American Idol: Why a kinder, gentler approach is working

American Idol: The new season of American Idol is firing on all cylinders and the easy targets from previous seasons are distant memories, requiring a new approach to coverage.

Kevork Djansezian/REUTERS
American Idol Judges Keith Urban and Jennifer Lopez take part in the January 2014 Television Critics Association presentations in California.

Recently, the following question was posed: "Is it hard to write about American Idol, now that it is so good? What is there to say?"

It was a fair, albeit disturbing, question that illustrates the tendency of our culture to sensationalize the bad and shrug off the good; a question that required some soul searching.

More than once, this writer has criticized American Idol's unflattering tendency to exploit the bad contestants, making them punchlines in a joke intended to gain the show more publicity and viewers. And it raised another question: Was this writer's coverage nothing more than the proverbial pot to the black American Idol kettle? Sleepless nights ensued.

Then this week, American Idol and its staff of obviously spiteful producers, delivered another really good episode. What makes an episode good? Well, it's more than the healthy glow and alluring gloss of Jennifer Lopez's skin and lips, more than Keith Urban's shaggy, yet perfectly coiffed, locks and more than Harry Connick Jr.'s eyes of blue steel. This season of Idol is great both, for what it brings - attractive, kind, constructive judges with an excellent dynamic - and for what it lacks - the vitriolic tantrums, the unintelligible rants, and the mean-spirited exploitation of young people with hopes and dreams, no matter how misplaced they may be.

Do we miss those things? Honestly, in some ways. It's always easier to be entertaining when criticizing someone or something's faults - I'm convinced this is why so many critics never seem to enjoy anything they critique - and this awareness makes it hard not to further appreciate this season of American Idol and their decision to take a road slightly higher than others they have traveled.

On Wednesday's episode, Keith discussed his approach to judging, stating that he always tries to keep in mind that the family and friends of the contestant will be watching; an awareness that either didn't occur to previous judges like Simon Cowell or Nikki Minaj, or simply didn't matter. And while Jennifer Lopez expressed admiration for her own mother's tough love during her early career - once telling Jennifer that she didn't want to hear her cry because she was the one who chose to work in the entertainment industry - as a judge, Jennifer has always taken the less-is-more approach to negative feedback. Then there's newcomer, Harry Connick Jr., aka 'Harsh Harry' whose critiques tend to be less forgiving than his fellow judges, but who still manages to treat the contestants with genuine respect and empathy.

This demonstration of kindness on American Idol perfectly illustrates the swing of the pendulum. After years of struggling to remedy what was ailing Idol, the producers seemed to recognize that after last season's combative atmosphere, they needed to offer viewers a warmer, more relatable panel. In stark contrast to the X-Factor who flies contestants out to their mentor's palatial mansions perched precariously on pristine precipices, on Wednesday, Idol opted to highlight the vulnerability of their panel. A 16-year-old Keith performing and being critiqued on a television talent show, A 10-year-old Harry Connick, Jr. telling a reporter that he might have a future in the music industry if he practices real hard and a 22-year-old JLo being introduced as the newest fly girl on "In Living Color."

In some ways, this elevated season of American Idol is the third installment of Idol Gives Back because it has forced this writer to aspire to a greater magnanimity in her own work. 

So here goes...

The first few moments of American Idol's stop in Salt Lake City brought us a trifecta of impressive female contestants. Austin Wolfe, 16, performed "Radioactive," a song that is to this writer what "Unchained, Melody" was to Simon Cowell, and she did so flawlessly. She was followed by talented Kylee Adamson, an 18-year-old lumberjack and finally by Tessa Norman, who delivered a pretty intense performance of Jessie J's, "Momma Knows Best," making us all a little relieved that she didn't wield an axe for a living.

Then there were the surprise contestants like Alex Preston from New Hampshire who apparently didn't get the memo that Idol had auditions in Boston.  Alex made us all, but no one more so than his parents, cringe when he announced that he had taken a year off of college to pursue his dream to be a singer. But after delivering a riveting performance of an original song, he left little doubt that despite his...err...humble appearance (how am I doing?) he was born to be a musician.

Also falling in the category of pleasant surprises was Samantha Calmes, who shall forever be known as either The Girl with the Fanny Pack or The Girl who Sang the Theme Song from The Jeffersons. It wasn't the fact that Samantha's voice was extremely unique that was the surprise - we already guessed she was unique when she opted to wear a fanny pack on national television - it was the fact that her voice was remarkably impressive that caught us off guard.

There was also at least one not-so-pleasant surprise. The unanimous decision to offer Carmen Delgina, daughter of Wonder Mike from "The Sugar Hill Gang," a ticket to Hollywood after delivering a poor audition but then not agreeing that 16-year-old, Kasandra Castaneda who had a voice that was like rich chocolate to the ears, was deserving of a golden ticket. Thankfully Harry was overruled on that one.

Finally, there were Idol's trademark backstory contestants to round out a strong night in Salt Lake City. Paisley Van Patten had achieved the kind of success the other contestants could only dream of until her dependence on alcohol destroyed her career. After two and half years of sobriety, Paisley is eager to rebuild her music career. It was clear that Keith, who struggled with a cocaine addiction, could relate to Paisley's story and before awarding her her ticket to Hollywood he asked Paisley if she was ready for this. Let's hope she was right when she assured him she was.

And while single-mothers always tend to steal the spotlight, American Idol changes things up a bit by highlighting the story of Casey Thrasher, father to an infant and toddler, who lives with an aunt while struggling to get a break in the music industry. Casey explained how meeting Keith at one of his concerts was a inspiration to him and opted to sing, "Believe," in honor of Keith's impression on him. Was it slightly awkward when it was obvious that Keith had no recollection of ever meeting this enamored contestant? Perhaps, but we're trying to focus on the positives here, remember? In that vein, let's choose to believe that Casey made it through to Hollywood based on merit and not pity.

With that we wrap up our lofty approach to Idol coverage and Thursday night, American Idol wraps up the audition round! Hollywood here we come!

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