Pop Culture

Is There a Glass Ceiling on American Idol?

I watch American Idol. And yes, I enjoy it. It’s something I can do for a few months of the year with my husband (and now my daughter), and despite the fact that we both have “good taste” in music, we really get into it. I own this, and I feel no shame. But something’s been eating me as of late: the show and its audience doesn’t seem to be particularly kind to its female contestants.

As Idol watchers know, this week’s result show was shocking, and not just because some clueless/disgruntled producer booked Iggy Pop to play shirtless and scare the bejeezus out of poor Jennifer Lopez. Pia Toscano, who I would argue was technically the best singer of this year’s top finalists, was booted off the show. This news prompted booing from the audience, crying from J.Lo, and swearing from Randy Jackson. But should we be surprised that Pia got kicked off so early in the game? After all, a woman hasn’t won American Idol since Jordin Sparks overtook the underwhelming human beat-box Blake Lewis in 2007 (Sparks, incidentally, was also the last person of color to take the title).

Of the eight contestants now left on season 10 of American Idol, only two of them are women. I’d like to think that one of them (amazing 16-year-old Lauren Alaina) will win, but given Toscano’s departure, things aren’t looking good for the ladies. While some of the men left are not bad, many of them lack the combination of singing power and artistry that is needed to become a successful recording star. Why are the drippy Stefano Langone and inexplicably creepy alt-country dude Paul McDonald (the official candidate of the snarky Vote For the Worst campaign) still there when the girl with pipes that could stand up to Celine Dion is now watching on TV from the comfort of her own home?

The obvious group to point the finger at would be tween girls. Young girls have long been scapegoated for leaving crap contestants on American Idol. The past three winners (Lee DeWyze, Kris Allen, and David Cook) have been cute but bland white men in their early 20s with varying degrees of non-threatening facial hair. People tend to assume that young girls are more likely to sit for two hours pushing the redial button on their phones, thus skewing the vote in favor of dreamy boys. The problem is, I don’t think that any of these recent winners are dreamy enough to appeal to tween girls.

Maybe I’m out of touch, but Kris Allen, who beat out the greatest Idol contestant of all time, Adam Lambert, is no Justin Bieber. He’s okay, but nothing that would get a 12-year-old version of myself to vote two hundred times a week. If anything, I think Lambert, who didn’t publicly come out until after Idol was over, would appeal more to young girls than Allen. When I was a young girl, I would have been more prone to vote for the women contestants than the boys. Would 22-year-old Pia Toscano not seem like more of a role model to 12-year-old girls than an object of jealousy? These are the same girls who go out and buy Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift albums – they hardly have a history of hating on female singers.

So, it’s a mystery as to why women have fared so poorly on American Idol in the last four or five seasons. It’s funny, the biggest post-Idol successes have been women; Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, and Jennifer Hudson are such big stars that it’s easy to forget that they all got their start on a talent show. Word has it Pia Toscano has already been offered a big record deal, so the odds are she’ll be all right. But what about all of the girls watching and voting, feeling like American Idol is no place for a woman?

By Sissy Larue

30-something, mother-of-two, former rock 'n' roll reporter, currently into retro house-wifey things, bad TV and any movie that I can sneak out of the house to watch.

17 replies on “Is There a Glass Ceiling on American Idol?”

Iggy Pop seemed bored during his performance, I was kind of disappointed. The part of my brain that is still a punk-rock teenager and loves Iggy no matter what says it was a statement about his disdain for “The Man,” but the rest of me just felt like it was bad sex.

The Mister got mad at the internet while we were watching because he found a thread where most of the comments were along the lines of “Who is this guy and why aren’t they making the old dude wear a shirt?”

I think part of it may be that the social consciousness can become oversaturated with information about certain types of celebrities. Maybe Miley and Taylor are enough and we don’t need/want another pretty girl who can sing and writhe in the tabloids, on Entertainment Tonight and the Internetz. Perhaps we need more males to lust after/objectify. I think the resurgence of the male pop star (Bieber or the Jonas Brothers) have resurrected the “boycrazy” (what’s the male equivalent of that term?) teen girl phenomenon. When I was 12, NKOTB dominated my bedroom walls and my t-shirt collection and while I loved Paul Abdul, they were #1. I don’t understand why it has to be about jealousy or role models. Maybe it’s a backlash to the constant objectification of women that these girls are tired of being smacked in the face with. I guess this can be viewed as being unkind to female contestants but what about looking at it as females making a choice about the media they are exposed to and consume?

I think it’s a bit of a different story once you get to the top 5 or 3 (at that point each contestant has a decent fan base), but contestants kicked out now would not have sold albums. Hell, Jennifer Hudson is an overall success, but she isn’t selling albums. Adam Lambert isn’t even selling albums. It’s about selling based on what the votes imply people will buy.

