (watch his initial audition). He has a deep voice but it is unclear how much range he can pull off. This is painfully obvious in his awkward group performance of the Beatle's "Hello, Goodbye." In his last performance he sang John Michael Montgomery's "Letters from Home." (watch video). It was a performance that played to his base of voting support, but otherwise seemed kind of dull and perhaps did not widen his appeal. The good news for Scotty is that he can feel confident that he's going to get a recording contract and probably pretty easily become at least a minor country music star. Whether or not he goes far on American Idol is another question. Prediction: Finishes from 7th to 9th.
Lauren Alaina is the other country singer on American Idol this year. She probably has a slightly more versatile voice than Scotty, and has been compared as a cross between Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood by Randy Jackson. While this was intended as a compliment, I think it underscores that Lauren might not have a distinctive enough voice to capture the hearts and minds of Idol's viewers. Her most recent performance of Reba McEntire's "Turn On the Radio" was a risky choice, considering that this song is currently playing on country music stations and arguably features one the strongest female vocalists in the history of country music. She sang the song well (watch video), but most country music fans could probably tell that it was an indication that Alaina was good, but nowhere near in Reba McEntire's ballpark. Her fan support should carry her to the mid-stages of the finals, but no further. Prediction: Finishes 6th.
Santa Cruz, California
James Durbin is one of the most fun-to-watch contestants on this season of American Idol. He's that screamin' classic rock star from your teenage years who is a little crazy. He walks around with a tail. Yes, you read that right. From his first audition, the producers of American Idol have made it clear that Durbin's story arc was sure to last a while. He's 22, unemployed, has a toddler, had a bass-playing dad who overdosed, and has been diagnosed with Tourette's Syndrome and Asperper's Syndrome. Got that? He's also crazy talented. But his downfall will probably result because of his tendency to get carried away with over-the-top vocals. Watch his controlled, rousing rendition of Judas Priest's "You've Got Another Thing Coming" and that will show you everything you need to know about James. I think a recording contract and / or an offer to join a well-known classic rock band will happen for James regardless of how he finishes on American Idol. Prediction: Finishes 5th.
Jacob Lusk is another example of a singer who while amazingly talented, probably doesn't have the mainstream appeal to win American Idol. He has incredible range and it takes no imagination to see him scoring a quick recording contract and success in the gospel and R&B musical niches. Randy Jackson called his performance of Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child" the best single performance on idol ever (watch video). Although to be fair, Randy Jackson says things like that all the time. Lusk has shown a few signs of over-exuberance and immaturity in his celebrations that may wear on audiences. He also tends to suffer the same challenge as James Durbin: knowing when to not go over-the-top to constantly show off his talent. Watching his most recent performance of Luther Vandross's "A House is Not a Home" shows this tension between Jacob's talent and self-restraint. Prediction: Finishes 4th.
New York City, New York
Full of personality and Latina pride, Karen Rodriguez has the looks, poise and talent to go deep into the American Idol finals. Her most recent performance of Mariah Carey's "Hero" was notable for its technical strength, bilingual spanglish mix, and for Rodriguez's knowledge of how to sing to the tv cameras as well as the audience (watch video). She will definitely get a recording contract and has a good chance of success in both American and Latin American markets. Her quest to become the first Latina American Idol could possibly give her the votes to get to the finals if she is consistently good, but my hunch is that she doesn't quite make it to the final 2. Prediction: Finishes 3rd.
In an ideal world, Casey will win American Idol. He's unique, talented, can play instruments, and oozes charm and charisma. But if American Idol's history of final 2s tells us anything, it's that the more talented, personally unique, less radio-ready finalist tends to finish 2nd. Casey's more than a gimmicky performance act though. We can get the sense that his voice was strong enough to make early fan favorite Chris Medina look really good during their rousing tag team version of the Beatle's "A Hard Day's Night." (watch video: Casey appears around 23 seconds in). As an aside, Chris Medina had a touching personal story, but not a strong enough voice to make it to the finals. Not to be a broken record, but in any other season Chris Medina would have made it to the finals. Getting back to Casey, it's hard to describe his performances except to say that you are always waiting to see what Casey's going to do next-- and so far it's always been awesome. Check out his audition (video), his version of Ray Charles' "Georgia on My Mind" (video), and his version of Kansas Joe McCoy's "Why Don't You Do Right" (video). Then watch his most recent performance, an electric show-finishing version of Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You." Prediction: Finishes 2nd.
Howard Beach, New York
Pia Toscano has strong vocals, good looks and the stage presence to win American Idol. While she was relatively obscure among contestants until last week, her performance of The Pretender's "I'll Stand By You" was a breakout performance (video). I would compare it to a walk-off homer in the 9th inning of a baseball game. It was the final performance leading into the finals, and will stick out in peoples' minds for some time to come. This performance was the type that you usually see as the final 2 contestants duel for the victory -- after a little coaching and assistance with song choice from Idol's experts. So well played, Pia. Well played. Looking back at some of her earlier performances, as with Casey, it is easy to see that she made some of her fellow contestants sound better. Watch her group performance of Bruno Mar's "Grenade." What's very surprising is that Pia and her biggest female competitor, Karen Rodriguez, were friends during high school. They sang together in an earlier round, in a surprisingly uninteresting version of The Beatles' "Can't Buy Me Love" (video). I give Pia the edge over Casey and Karen though, simply because you can ride a spectacular performance like the one she made this past week a long way. As I mentioned earlier, American Idol voters also tend to choose winners who are classy, have wide appeal, and who are perhaps a little duller than the more unique contestants who reach the final 2. For this reason mostly, I would currently guess that Pia will win. Prediction: Finishes 1st, yet other contestants go on to greater post-Idol success.
All photos courtesy of Michael becker / FOX.