Your New 'American Idol' Is (Surprise!) A Laid-Back Dude With An Acoustic Guitar
Being named "Phillip Phillips" kind of makes Phillip Phillips sound like he was created like a Cabbage Patch Kid, and after his manufacture, someone said, "What should we call him?" And somebody else said, "Phillip!" And then the first person said, "Phillip what?" But by then, the well of creativity had run dry. "Phillip ... Phillips!"
A star is born.
Well, not a star, but the winner of this season's American Idol. Last night, Phillips beat 16-year-old self-styled diva Jessica Sanchez to become the show's eleventh winner, and the fifth consecutive laid-back white dude who plays the acoustic guitar to take the crown, following David Cook, Kris Allen, Lee DeWyze, and Scotty McCreery. In fact, the pattern has become so predictable that just among people I know personally, I know three who predicted when Phillip Phillips auditioned that he would be the winner. (Here's one.) He's just ... he's the kind of guy who wins this show now.
In terms of racial dynamics, it's perhaps noteworthy that until Jessica Sanchez, all the other runners-up to these laid-back dudes were also white — and in some cases were dudes — while the show's first three seasons produced two African-American winners and two female winners. There have also been laid-back white dudes who lost in the finals, including Blake Lewis and (perhaps most famously) Clay Aiken. (Adam Lambert and I have had our differences, in the sense that I have thought things about him that he might not agree with if he had any idea who I am, but I would never insult him by calling him "laid back," as I think I would be struck by lightning.)
I'm not sure this is as much about white men, to be honest, as it is about a very particular kind of singer who's extremely hard to beat given the people who vote and the way they think. Eric Deggans at the Tampa Bay Times wrote about the significance of Phillips' win last night, and he makes the point that the Billboard Hot 100 isn't full of white dudes with guitars. And he's absolutely right, with two caveats. First, while solo singers who are white guys with guitars might not be all over that chart, guys like that who front bands who play Phillip Phillips-y music are there, including Maroon 5 and Train. Moreover, I think the Hot 100 might be the wrong chart.
When you think of American Idol, you need to think "adult contemporary." It's not a contemporary Hot-100 kind of show, and it never has been. Think about some of the people the show has worshiped, and the people to whom the judges have been comparing singers since forever. They're not looking for the next Usher or the next Rihanna or the next Katy Perry or Lady Gaga. They're looking for the next Celine Dion. They revere the songs of Diane Warren and Burt Bacharach.
If you look at the adult contemporary chart instead of the Hot 100, there are three bands — One Republic, Train, and Maroon 5 — in the top ten who are basically laid-back white guitar-dude bands. (And in eleventh place: Gavin DeGraw.) And there is not a single person of color in the top 10.
American Idol is not a "hot trendy stuff popular with forward-thinking teenagers" show. It's an adult contemporary show, and it always has been. That's why they once had Neil Sedaka Week. It's why they brought John Fogerty to sing with Phillips last night on the finale and Jennifer Holliday to sing with Sanchez. They're not trying to tie these singers to new music; they're trying to tie them to old music. (There have been exceptions that threatened to feel a lot hipper: my favorite finale duet in Idol history took place between third-place season 5 finisher Elliott Yamin and Mary J. Blige.) When they bring in actual current acts, like Rihanna last night, they seem weirdly out of place, like someone really famous is, for some reason, playing your prom.
Once you acknowledge that the show's aesthetic is more adult contemporary than young and hot, and once you understand that it skews female, and once you understand that fortune in the realm of voting favors the teenage girl who is willing to learn the tricks of power dialing and wearing her fingers out texting, the emergence of the Maroon Republic DeGraw Train Family Singers as the unbeatable stripe of guys is a little less mystifying.
Plenty of people pointed out that Sanchez and third-place finisher Joshua Ledet were more accomplished technical singers than Phillips with more to show off than he had. Ledet, in particular, is a vocal gymnast who — kind of like Adam Lambert — almost never met a song he couldn't turn into a showcase for huge, loud notes and runs. The problem is that now, the Idol audience has seen that. They've seen technical prowess. They've seen power belters. They've seen people who can crank it up, take it higher, blow it out the box, or whatever else Randy Jackson is praising this week. The format is massively unkind to this kind of style of singing, too — if you have four minutes to build a song, your big finish can seem like it grew naturally out of passion. If you have 90 seconds, it can seem calculated and like you're trying too hard.
[Speaking of trying too hard, please forgive the aside: Last night's on-stage marriage proposal between long-ago contestants Ace Young and Diana DeGarmo was incredibly gross, even for American Idol, especially when Ace shouted out the name of the jeweler as part of what was apparently a sponsored marriage proposal. I expect it to take several showers to get the stink off me.]
That 90-second format with little chance to build is much kinder to someone like Phillip Phillips, whose appeal is just doing a little radio pop with a 12 percent growl factor thrown in. For the purposes of actually selling records, they're clearly aiming to hook Phillip into elements of indie rock — his first single, which he performed on Tuesday night, sounds exactly like what you would get if you threw Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeroes and Mumford & Sons into a blender. It does actually sound, shockingly enough, like something you might hear on the radio.
It's certainly not good for the show that they keep anointing the same guy. "Home" could also have been David Cook's coronation song, or Kris Allen's, or Lee DeWyze's. (Okay, it could not have been Scotty McCreery's, as that was a little bit different and springs from Idol's longstanding affinity for country, which this season lived on in the person of Skylar Laine.) At some point, it's going to be hard to straight-facedly suggest that a gospel-tinged R&B singer in a similar style to Joshua Ledet can realistically win if Joshua Ledet couldn't. Or that a woman can realistically win when Crystal Bowersox and Jessica Sanchez have both lost to men who lacked their musical chops.
What's interesting is that after seeming like a bland Dave-Matthews-alike for most of the season, Phillips teared up during his performance of "Home" last night after they announced that he'd won. Overcome, he just gave up as the backup singers sang "ooh, ooh, ooh," and he walked off the stage and hugged his family. He didn't finish the song — he didn't give them their moment where he sang that last, "I'm going to make this place your home." You know they wanted it.
Suddenly, he seemed emotional and human and involved in what was happening, qualities that the show had completely failed to bring out in him over a period of months. I liked him. I liked the song. All of a sudden.
It's entirely possible that there's a much more interesting guy in there, and that they just made him seem like a weighted average of the last four winners. Next season, if they wind up with a laid-back white guitar-playing dude in the auditions, they might want to bring out whatever nuance he has a little earlier.