I don’t watch AI and I never have (no time! and I am sure I would become addicted if I started), but I can tell you that the women you mentioned (Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson, and Kelly Clarkson) are much more well known to me than any of the men (except for Adam Lambert).
In fact, I didn’t even realize that Carrie Underwood and Jennifer Hudson got their starts on AI.
The more you know…

I have been watching AI since season 3 and I have developed a theory. It seems like the judges, past and present, are more willing accept quirkiness in guys than in girls. I was disappointed in this year’s women because they seem even more run-of-the-mill than usual. In my own personal opinion, Naima was the only one who was even remotely interesting to watch and her singing kind of went downhill as the weeks went on. All the other ladies are pretty girls who can sing, but personality-wise they are entirely forgettable.
The guys, on the other hand, are a motley crew of weirdness. I love Paul. He’s different and interesting and has a crazy-ass Rod Stewart vibe going on. James and Casey are also fun, they flaunt their quirks for all to see.
I think more of the audience is feeling that polished and perfect is boring, but the judges are slow to start thinking outside the box when it comes to female singers. You’d think they might have started to figure it out last season when Crystal and Siobhan were that last two girls in the competition.

But that’s just my theory.

You have a really strong point. I don’t watch AI just to hear strong singing (despite watching for nine years I’ve NEVER bought an album by any contestant). I watch it to be entertained. I’d much rather see what interesting thing Casey or Paul (or Jacob, who I think might be the weirdest of the bunch) is going to do rather than hear Pia do a technically perfect pop ballad. Siobhan, for example, stuck around for a long time, but there haven’t been many other women like her to make it to the public voting stage of the show.

I wonder…

In my high school, chorus and a capella were a HUGE deal. Like, the recap of the spring concert was sometimes subject to more fan-frenzied assessment than our sport team’s win over our rival. [As a side note, and funny enough, there was a heated rivalry between the choral departments of the two high schools in my city.]

Something I noticed, even way back then, is that the men’s groups were much more celebrated than the women’s groups. And, IMO, it wasn’t because they were more talented (Ok, I’ll admit that we can boast one AI contestant from the ranks of our men’s a capella and chorus, so that kind of tipped the scales a bit in their favor, but I swear we had several female singers who were just as talented and who also could have made it on the show). I think it was simply because it is more fascinating to watch a man who can actually sing.

Most girls I know can carry a tune with at least a moderate degree of musicality. And singing is sort of culturally seen as more of a feminine hobby. But when a man does it, I don’t know. Maybe it’s seen as being more serious? You know, compared to the countless other men who can not or will not sing publicly, to find one who will is seen as more of a novelty?

Anyways, that’s just my initial thought.

My theory on Pia is less sinister than boy-crazy tween girls: Terrible, horrible, song selection. Anything that wasn’t from the pages of Light 97.1 – Soft Rock for Your World’s playlist would have be fab.

I wanted to like Pia. I really, really did. She could actually sing, she was lovely to look at, she really had a charming family/backstory, all of the things you want from your winning AI contestant.

But then she chose songs better suited for the iPod of that one lady in the office who still loves Kenny G and is really into making sure the office plants get watered. And I’ve got to wonder if the kids/tweens/teens/anyone under 50 really got her.

(BTW- I apologize to you personally if you really love Celine Dion and have her and/or other power-pop ladysingers on heavy iPod rotation. Whatever makes your champagne pop, darling. You are clearly not that lady in my office. You are far awesomer than that.)

I agree that Pia’s style wasn’t that cool (and believe me, while I find Celine Dion wacky and fascinating, I don’t spend any time listening to her music). But there’s still the fact that only two of the top eight are now women and only one woman has made it to the finals in the past three years. Something’s up, I’m just not totally sure what it is.

Yeah, that was my theory on Pia alone. I can’t explain the dearth of women in the past few seasons.

But I do know I fall prey to it. The past two seasons, the list of ‘people who should get kicked off because they aren’t that great and shouldn’t still be here when shit gets serious’ always seems to include most of the women. Even though I actively WANT a woman to win.

Before I get to the glass ceiling issue, I must ask…

Why do we feel that we need to justify watching American Idol, or Dancing with the Stars, or So You Think You Can Dance, or that one show about a capella groups or whatever else.

Everyone does it. I do it. (I only watch AI because my 12 year-old sister does and it gives us something to talk about. That’s the only reason, I swear.)

But it’s fine that we watch these programs. They are not rotting our brains. I have learned so much about dance from DWTS and SYTYCD. And I mean that sincerely. Hell, I feel like I’ve learned a lot about the US, as a nation, from American Idol.

And yet, I apologize for watching. We all do.

SYTYCD is one of the greatest reality TV shows of all time. Of all time. :)

I will never apologize for loving it. Besides, Mia Michaels is a genius.

If a certain horrible person I once knew didn’t COMPLETELY LOVE American Idol, I could have gotten more into it. But I rejected it because of her and her insanity. Now that Paula’s gone, I just don’t think I’ll ever find my way back…

I agree. Out of all the talent shows, I think SYTYCD is one of the best in the field. Partly just because it stands out against all the singing shows and partly because they really seem to pick incredibly talented dancers who don’t seem to be there just because they’re cute or sell-able.

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