Music

'American Idol' Lowers Age Requirement; Industry Analysts Suspect Bieber Fever

Aaron Kelly

hide captionWee Aaron Kelly: Wouldn't this past American Idol season have been even more fun if he'd been 15?

Michael Becker/Fox

Big news, everybody! USA Today is reporting that American Idol is lowering the eligibility age to 15. That means that the contestant who gives you a toothache from the first grinning, overenthusiastic audition to the last teary, fake-inspirational fifth-place singout will now be a whole year younger. No, YOU calm down.

Idol has a long and illustrious history of responding to perceived problems by wildly overcorrecting in the wrong direction, from adding a fourth judge to abandoning the saccharine made-to-order coronation song in favor of an anticlimactic U2 cover. And certainly there was something wrong with this past season, which was such a dull, flat slog that many of us were happy when Lee DeWyze won, because at least that meant that it was finally over.

But lowering the age limit is, to some extent, the show declaring that the problem was that wee Aaron Kelly and overreaching Katie Stevens weren't the final two. Which, and I can't state this emphatically enough, it was not. At no point did I say to myself, "What this show needs is more ninth-graders."

It's not the first time that the eligibility age has been lowered. When Idol began, you could be safe in the assumption that all of the singers had completed high school (or at least as safe in that assumption as is possible when dealing with reality show contestants). By season three, competitors as young as 16 were allowed onto the playing field, giving us such immortal finalists as John Stevens, Jasmine Trias and Diana DeGarmo. If you don't remember them, just know that they were all 17 years old and (briefly) huge, huge television stars.

And sure, the show has wrung some medium-to-long-term successes out of the not-old-enough-to-vote set. DeGarmo has found success on Broadway. Season-six winner Jordin Sparks has scored a respectable handful of ubiquitous pop hits. David Archuleta continues to awkwardly gosh his way through the occasional arena full of fans.

Still, it's hard to know how the people behind Idol were able to look at the show's troubles and come to the conclusion that the solution is to push ever younger. Actually, it's probably not that hard at all. It can probably be laid at the feet of a single word: Biebs.

Okay, that's not a word. That's not even a name, technically. But Justin Bieber, who blew up big before his 16th birthday, is making too much money; if not for himself, then for somebody, anyway. And the Idol producers are exactly positioned to be those types of somebodies if they could just get a Bieber of their own. (This ignores the fact that, as a dirty stinkin' Canadian, he wouldn't be eligible for American Idol anyway.)

But even if we ignore the "Me, too!" mentality behind it (which is hardly new in the pop-music industry, or any entertainment industry, for that matter), Idol's sudden need to capitalize on the demographic that still needs Mom or Dad to drive them around ignores the simple truth that “talent” is not the same thing as “artistry.” This is a distinction made all the more important by the fact that Idol talks about contestants almost exclusively in terms of the latter word while rarely mentioning the former.

Someone can have a good voice and no idea what to do with it. That's the difference between knowing how to sing and knowing why. That “why” is something that usually comes from experience, both performance experience and life experience. Season eight's Allison Iraheta had a great, controlled, powerful rasp, but her version of Bonnie Raitt's “I Can't Make You Love Me” was nothing more than a hollow exercise. At 16, she couldn't begin to understand the issues at the core of what is at heart a deeply mature torch song, so she just went through the motions, hitting the notes and nailing the tone while missing the actual heartbreak.

Which may be the point, in a way. For a show where successful contestants have increasingly had many years of actual performance experience behind them, Idol may be looking to reinstate the old-fangled amateur-contest vibe back into the proceedings. If that means that 29-year-olds with years of woodshedding behind them will find themselves pitted against total rookies almost literally half their age, then so be it.

And if it means that the folks behind the show will get their hands on aspiring teen idols who are as moldable as clay and less set in their ways (both artistically and in what they're willing to give up in order to succeed in the industry) than contestants who view Idol as one avenue to success but not the only one, then so much the better.

For Idol, anyway, if not for the contestants or viewers.

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