The re-southification of American Idol

With Scotty McCeery's win, it's a country music year

When it came to the demographics of this year’s American Idol contestants, much of the attention went to the fact that women were getting eliminated at an even higher rate than usual. And sure enough, the winner was a man yet again; we’re a long way from the Kelly Clarkson days. But in another way, things have circled back to the beginning of the series: after a couple of years where Southerners didn’t dominate the show as much as in the past, both finalists were from the U.S. South, and the producers seem to have wanted it that way:

Yes, it’s a country music year for “Idol” — just what producer Nigel Lythgoe wanted when he tagged Alaina early on as this season’s Chosen One. (The show’s producers have also pushed McCreery, who is now likely to win, since the beginning; he’s had a signature song — Josh Turner’s “Your Man” — ever since his audition.) With Carrie Underwood now the official top-earning “Idol” alum and Nashville holding up better than any other corner of the conventional recording industry, no one can be surprised that “Idol” has found new life, in part, by assertively reconnecting with this heartland.

Singers like Alaina and McCreery have certain advantages on a show like this, apart from the obvious (these shows are very popular in the Heartland). Ever since rock n’ roll exploded in the ’50s, shattering the music industry into fragments and giving every generation its own particular brand of music, television has had to cope with the problem that there isn’t much pop music that has enormous mass appeal. That’s why most talk shows leave the musical acts for the end of the show, because some segment of the audience is going to hate the type of music. Successful Idol performers avoid this by cultivating a sort of all-purpose eclecticism, with a hint of a basic baseline style but not enough of a specific style to turn off large portions of the audience. This is what Elvis Presley often did, and Elvis is the patron saint of many Idol contestants, particularly his fellow Southerners.

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