'American Idol' Singers Who Play Guitar Have an Unfair Advantage, But There's a Bigger Problem

Despite the fact that two of this year's judges have served on the American Idol panel before, things are already looking significantly different this Season 13. And it's no wonder: Longtime executive producer Nigel Lythgoe is out, and Swedish Idol's Per Blankens is in. And, it seems, with his first season on the Fox reality juggernaut, Blankens is creating a show as put together as an IKEA Billy Bookcase. Because not only did Wednesday night's Idol premiere showcase more talent than previous premieres, but it did boast one new rule that's unfamiliar to Idol fans: Auditions are no longer required to be performed a cappella. 

There's little doubt the rule sucks in audiences more than a pair of Harry Connick Jr., baby blues. After all, Idol fans have always favored instruments in years' past. It's why, since instruments were first allowed in Season 7 post-audition, attractive guitar-strumming men have won confetti showers every season. (In fact, the wins were numerous enough to make you wonder whether Season 12 purposely favored finalists with bombastic voices over double threats.) But, watching Season 13's premiere, it was easy to identify with Malcolm Allen, a talented young singer who air strummed his way into a golden ticket, recognizing that his lack of guitar skills was a disadvantage. The new Idol rule is entertaining... but is it fair?

On the one hand, it does give judges and audiences a view of what each contestant will bring to the table come semifinals. If we're going to be treated to interesting, stripped-down versions of Katy Perry's "Roar" — which Keith London delivered during his audition Wednesday — isn't it better off that we hear them in the audition room, rather than giving a contestant little choice but to tackle a more a cappella-friendly version of, say, Edwin McCain's "I'll Be"? And, had we been able to hear contestants with accompaniment in previous seasons, we likely would have hopped on board acts like Season 7's Josiah Leming, who failed to attract fans during his awkward audition, but connected with detractors during his piano-backed solo during Hollywood Week. 

But, of course, an instrument provides many unfair advantages for those who have been trained in guitar or another form of accompaniment. Not only does it allow an Idol auditioner to stay on pitch, dawg, but it can also distract from an otherwise average voice. See the first singer of Wednesday's premiere, Marielle Sellars, who performed "Grenade" with passion, but with a voice no better than jazz singer Taylor Hildack, who failed to get put through.  

That said, a good singer is a good singer. If you deliver a good audition, and manage to connect with Connick, Jennifer Lopez, and Keith Urban, does it matter whether you enter the room with a guitar, a bassoon, a kazoo, or nothing at all? Likely not. But the biggest problem with this very different season is it seems to be leading to a very familiar future. Sam Woolf, Ethan Thompson, Savion Wright, London — all frontrunners out of Season 13's premiere; all cute boys with guitars. Season 12 might have given us a refreshing break from their streak — awarding the very deserving, but thus far commercially unsuccessful Glover — but Wednesday night's premiere made it clear we're back in territory as familiar as Ryan Seacrest's flat-ironed locks. With Blankens on board, we might not know exactly what the road to Season 13's finale might look like, but we can guess what its final moments will look like.

 Images: Michael Becker/FOX

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