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