What in the Daughtry just happened?
I go out of town just once during the entire run of American Idol Season 10 and what do I miss? Oh, just the most interesting, electrifying and, yes, talented contestant of the remaining four is sent packing. No, not for a triumphant hometown parade as one of the Top 3 finalists. Packing as in he's back to doing his own laundry. What in the what??
In a typical post mortem, you look at every organ, every bodily system to see what failed. Every so often, the medical examiner will determine that there is no clear cause of death and that might seem like the case here. James Durbin was well-liked by fans, adored by the judges, treated well by the mentors and producers, had a great backstory and, oh, yeah, he could sing. But dead he is, at least as far as American Idol is concerned, and so I will explain as best as I can my theory behind his sudden seemingly unexpected demise.
Patient: Durbin, James
Cause of AI Death: Premature coronation combined with excessive, undeserved praise. Secondary factors, judges' backlash and inconsistent later performances.
James was a 22 year old white male without a guitar, typically not someone who would survive to the end of American Idol. Thought he can play, for some unknown reason he did not wield the axe often enough to remind the voters that he fit the criteria for an AI winner. Indeed, for the past three years, only a WGWG has made it to the end of the show. His failure to remind viewers that he filled that stereotype was not helpful, but was not a major cause of his demise.
James started out strong, with some surprisingly vibrant, touching, and emotional performances. But in the last two weeks, he showes signs of strain. His vocals, especially on the 30 Seconds to Mars song during top 5 week, were shaky, off-key, and erratic. He bounced back to some extent during his next song, but was overcome with unexpectedly strong emotions which detracted from the vocals. In the previous few months, he almost never showed any tendency towards being "pitchy" or being anything but in full command of a strong, pure voice.
Some have noted his reliance on screaming and going for the big notes, but that had not shown any signs of injuring him in the past. They were usually intermittent and had not lasting negative effects -- save for infuriating the Glambert obsessives who declared that there shall be no screamer but Adam and sent their negative mojo to work on James.
No, James appeared robust and able to make it to the end of the competition where he was expected to falter Adam Lambert-style when faced with the overpowering force of a cross-wearing, gramma-loving, God-and-country-singing, Southern-living, country-twanger. So what killed James Durbin?
The last two weeks, he was overcome with sure-thingitis. He believed he was invincible, a lock to make it to the end. So he stopped worrying about this vocals, stopped taking care that his performances please the audience first (and not just himself). He went from obscure songs to overdone ones and ignored the fact that each week you have to give the home audience -- and not just your diehard fans -- a reason to support you. His overconfidence mixed with inconsistent vocals and damaging song choices proved a fatal combination in the end.
While I would not suggest opening a criminal investigation into this matter, I would add that James' demise was not without some questionable circumstances. Fans of a certain Madam have been supporting Haley Reinhart quite heavily these past few weeks and have been opposed to James taking the place of their dear Adam as the most successful American Idol shrieker. I wonder whether and to what extent their dislike of James contributed to his early exit.
Footnote: I should add that I was and still am a fan of James, but even I wrote less-than-stellar reviews of his last two weeks of performances. I did not for a second believe he was vulnerable as I couldn't, and, frankly, still can't figure out who it is who is voting for Haley. But I was disappointed with what I thought were subpar performances. So while his exit was shocking at the time, in retrospect all the signs were there.
But, really, who is voting for Haley?