What’d I Say: Did America Get It Wrong?

Posted April 15, 2012 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

Jessica Sanchez was supposed to go home on American Idol, but a quick save from the judges postponed her departure. But did America get their votes wrong? You’ll be surprised in the answer.

And there they were. The Bottom 3, standing there awaiting their fate on the April 12 show of FOX’s hit reality-TV show American Idol. After a full hour of agony decked with an unflattering live performance from former Idol contestant James Durbin and a satisfying performance from Ne-Yo and a Beyonce-inspired Jennifer Hudson, singing their new single “Think Like a Man.” – what seemed to be a theme song for Steve Harvey’s line of motion pictures,  Jessica Sanchez, with the rest of America, finally learned her fate.

But before she was asked by Ryan Seacrest to sing her swan song, hoping that the judges would used their once-in-a-season Judges’ save card, judge Steven Tyler said what he had to say: “We’re going to use our card tonight, especially with an outcome like this.” Idol senior judge Randy Jackson stated that he had “never seen this happen.” “He added: “America! I’ve never said this: They got it wrong tonight.”

But America didn’t have to wait too long to hear if the judges were going to used their Monopoly “Advance to Go” card. The judges, led by an adamant Jennifer Lopez, took to the stage to grab the microphone from Sanchez’s hand, while singing the r&b ballad, Deborah Cox’s “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here.” Clearly, none of the bottom three was supposed to be there that night.

With Elise Testone, the 28-year old teacher from Charleston, S.C., and Joshua Ledet, a 20-year old student from Westlake, Louisiana, sitting in the bottom three with Sanchez, critics are wondering if the singing contest has now shifted from a talent competition to a likability contest.

Actually, American Idol has always been a likability contest. And it’s the biggest of them all. At least with Miss Universe and Miss America, models are judged on a number of things, but the fate of the results remain in the professionals’ hands, and not in the viewing public. But since its inception, American Idol’s voting platform, which is used on every reality-TV show since Idol made its debut, strictly abides with what America wants. And usually what they want is what they like.

Last night, I chimed in on the long history of past winners’ and runner-ups, stating that usually the winners aren’t always the most talented in the bunch. And as history goes, we can look at the track record of some of the most watched seasons of Idol to discover that many of the runner-ups are more successful than the ones who take home the trophy.

One common thing that remains consistent with Idol’s trajectory of winners is that every last one of them are southerners, and have strong southern roots. Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard, Fantasia Barrino, Carrie Underwood, Jordin Sparks, David Cook, Kris Allen, Lee DeWyze, Scotty McCreery. The Southern vote matters. Actually, it’s the only way you’re gonna win. Being a native of Birmingham, Ala., I have witnessed time after time how the local communities rally behind their hometown heroes. Idolgives these small towns and cities unhip to Hollywood an opportunity to showcase their big hearted Southern hospitality.

Sometimes, it can be a curse. The careers of my hometown heroes, like Ruben Studdard, Taylor Hicks and Bo Bice, have all dried up since their tenure on the show, while their on-air competition soars into the major spotlight. Remember the runner-up in season five? Katharnie McPhee, the L.A.-born singer whose now wowing TV audiences on Steven Spielberg’s cashcow drama Smash, lost to a very talented, grey-haired Soul Patrol singer from the Heart of Dixie. Although Hicks’ stage presence always contained lots of energy, McPhee didn’t win the voters’ hearts because she wasn’t talented enough. It was because her roots were not in the South.

Remember the runner-up in season eight? Adam Lambert, another budding star from L.A. with a sizable slate of Billboard Hot 100 hits, Grammy nods and continues to work with A-list producers (Pharrell Williams, P!nk, Dr. Luke, Ryan Tedder, Max Martin), wowed audiences and the judges with his out-of-this-world performances and soaring vocals. He didn’t lose to Kris Allen because he wasn’t talented enough, but because Lambert, the San Diego native, didn’t have the Southern vote. (And you already know southerners aren’t hip to flamboyantly-clad openly gay fashionstas.)

David Archuleta, a proud religious man with roots in the Mormon faith and in his hometown of Salt Lake City, Utah, lost to David Cook in season seven, not because the dude wasn’t the better vocalist. He just didn’t have the southern vote.

Go back to season three, when the Three Divas (Fantasia Barrino, LaToya London, Jennifer Hudson) dominated the stage and when Sir Elton John got all rallied up because all three were in the bottom three in the Top 7 results’ show? That week, Hudson got the boot. LaToya, born in San Francisco, Cali., was next. And why did that happen? Because the territorial gods of the South voted for their local champions.

Go back to season 6. Blake Lewis, a versatile rapper/singer with a fluent gift of beatboxing, had his roots in the state of Washington and lost to Jordin Sparks. Once again, no Southern vote.

And it’s not that northern cities and towns are not conscious voters. They could do it if they really wanted to. But let’s be clear on one thing: Most northerners have better things to do on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. They clearly have more options to work with. I know one thing: If I lived in the Big Apple or in L.A., D.C., Philadelphia or Chicago, voting for America’s next superstar would be the furthest thing from my mind.

One critic even told me, after discovering Jessica Sanchez was in the bottom, that Idol voters do not favor female contestants, stating that it has always been a boy’s show. He added that “twelve year old girls who vote aren’t going to vote for other girls.” That theory may be true, if we didn’t have Kelly Clarkson, Fantasia Barrino, Jordin Sparks and Carrie Underwood as winners. Plus, there have been just as many female runner-ups (Katharine McPhee, Crystal Bowersox, Lauren Alaina) than males.

If only there was an electoral college for American Idol. The winners would not be decided by how many text messages these high school groupies can submit or by out-of-control multiple votes. At least it would eliminate some of the voting abuse that the Idol machine clearly fails to acknowledge.

So did America get it wrong on Idol, putting Sanchez in the bottom three? Possibly. She’s a great singer, probably one of the better vocalists this season, although her selection of Jazmine Sullivan’s “Stuttering” is still questionable.  But remember this, she’s the last of all the Top 7 this season that’s not from the South. According to Wikipedia entries, her origins are from San Diego, California. She’ll probably be in the bottom again next week. Not because she’s not talented enough. It’s just the South doesn’t want to see their hometown heroes lose on public television. They could care less what happens to them after the season folds up.


What’d I Say is a public opinion series focusing on recent events featuring commentary from our team of skillful writers and guest bloggers. The opinions expressed at this forum are the opinions of the individual author and may not reflect the opinions of the parent company HiFi Magazine.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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