“American Idol’s” group portion of its winnowing process always is the most fascinating chapter of its yearly saga, as the singing competition briefly shifts into full reality show mode. I’ve never been convinced that it was a fair method to judge aspiring singers who were competing as solo acts, as it frequently results in superior vocalists being dumped because they couldn’t sing harmony, learn choreography and lyrics under pressure, or play well with others. I know you have to get that mass of ambition and ego reduced to 24 people somehow, but group day is the equivalent of throwing darts at a dartboard.
It makes for great ethics scenarios, though. The format guarantees it, as the contestants have to form groups of four or five in a cruel process reminiscent of choosing sides for pick-up baseball games, guaranteeing that some people will end up feeling like the fat kid who always gets chosen last, if at all.
Last night there were several featured ethics dramas, with the judges, as they have been all season, being less than consistent in their responses to them.
New Jersey singer Tiffany Rios, undoubtedly because of a grating personality, found herself rejected by every forming group and desperate. Blonde Jessica Yantz was overcome by the Golden Rule, quit the security of her own group, and teamed with Rios in what appeared to be a sincere act of kindness. Unfortunately, Rios crashed and burned during their quickly prepared number, and Yantz was engulfed in the carnage: both were sent packing by the judging panel of Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, and Steven Tyler.
I have no problem with their decision, even though they knew what Yantz had done. “American Idol” isn’t an ethics competition. The judges also may have reasonably concluded that Yantz teamed with Rios less out of compassion than as a tactical gamble, seeking to benefit by sharing the spotlight with one competitor rather than three or four. But even if helping Rios was a genuinely unselfish act by Yantz, as it appeared to me to be, there was no obligation on the judges’ parts to reward it, nor reason for Jessica to expect any special consideration. Being kind has to be its own reward; if you are only ethical because you expect karmic brownie points, you will not be ethical for long.
Then a gap-toothed singer named Ashleigh Sullivan got an attack of nerves and decided to quit the competition, leaving her own group in the lurch. After they had re-arranged their number and rehearsed without her, Ashleigh suddenly screwed up her resolve and asked to return. The group would have been within its rights to refuse, but did not, arguably jeopardizing their own prospects to give her a second chance. Again, a pure Golden Rule moment. This one did pay off—Ashleigh is quirky, charismatic and good—and everyone in the group was passed through to the next stage.
The true ethics epic, however, began as deep-voiced Country-Western singer Scotty McCreery had trouble hooking up with a group. He found one, though, and was properly grateful, since “The Guaps” seemed reluctant to add a piece and as an unusual talent, McCreery was something of a risk. Then the group promptly dumped one of its organizers, 15-year-old Jacee Badeaux, a baby-faced, chubby, talented kid who seems about 12 and has at least been edited to seem like he possesses the personality of an angel. He really is the equivalent of the fat kid at the pick-up game, and no group wanted to adopt him at such a late point in rehearsals.
Finally, very late, one group took him in, but Jacee had little time to learn the number. Though the group performed well, Jacee was reduced to marking and faking. Randy Jackson, a former fat kid himself, took unusual initiative and questioned Jacee about what had unsettled his performance. He let the teenager through to sing again at the next stage, a fair and kind decision, but inconsistent. The judges had (finally) held to a strict policy of judging the singers on how they performed, not extraneous circumstances. Tiffany Rios had also been disadvantaged by not being able to find a group, and her hastily-prepared performance was lousy as a result, but at least it was a performance, unlike the best Badeaux could muster. Moreover, dinging Rios’s rescuer, Jessica Yantz, was at least as harsh as it would have been to cut Jacee.
As is usually the case when inconsistent standards are applied, there were other factors at work: Rios was annoying, Yantz was (as a singer) nothing remarkable, and Badeaux is the kind of cuddly human interest character that “American Idol” always tries to add to the mix. Saving the kid was generous, but it meant applying special criteria for one singer and not the rest, and the decision was based on more (or less) than ethics. This is Hollywood, after all.
The best ethics moment was still to come. “The Guap”, which had set poor Jacee adrift, was the next group to perform, and the judges fixed them with the steely gaze of a firing squad. Jackson confronted them about what the group had done to Jacee, and while the other group members shrugged and attempted to justify their conduct, Scotty McCreery stepped forward and announced that he was ashamed of himself for “not standing up” for Badeaux. “I love y’all but Jacee is the best kid in the competition,” he said, looking guilty and emotional.
There it was: strong and unequivocal ethical conduct. McCreery was honest, contrite, accepted responsibility and accountability, deflected attention from the group that had taken him in rather than indicting their conduct, and showed genuine courage. If the judges could decide to keep a contestant that they felt was treated wrongly, they conceivably could cut the contestants who did him wrong.
As it happened, “The Guap” was damn good, and they all were passed through to the next round.
A night of self-interest, politics, bias, betrayal and good Samaritans produced one true Ethics Hero, Scotty McCreery, and a couple of runners-up.
And some good singing, too.
[A final ethics note: As they have in years past, the judges continued the cruel and despicable practice of creating artificial suspense by announcing the cuts in various misleading ways…making successful performers think they had failed until the last second, or pretending that some group members would be cut by making two ranks, then announcing that they all had made it. Steven Tyler set a new low last night by carelessly telling one singer he was “in” and then then retracting it. The judges know how important the competition is to these singers, and manipulating their emotions for cheap drama is indefensible. Simon Cowell refused to do it, and he was right. Doesn’t everyone find this annoying? So why don’t they stop it? ]
UPDATE: The American Idol finale was last night, and Scotty won it all, an inspiring example of good things happening to good people. Of course, the fact that he can really sing played a part in it.