American Idol: Enough with the White Guys with Guitars!

For the last three years in a row, American Idol has been won by a WGWG (White Guy With Guitar). Last week, the remaining two women of color were eliminated, leaving us with three white women, one black man, and five white guys with guitars (and a bass and a keyboard). I don’t like to tally people by their ethnicity or their musical instruments, but it’s really hard not to when you watch this show for years and see patterns emerge.

The first two people eliminated this season were both women of color: Karen Rodriguez and Ashton Jones. Karen, hoping to carve out a niche as the next Selena or Jennifer Lopez, sang in both English and Spanish. Ashton was declared early on the season’s “diva” (read: black woman) and was compared to Diana Ross. She was brought back as a judge’s wildcard pick, only to be eliminated once again.

Of course, as Idol frequently reminds us, “America votes.” But here’s the weird thing: America is not putting its money where its votes are. Lee DeWyze, the latest WGWG to win, is the lowest-selling Idol ever. Not only that, but he’s been beaten by runners-up Clay Aiken and Adam Lambert, not to mention Chris Daughtry (4th place), Kellie Pickler (6th) and Jennifer Hudson (Oscar winner and 7th place). Both Fantasia Barrino and the sole other woman-of-color winner, Jordin Sparks, outsold Lee last year, too. In fact, the sales of WGWGs have steadily declined over the last three seasons. Money doesn’t lie. So who’s really voting, and why?

I’m not suggesting the producers meddle with the votes (necessarily.) But consider: Do the WGWG get better treatment from the producers? Are they featured more prominently in the show, do they get better comments from the judges, are they given some kind of edge?

Lee, Kris and David usually got the prime slot–the last performance. Seacrest would hype them; Simon would hype them. On the show, these WGWG were encouraged to ask for whatever they wanted, which is why Lee gave a ludicrous performance with a bagpiper and was praised for his “innovation” and “daring.” Simon praised Lee week after week for mediocre singing, then probably watched in horror as his album tanked. Here’s my theory: The Idol trend swung from female power singers to easygoing guitar playing types and the producers overestimated their post-Idol success.

This season, when Casey Abrams–Seth Rogan-lite–received the lowest votes one night, the judges “saved” him from elimination. The judges get one save per season, and they used it on the bearded dude who had Adam Sandlered his way through “Smells Like Teen Spirit” the week before.

I guess here is where I should admit that I might have a little crush on Paul McDonald, one of this season’s WGWGs. McDonald is tall, skinny, scruffy and sings like a cross between Rod Stewart and every lead singer who has played Echo Park within the last five years. In short, he probably annoys three-quarters of viewers, and yet he’s still on the show and has over 47,000 Twitter followers.

If a woman tried to get away with Paul’s quirky style of singing (raspy voice, quirky dancing, general hipster-ness) she would be sent home immediately. And she was. Lilly Scott, a contestant last year, was all of that and didn’t even make it to the top 12. “I don’t know what America wants,” she said, frustrated, when Ryan told her she didn’t get enough votes.

The recently voted-off Naima Adedapo was one of the more interesting contestants Idol has had lately. And by interesting, I mean not white. For American Idol, land of Carrie Underwoods and Taylor Hicks-es, she practically caused culture shock. She incorporated African dance into her performance of “Dancing In The Streets,” which caused Steven Tyler to say “I love your ethnic what-it-is-ness” and then kind of trail off. On Wednesday night, she turned Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” into a reggae anthem, complete with an out-of-nowhere Jamaican accent. It sent her home. Now, to be fair, Naima’s voice did have some pitch problems. But so does nearly every single guy on the show, with the exception of the token country guy (Scotty), whose smirks and head-tilts are eerily reminiscent of a younger George W. Bush.

Sure, Idol is not The Most Important Thing Ever In America. But it is the most-watched TV program and major music producers work behind it, so you may not even realize that a lot of crap pop you hear on the radio–which, don’t get me wrong, I dig pop music, no shame–comes from American Idol.

So why are the shows’ producers pushing WGWGs down our throats? And for that matter, why aren’t they giving us a more diverse group to begin with? What gives?

Image from Flickr user BestWDW under Creative Commons 3.0


  1. elizmc09 says:

    "She was brought back as a judge’s wildcard pick, only to be eliminated once again on Thursday–ironically, the same night that Fantasia Barrino, one of two black women ever to win American Idol, returned to the show to sing her new song, “Collard Greens and Cornbread.”"

    This is inaccurate. This didn't happen on the same day.

  2. elizmc09 says:

    Okay. I get your point about diversity on Idol. I agree that it sucks that only white guys have been doing well in most recent years on the show but I don't think you actually watch this show much. You insinuate that the show/producers/judges are giving these contestants unwarranted advantages and I disagree. I think any hardcore idol fan could tell you that Kris and Lee were definitely NOT pimped contestants. It sucks that America doesn't vote for the contestants who represent minorities but they are not being voted off by means of the producers. Well, not directly anyway. If the producers chose to put strong, real contenders of color in the competition then perhaps they could win. However, they put people like Ashthon in who had the weakest vocal on wildcard night and got a spot anyway. They pick people to put in live shows who will bring diversity but then will be promptly eliminated in order to ensure the success of a particular contestant (ie Lauren A.). Also, any critique the WGWGs get that isn't deserved, I would argue is simply a result of vague overpraising comments from the panel in general. Sorry this comment is long, rant over.

