Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Sing-Off Makes an American Idol Mistake

Last night on NBC's The Sing-Off, Judges Sara Bareilles and Doctor Ben Folds chose to send home Afro-Blue, a jazzy-blues a cappella group from Howard University. I experienced a moment of deja vu, and remembered a similar mistake made in another talent competition show, American Idol.

American Idol Sends Home a Star

In 2004, during the third season of FOX television’s American Idol, an amazingly talented singer who I felt could win the grand prize that year was voted off the show in the sixth round, halfway through the final competition. The decision was so shocking, we TV viewers at home could hear an audible gasp from the live, onstage audience. I was watching that night, and I remember my jaw dropped.

“This can’t be happening. How did this happen?” I asked.

In the case of American Idol Season III, the burden of determining who stays and who goes was placed solely on the shoulders of the TV viewing audience who voted for the contestants by placing multiple phone calls or texts. The judges did not decide themselves – their only power was in giving critiques of each performance, in hopes to sway the voting public at home.

That performer who was sent home prematurely, was none other than Jennifer Hudson. Hudson is now a household name, currently with a big commercial deal promoting Weight Watchers. She starred in the 2006 hit movie, Dream Girls, where she won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, a Golden Globe Award, a BAFTA Award, an NAACP Image Award and a Screen Actors Guild Award. She recorded a top ten hit with "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," from the movie Dream Girls; won a Grammy for her first album, “Jennifer Hudson,” released in 2008; reached number 2 on Billboard’s top 200 with her second album, “I Remember Me,” released earlier this year in March; and had a top ten hit with “Where You At,” the single from that album.

She is one of the more highly successful former American Idol competitors, and to think she was sent home so early at week six! It boggles the mind, until you look at the demographics.

Judging Based on Looks, Not Sound

Unfortunately, through the luck of the draw, there were three African American female stars competing against each other during the third season of American Idol: La Toya London, Jennifer Hudson, and the eventual grand prize winner, Fantasia Barrino. All three ended up in the bottom three that day after the viewing public voted in their favorites, who had each performed a Barry Manilow hit. The assumption is that, being similar in style and sound, the three shared many of the same fans, creating an unfair advantage for their competitors. There was only one Asian American in the mix, Jasmine Trias, and despite negative criticism from the judges early on, she proceeded to the final three spot in the competition. The token red headed cutey crooner, John Stevens, made it even one show farther than Hudson, though I think most of us at home were scratching our heads over that one. It was clear that race was the deciding factor with many of the voting public.

It isn’t just race. It’s looks. In more recent years of American Idol, I’ve seen contestants chosen by the judges who I feel had less talent than my little finger, but my oh my, they were gorgeous! The Voice, another of NBC’s singer competition shows, attempted to eliminate “looks” from the judges decision by not allowing the judges to see the performers during the first round. However, they proved themselves fallible by letting the judges turn around afterwards. I’ll never forget when Judge Blake Shelton took one look at a rejected female competitor (the name of whom escapes me, now), commented on her looks, and said something to the effect of, “I wish I’d known, I would have picked you.”

Although I don’t believe Afro-Blue was eliminated by the Sing-Off judges because their group consists of nearly all African Americans, I do wonder if Vocal Point, an all white male group from the conservative Brigham Young University, was eliminated for being too racially homogeneous. Instead, the bells-and-whistles-performance-heavy Dartmouth Aires group, consisting of 15 men of various races and character types was given one of the treasured three spots to compete in the finals. That decision also left me scratching my head. While the Dartmouth Aires will no doubt do quite well on tour, entertaining and amazing audiences, most likely opening for Ben Folds himself, I wonder how many records they’ll sell. Kids don’t buy records. Adults do. Kids pirate records. I would imagine that the more mature-polished sounding Vocal Point will outsell them two to one, and Afro-Blue will do even better, possibly outselling them four to one, by dominating the jazz-blues contemporary music market.

Are the Music Buying Public Being Underestimated?

Sing-Off Judges Sara Bareilles and Ben Folds chose Dartmouth Aires over Afro-Blue on last nights show. Judge Shawn Stockman said he felt Afro-Blue has a better chance of making a hit record, and I agree.

After the show aired, while the “shit hit the fan,” metaphorically speaking, Judge Ben Folds confessed that Afro-Blue was his favorite group from day one, and commending them, said in his blog on NBC’s Sing-Off website, “Afro-Blue stands for excellence in music education and for the great underdog American art form of jazz. Neither of these concepts often leads to lucrative ventures and both are under-represented on TV and radio.”

With all due respect, Dr. Folds, I disagree with your decision to eliminate them on many levels. Music tastes change with the times. Who is to say that Afro-Blue’s particular flavor of bluesy jazz is not the next big thing? I find their sound to be quite refreshing and inventive, with a contemporary sounding solid bass and percussive rhythm supporting a more traditional jazzy interweaving of opposing harmonies, and thick rich bluesy vocals carrying the main bell-like melody. Recent movies, such as the aforementioned Dream Girls and Cadillac Records both generated multiple awards and big record sales from similar music.

Today’s buying public are not getting their music fix on radio, nor TV. Listeners now listen to Spotify and Pandora over radio; view videos on youtube and facebook – not on TV (does MTV even have any music at all anymore?); and buy more music on CD Baby, itunes, and Amazon, than in those wonderfully old-fashioned record stores we love so much.

I think perhaps you are limiting yourself and underestimating a growing jazz-blues-appreciative audience, dear sir.

They say living well is the best revenge. I hope Afro-Blue, the little music-class-from-Howard-University-that-could, gets signed to a killer record deal, makes a hit record, gets a soundtrack deal, and follows in the footsteps of the fabulous Jennifer Hudson, winning a Grammy. I will be one of the first in line to buy their record, when they do!

Time to Vote!

You can vote for your favorite of the three groups by going online to the NBC Sing-Off website, calling or texting:

Call: 1-877-674-6401
Text: 1 to 97979

Urban Method:
Call: 1-877-674-6402
Text: 2 to 97979

Dartmouth Aires:
Call: 1-877-674-6403
Text: 3 to 97979


  1. Unlike last seasons Sing Off, where there were three legitimate contenders to win (Committed, Streetcorner Symphony and Backbeats) it seems that after about week 4, it was Pentatonix and everyone else. Afro-Blue will get a recording contract and tour with the other Sing Off groups this year. Should they have stayed instead of DA or UM? Sure, even though they had some wildly inconsistent performances. Ultimately, it has no effect on the final outcome - Pentatonix will win, and it won't be close.

  2. It seems odd doing a Post Mortem on AfroBlue,yet here we are.It was obvious from he start that AfroBlue was set on a CLEAR and FIRM trajectory toward winning...Ben & Sarah and to a lesser degree Shawn each BLUNTED the momemtum of the group by a smarmy & pernicious tactic...causing AB to lose their Musical Identity for several weeks running...thus allowing the WEAKER groups the time to IMPROVE and grow stronger and then using in a particularly slick and funky way AfroBlue's "Inconsistency" against them !!! They(AfroBlue) were offered as the "Sacrificial Lambs" upon the Alter of Expediency !!!Of course there will be no Consequences suffered by Ben OR Sarah...They will be allowed to continue as if "Nothing Happened" !!! Too Bad...I was beginning to like..even TRUST what the judges said...Now I only feel Contempt for them,and as far as I'm concerned...they have DeLegitimised themselves as gatekeepers of the proud great tradition of A cappella music


What's your opinion?