I'm sure that Jimmy Iovine tried to be fair and even-handed in selecting songs for the top three contestants on American Idol, but his choice for Joshua Ledet, the Mary J. Blige hit "No More Drama," put Ledet at a disadvantage. It's not that "No More Drama" isn't a great song. It's that it's not as well-known to a broad TV audience as the songs that Iovine chose for the other two contestants.
"I'll Be There," which Iovine selected for Jessica Sanchez, has been a #1 hit twice, for the Jackson 5 in 1970 and Mariah Carey in 1992. "We've Got Tonite," which he chose for Phillip Phillips, has been a top 15 hit twice, for Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band in 1979 (#13) and for Kenny Rogers & Sheena Easton in 1983 (#6). (That duet recording was also a #1 country hit.) By contrast, "No More Drama" has been a hit just once, for Blige in 2002. (It reached #15.) "No More Drama" is a signature song for Blige, but these other songs, by virtue of the covers they've received, are contemporary standards. If there was a modern-day "Great American Songbook," they'd be in it.
In his comments on last night's show, Iovine fretted that "No More Drama" may not have had a strong enough melody to allow Ledet to shine. As I've indicated, I think the bigger problem with the song is that it's not as familiar to the vast TV audience (which includes many people who are just casual music fans) as these other songs.
The judges' song choices also worked to Ledet's disadvantage. Randy Jackson chose the Etta James song "I'd Rather Go Blind" for Ledet. James' recording, which was the B side of her 1967 hit "Tell Mama," is regarded as a blues classic, but it didn't crack the pop or R&B charts in its own right. Musicologists (like Jackson) know B sides and album cuts. The public knows the hits.
Jennifer Lopez chose the Mariah Carey hit "My All" for Sanchez. The song hit #1 in 1998.
Steven Tyler chose "Beggin'," which was first a hit for the 4 Seasons in 1967 (#16) and was revived by the Norwegian electro-pop duo Madcon in 2009 (#79).
I'd say that Sanchez was luckiest in this round, because she was assigned a song that the largest number of viewers knew.
In the remaining round, the contestants chose their own songs. Here Ledet and Sanchez made smarter choices than Phillips. Ledet chose John Lennon's "Imagine," one of the most famous songs of the modern pop era. Lennon's version hit #3 in 1971. The song has been brought back to the chart several times, including versions by Jack Johnson, Idol's David Archuleta and the cast of Glee.
Sanchez chose Aerosmith's #1 smash "I Don't Want To Miss A Thing" from 1998's chart-topping Armageddon soundtrack. Mark Chesnutt's cover version that same year was a #1 country hit. Idol's David Cook sang the song en route to his victory in 2008.
Phillips inexplicably chose Matchbox Twenty's "Disease," which peaked at #29 in 2002. A song that stalls at #29 is barely a hit. A song that stalled at #29 10 years ago is not a song you choose to perform at such a critical point in a competition.
I'm not pretending that America is up on the chart numbers. They aren't. But they're more apt to know a song that was a big hit than a song that was just a so-so hit. And they're more apt to know a song that was a hit multiple times, and in multiple formats, than a song that wasn't. The exact numbers don't matter, but these principles do.
In next week's final round, Phillips and Sanchez will each sing one song of their own choosing, one song chosen by Iovine and one song chosen by Idol creator Simon Fuller.
It's interesting how much other people's choices can affect a competition. Did Iovine unknowingly, inadvertently, affect who would make it to the final round? I think so. What do you think?