  3. Jamila Bey says:

    Preach on, sister!

  4. Raiford Anissa says:

    that's a little backwards, Ashton was eliminated a while back. Naima and Thea were eliminated the night Fantasia sang that horrible cornbread song. Jennifer Hudson was on the night Rodriguez was eliminated. But no doubt, the cut of four minority women in a row is hard to ignore or appreciate. and the 'collard greens' song is almost as lame as the 'where you at song.' Too Bad for America.

  5. SUCH a great point. America's vote can be reflective of the Idol viewers who use it, but there's still tons of room for manipulation from the show's producers. I'd be interested to know exactly who has a stake in what, because frankly we have more than enough WGWGs already and I kind of wish most of them would go away.

  6. I guess it has to do with the fact that the peoplke who power-vote don't end up spending money on the idols later on. And the people who power-vote are mostly teenage girls, maybe?

  7. This article is one of the most blatantly racist things that I have ever read.

  8. "Lee, Kris and David usually got the prime slot–the last performance. " Memory can be a funny thing. If you check their actual performance slots, you will find that they did not usually get the prime spot. I went back and checked the history and here were the actual performance orders.

    David Cook (6 of 12, 6 of 11, 10 of 10, 2 of 9, 5 of 8) – He got the prime spot for Billie Jean on Top 10 night.
    Kris Allen (6 of 13, 3 of 11, 2 of 10, 9 of 9, 2 of 8) – He got the prime spot on Top 9 with Ain't No Sunshine.

    I didn't check Lee but I bet if someone checked his performance slots they would find something similar.

  9. Sandlynn says:

    I don't think the AI producers are shoving WGWGs down our throats. In fact, they've been quite nasty about them lately, almost disowning their last few winners and cutting back on how often instruments can be used this current season. Leaving that aside, where was MS when, after four years of AI, the winners were three women (one an African American) and one male, also African American? No white guy to be found! How "unfair!" Then, the next two seasons, saw an additional African American female winner and one white guy … sans guitar. The first "WGWG" winner was David Cook of Season 7, and who would say he didn't deserve his win? He was not pushed by the producers. In fact, he was hidden in the back of group performances in the beginning, probably because he wasn't considered conventionally handsome and Simon called him arrogant and smug. He had to work his way up to the win with some stellar performances, like Hello and Billie Jean. The next season, Kris Allen was constantly overlooked as the producers and judges shouted Super Star(!) every time Adam Lambert uttered a note. Allen definitely overcame a lot of producer indifference. Season 9 was altogether a disaster because the producers loaded the season with artists who were too similar in style. Except for Crystal Bowersox, they were all pretty boring. So, I'd say that's the one season when you might have a point. But please, let's not group Cook — who after all has an album that sold over 1.3 million — Allen, and Dewyze in a pile and call them all the same. How's that any better than the accusation that the audience and producers are lumping all women of color together and dismissing them?

  10. I got to say, I this is racist. I think the producers skew stuff – look at all the "cute" girls with terrible voices over the years. But, I like this year's crop of folks with the exception of your personal fave who looks like a dried apricot straight out of a Florida retirement community. Casey Abrams brings a sound very different from your personal fave. Mr. Gay Gospel is a hell of a lot different from any black male past contestants. When you're talking genre, I'm w/ you. Lee DeWyze, Kris etc. – boring music. But when you're suggesting Idol is anti-white or anti-female, I'm not with you at all.


    Hey, the remaining contestants are the best singers. This isn't an equality contest, it is a singing contest. Please focus in everybody! Do your really really think that America is making the wrong choices per singing quality? This year, I think the votes are truly reflecting quality of voices. There are some amazing voices in the top 9 – male and female – true Diva stuff.

  12. Geeez. This sort of commentary–an all too familiar site here–just degrades and devalues Ms. Magazine. How can you take seriously other discussions of real injustice when this sort of tripe is published. When everything is (fill in the blank with your personal favorite social injustice), nothing is (fill in the blank….).

  13. All this article is doing is fueling the fire for racism. An article insinuating American Idol is racist!!!! ABSURD!! This IS why we have so much racism in our country. Someone is always using the race card as a weapon. The wedge gets driven in deeper and deeper until the split causes a divide to nullify any progress between the races. We aren’t moving forward in equality we are moving backwards.

  14. Yet the WGWG streak has not ended… Such a sad reality…

  15. And guess who just won American Idol this year? Another white guy with a guitar – Philip Phillips. Haha, American Idol’s starting to become a joke.

  16. I’m a white guy with a guitar and I also play 12 other instruments and sing so I guess white guys with guitars our obviously talented for some reason if someone posted something saying I’m tired of black girls all singing the same someone would get pissed and call it racist and get really mad and it wouldn’t be acceptable just saying

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