Anyone wondering if singing competitions will produce pop stars again, consider some recently observed behind-the-scenes activity.
"American Idol" executive producer Ken Warwick told the media assembled at the Winter Television Critics Association press tour that one competition this season on "American Idol" will be a trip back to "American Graffiti" and group singing.
On the red carpet at the finale of Fox's "The X Factor," L.A. Reid gushed wildly about winner Melanie Amaro and her potential to be a modern Mariah Carey and said, quite directly, that runner-up Josh Krajcik should make a blues-rock album.
And at a recent taping of a battle round in "The Voice," when the coaches select a song for two performers to sing in a boxing ring, back-to-back duels featured songs by Journey.
Taken collectively, TV competition shows are having a love affair with older musical styles rather than the contemporary music one hears on the radio. Could this be a key reason recent pop-oriented winners of "American Idol" and "The Voice" have struggled in sales?
Obviously, "old-fashioned" works in country music, as "Idol" season 10 winner Scotty McCreery is nearing 1 million in sales of his debut album and runner-up Lauren Alaina is at the quarter million mark with her debut. But no one who has ever been an "Idol" or "Voice" contestant is making making music that could fit alongside Rihanna, Bruno Mars or LMFAO.
Perhaps that will change in "Idol's" season 11, which begins Wednesday (Jan. 18) or on "The Voice's" second go-round, which begins after the Super Bowl on Feb. 5. "Idol" won't show any live rounds until March; "The Voice" will be going live around the same time but NBC has yet to release a full schedule.
This year will see "American Idol" and "X Factor" go head-to-head for the first time, with Fox's "Idol" a clear front-runner as it opens its second season with Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez as judges. Producers and judges have said the show will remain largely the same in the early-going and in the live rounds with changes occurring during group auditions that are designed to take singers out of their comfort zones.
"The Voice" has been less definite but more footage of the blind rounds when judges have their backs to singers are expected on air. What "The Voice" needs to do, after the underperformance of albums from last season's Javier Colon and Dia Frampton, is prove that it can do more for new talent than for the judges. "Moves Like Jagger," the Christina Aguilera- Maroon 5 number that premiered on the show, has sold 4.2 million copies, a shining example of how a TV show can rejuvenate a career. Jennifer Lopez went from musical laughing stock to prominent brand spokeswoman within a year of starting on "Idol."
The two shows are expected to be among the highest rated shows in all of TV. Last season "Idol" held the top spot for the year, averaging 26 million viewers per episode, and during "The Voice's" run the only program that rated higher was the NBA Finals.
It proves that America is thirsty for singers with good stories, underdogs, and music that connects with America's past. Season 10 of "Idol" featured a blues-rock singer, a gospel-R&B singer and a jazz guy. "The Voice's" final four was a little more varied but it was still a collection of throwbacks who echoed '70s singer-songwriters, blues rock and quirky soft alt-rock. Vicci Martinez, a fireball of a performer who could go to Vegas or else challenge Florence + the Machine, remains unsigned and yet seems the one that was hardest to define.
In show after show we see artists whose futures are easily predictable. It has felt like several season of buskers finishing in the top two of "Idol" and, not surprisingly, six of the last 10 top twos have been dropped from their album deals after a single release. Beyond Adam Lambert, they all seem outdated.
Which makes the one, lower-rated competition seem all the more relevant, "The Sing-Off" that NBC moved from post-Thanksgiving space filler to a full fall season. Pentatonix, a quintet assembled in the week preceding the auditions, managed to cover David Guetta, "Video Killed the Radio Star" and the cheesy "Eye of the Tiger" in the a cappella competition and they did so by sounding like a modern electro-pop band. Unique, fresh, compelling - Pentatonix had qualities that many of 2011's other competitors lacked.
Ultimately though, the music industry is stuck with the tastes of the TV audiences and that means safe, universal and, this year at least, country. We'll see if it repeats in 2012.