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Dear American Idol: About those critiques...

Apr 7, 2011   [permalink]

One of the aspects of Idol that I've always enjoyed over the years have been the honest critiques offered by the judges, so I'm sad to see those apparently go. Recently the judges reviews haven't felt to me like actual opinions of the singers' performances and constructive criticism on how to improve. Rather, they've felt to me like flouncy cheerleaders.

Understandably the judges want the contestants to do well (and I get the feeling the producers are coaching or even writing the judges' commentary to maximize revenue), but it doesn't feel realistic any more. It feels scripted, and self-serving for the show -- the backers of which, understandably, get money if people pay to listen to all the finalists' singing careers and tours and iTunes sales.

As many of you know, I started the first critique group on the web over 15 years ago. Indeed, Critters Workshop is Critique.org, so I've been thinking about what makes a good critique for going on two decades now.

I've found that the critiques that work best are the ones that are honest. When it hits me like it's all gushing praise, The Best Ev-er, singer after singer, with rarely any negative comments, it ceases to feel honest to me. Add in lots of in-your-face plugs for Coke and Ford and upcoming Idol tours, and it feels to me like a giant commercial.

I'm not saying that I want commentary that's harsh. There's a grand canyon between "honest" and "brutally honest." I've long held that there's no need for brutality or cutting the contestants down in order to deliver negative news. Simon's critiques often felt needlessly harsh to me. I don't think one needs to say someone sounds like a cat mewling at the bottom of a well to offer up that a given performance sounded off key. I've written several articles on optimal phrasing of critiques, which can be summed up as, where I've found from years of experience that it's not that you have negative comments to make, it's how you phrase them that matters. So in replacing Simon as a needlessly insulting deliverer of bad news, it seems as though the focus was on shifting to "no bad news" rather than on diplomatic delivery of bad news. But that the bad and good are both represented fairly, however, is critical to me as a fan of the show.

If you stop saying something was off key or the singer was behind the music or or the performer felt sleepy or any of the myriad other reasons a performance could be improved, then it all feels fake to me.

In the past I had often found my own reactions to a performance echoed the comments given by Simon or Randy. Not the delivery phrasing, but the actual meat of the comments themselves.

Even the absolute pinnacle of performances can be improved in some way, so I don't find it realistic that they have nothing negative to say.

Now it feels like Steven and J-Lo are afraid to damage their fans' perceptions of themselves if they ever say anything negative (or, horror, get booed), so they're sounding to me only like cheerleaders. "Rah rah! That was awesome! That was the best ever!" They don't ring true to me.

At first Randy seemed to be the sole voice of bad news, but even now he seems on the rah-rah bandwagon. I had really high hopes that Steven and J-Lo, as experts in their field, would have had amazingly insightful comments on how the performers could improve. I was really looking forward to learning more about the insides and insights of what makes a performance great and how to turn a so-so singer into a star performer. I feel let down that Steven and J-Lo are only full of gushing praise.

If the judges are now just officially to be cheerleaders, then I'd want the producers to be intellectually honest and call them cheerleaders, rather than judges. (It still won't make it more interesting to me to watch, however. It was the insight that I found interesting.)

Alas, it's getting so bad that I'm sorry to say I've been fast forwarding the Tivo through the judges' comments recently. It's not interesting to me to hear only praise, especially what sounds like carefully scripted and financially motivated praise. There are a few singers who are enjoyable to listen to, sometimes, but even there, I find myself questioning if the show is worth my time any more. When it ceases to be enjoyable, why should I keep watching? If it feels like a two-hour long commercial, I feel not only unfulfilled as entertainment but taken advantage of.

The same applies to critiques anywhere. Artists, writers and performers want to improve, and get honest reactions. Without honesty, what's the point?

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