American Idol has become so absurdly popular that Merriam, Webster and Seacrest have run out of superlatives to describe its success. Hyperbole and hoopla notwithstanding, Idol is fundamentally the same game show that debuted in 2002 with predictable patterns and recognizable rules. Occasionally, it’s downright gamey – a seemingly harmless family gathering over a Monopoly board with Uncle Nigel minding the bank.
Aside from the obvious rules enumerated in the fine print of their contracts with the show, American Idol contestants ignore the unwritten rules at their own peril. Hence the Rudy Cardenas rule, formerly known as the Patrick Hall rule: one bad song choice and lousy performance placement can spoil your whole career. I find it interesting that, two years in a row, the male singer who was awarded the unfortunate opening slot in the first two-hour semifinals show is the one most reminiscent of Clay Aiken. Will we never find a successor to Clay?
For the benefit of the remaining top 20, here are seven lucky Rules of American Idol™:
1. The Blake Lewis rule: Select the right song for your vocal strengths and perform it well.
Somewhere Only We Know by Keane was a shrewd choice that accomplished exactly what Blake needed, i.e. proving that he is versatile, current, competent and authentic. He revealed a different style than we saw in the beatbox audition clips. He performed a modern ballad in a genre new to American Idol – indie piano rock popularized by Coldplay, Muse and the Fray – and thus established his uniqueness. Yet the song was familiar and mainstream enough for the diverse AI audience, owing to its revival in last summer’s commercial for the film The Lake House.
2. The Taylor Hicks rule: If the judges or producers insult you, performing well is the best revenge.
No matter how many times Simon Cowell accuses you of being drunk or prematurely middle-aged, keep smiling and thank the surly gazillionaire for his advice. If the producer forces you to switch songs 24 hours before showtime, pray for strength. Then go back to your comfortable accommodations, scream into your downy soft pillow and redouble your efforts to win the competition. Yes, Chris Sligh, I am talking to you – as a fan who hopes to see you on the American Idol stage for many weeks to come. AI regulars don’t need any reminders that Simon doesn’t always know best. He actively disliked Kelly Clarkson and underestimated her talent, but he is also capable of admitting his mistakes publicly.
Did Chris jump the snark and seal his own doom? Not necessarily. If he emphasizes his wry, self-aware, self-effacing charm – and follows the other rules – from this point forward, every week is a fresh opportunity to impress. Humor applied judiciously is a huge advantage, no pun intended. Speaking of which, how much more effective would it have been if he had joked about performing on Fat Tuesday? Yes, I know his episode was taped on Sunday, but a contestant who advertises his own strategery and prepares a punchline in advance is canny enough to know when the show will be aired.
3. The Kellie Pickler rule: Good looks and personality open the door but, lacking an equal measure of talent, the screen door will hit you on the way out.
Consistently good vocal talent in an appealing package is essential for success on American Idol. Personality or physical attractiveness cannot disguise performance flaws (the Ace Young rule). However, consistency without versatility is monotony (the Chris Daughtry rule). While versatility sets a contestant apart from the pack, too much variety can make even a gifted singer seem inauthentic (the Paris Bennett rule). But too much similarity among contestants renders them redundant and expendable (the LaToya London rule). Singers who share the same genre almost always compete for the same finite number of votes. Hey, nobody said this would be easy.
4. The Gedeon McKinney rule: If you have an appealing back story, don’t wait for the producers to publicize it.
AI5 was populated by an appealing cast of characters with compelling talent and interesting biographies, none more so than Gedeon McKinney. Unfortunately for Gedeon, the producers decided not to share his inspiring back story and he was eliminated before it came to light. Ever feel like you’ve been cheated? I consider the mishandling of Gedeon McKinney the Great American Idol Swindle of 2006.
5. The Elliott Yamin rule: Viewers want to watch you blossom and invite you into their hearts.
The most intimate aspect of the AI experience is the attachment the audience develops for a particular favorite and their personal investment in his growth as a performer. These are the ingredients that produce fans for life. Just ask the Claymates, whose devotion has been tested repeatedly throughout the past 4 years. It's no secret that I consider Elliott's metamorphosis the high watermark of the American Idol franchise. I marvel at the awesome professionalism of Lakisha Jones but wonder how she plans to top her impeccable top 24 performance without becoming perfectly boring. Fair or not, viewers want our AI amateurs to start amateurishly and then give us a musical revelation to cheer each week.
6. The other Chris Daughtry rule: No contestant is ever completely safe – not even The Chosen One.
If the AI crew wants you to win, they will adorn you with the most flattering lights, surround you with extra instrumentalists at center stage, let you roll around on the floor barefoot. Sometimes their special treatment backfires when viewers, assuming The Chosen One must be safe, cast their votes for that episode’s standout – which is precisely how Tamyra Gray, perhaps the Lakisha Jones of AI1, and Chris Daughtry were eliminated in fourth place during their respective seasons. No contestant is so talented or popular that he can afford to appear complacent or cocky (the Constantine Maroulis rule). Every performance matters.
7. The AI3 rule: A successful season with a memorable cast of characters is hard to follow.
Those of us who found the second season’s talent exceptional and magical recall how reluctant we may have been to let go of the past and embrace new contestants. Ready or not, season three arrived on schedule, bearing a hodgepodge of favoritism toward two performers and near criminal neglect of the rest (the Jennifer Hudson rule, aka the George Huff rule, aka the John Stevens rule, ad nauseam). It’s no mere coincidence that AI3 is widely remembered as the most frustrating year in American Idol history.
By any measurement, season five was the most successful ever with unforgettable talent and personalities. When I hear Chris Richardson, Sanjaya Malakar and A.J. Tabaldo tackle songs I will now and forever associate with Elliott Yamin, I cannot help drawing uncomplimentary comparisons. Taylor Hicks and Chris Daughtry lured new viewers to the show, expanding the pop music demographic and creating a market that the season six talent may not be able to satisfy.
Will success spoil American Idol? Stay tuned.
Good luck, contestants! Yes, Chris Sligh, I am still talking to you.