Tonight's American Idol results show had us spitting at the TV with disgust. I was still smarting a bit from last week when AJ got booted off and Sanjaya went forward. AJ's "Feelin Good" was the bomb, and it's unfathomable how Sanjaya's uninspired "Steppin' Out With My Baby" was favored. No offense to Sanjaya, who's got a decent voice but not an Idol voice, and is way outclassed here. This week, it was apparent on his face that Sanjaya was expecting to go home, so he was shocked, the judges were clearly shocked, and we were all shocked when he went forward again, denying a seat to the far more deserving Sundance, whose "Jeremy" rocked. And on the girls' side, we thought it was pretty clear cut which two should be going home, and one was as expected, but our jaws hit the floor when Haley took the spot that totally should have gone to Sabrina. Her jazzy, powerful "Don't Let Go" was so far and above Haley's pallid "If My Heart Had Wings", it's just so wrong.
As I stewed over this gross miscarriage of justice, I started thinking to myself, what's wrong with American Idol. And for some reason, I started musing "what would Steven Levitt think?" Pondering the incentives and the system, it occurred to me why it is flawed. For starters, of course, it's not explicitly a search for singing excellence, otherwise it would be determined by qualified judges and not by 37 million Americans voting by phone. But beyond that, even assuming that all of the voters were honestly voting for the best performers (as opposed to the best looking, most popular, favorite song genres, etc, which is a big assumption), the one-person-one-vote system could be expected to determine the top performer, but should not be expected to determine a qualified rank order for the rest. In these earlier weeks, we're being asked to vote for the best, but the decision being made is who are the worst. Think of it this way. Suppose that 75% of the voters have reasonable taste and judgment, and 25% don't. The 75% of the voters who do have good judgment will have put their one vote toward those who truly are the top performers. But in these weeks, those votes don't matter. What matters is who got the most votes among the bottom half of the class. And those are being determined by the 25% who lack judgment. Thus, one would expect that in these intermediate winnowing rounds, the decisions of who gets sent home are going to be rocky and spurious. And so they have been.
A better system for these elimination rounds would be for people to vote for the bottom rather than the top. Or if that seems too mean-spirited (what? Idol mean-spirited?), each person should get to vote for as many contestants as are going forward.
I also think there's some amount of game theory that enters into it. I'm suspecting that an appreciable chunk of voters may vote based on song choice and genre, as there are a variety of genres being represented. For instance, there are probably a good number of country music fans watching the show (see Carrie Underwood for proof), and perhaps a lot of them don't have an appreciation of other genres, and may not have appreciated Sabrina's sophisticated rendition of an En Vogue R&B tune. Perhaps they voted for Haley just because they prefered a country song. I'm not slamming country here. I appreciate country music, and I really like the Faith Hill song. Which was all the more reason Haley was a disappointment. She's a pretty girl and she can sing decently, but we need more than decent here. Her interpretation was uninspired, a bit fast yet lacking drive, and when she got to the chorus, where the song just wants to soar, well, Haley's voice just didn't have wings. And yet she'll be back and Sabrina goes home. So wrong.
In honor of Paula, I'll find something nice to say about American Idol. Kudos to them for the highlight on charity that they announced tonight. The money that they will probably be giving toward the needy in Africa and here at home is admirable, and the attention they will be bringing to charitable efforts will be invaluable. Looking forward to hearing more about that. Charity is sweet music indeed.