It's nearly May, and just as sure as spring, "American Idol" has entered crisis mode.
We've seen this arc before: gifted singers voted off too soon, nerves and exhaustion affecting the rest. But this year, the show also seems to be suffering from the very fixes that only recently proved so promising. The energy-drink jolt that new judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler provided has begun to fade.
Although ratings remain good, "Idol" pundits all across the Internet have panned the judges' table as too Splenda sweet. This week, they went out of their way to take the hopefuls down a notch, but their efforts seemed forced, like they got the memo and were aiming for the bare minimum.
Meanwhile, a kind of anarchy has emerged among the surviving "Idol" strivers. Each follows a separate drumbeat, and right now, seems a little lost.
Musical diversity is what's interesting about this group. Although still strangely lacking in what actually sells in pop now -- multifaceted divas and collabo-savvy rappers -- "Idol's" top slate represents the strong middle of niche-defined American music. Variety is the soul of today's music, and "Idol" is finally reflecting that.
But why isn't this variety producing healthy tension? That's what the judges should focus on. If "Idol" voters want a battle of the niches, they'll favor champs gutsy enough to really duke it out. Instead, the surviving Idols keep failing their chosen genres in subtle but devastating ways.
Risk is a complicated subject for would-be Idols: just enough will make you memorable, but too much will send you into the bottom three. Yet real success in any pop niche now is grounded in gambles. "Idol" graduates like Adam Lambert and chart-toppers like Adele succeed by immersing in a particular musical tradition, and then pushing it forward by the force of a strong voice and personality.
That's not happening on "Idol" right now. Whether flailing, courting boredom or getting things pretty much right, these Idols still tend to refuse the ultimate dare. They stand up for the music they love -- but they need to dive in.
So let's take 'em down, one by one. What would be the best mean thing the "Idol" judges could say to each remaining contestant? It all comes down to taking chances.
It's easy to start with James Durbin because the rules of the subculture he cultivates are so clear. Dude loves metal; he dresses and screeches metal; he even rebutted Jimmy Iovine's advice recently, to sing a song called "Heavy Metal." Yet despite (or maybe compensating for) the Tourette and Asperger's syndromes that render him a little strange on camera, Durbin projects no real menace. He's kind of adorable! Rob Halford and W. Axl Rose were never that. Durbin needs to sharpen the spikes on his armbands.
My favorite singer this year faces a similar problem. Jacob Lusk wails circles around his competitors, and this is a strong bunch. But the devoutly Christian soul baby keeps fighting his own sinful side. He refused to perform Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On"; he busts diva moves while fighting back the implications of his androgyny. Lusk's direct forebears -- Gaye, Luther Vandross, Aretha Franklin -- made meaning from the struggle between spirit and flesh. He must confront that.
Repression also afflicts good young boy Scotty McCreery -- who, as a triple threat heartthrob-Southerner-Christian, still might take it all. His George Strait homages bear-hug Nashville traditions, but (at the risk of making Scotty blush) he's not promiscuous enough. Whether virgin-ish like Taylor Swift or booty-calling like Lady Antebellum, young country stars love to get jiggy with other genres, blending rock, pop, even hip-hop into their sounds. McCreery's post-"Idol" career may disappoint unless he jumps the fence.
McCreery's Southern cousin Lauren Alaina has the opposite problem. She's a little bit country, a little bit Disney, a little bit adult contemporary and a lot boring. Yes, she's young, but so is Rebecca Black -- and that pitch-challenged YouTube star delivered much more attitude in her much-derided "Friday" than Alaina has mustered all season. This kid needs to decide who she is, if only for now.
This leaves Casey Abrams and Haley Reinhart, two peas in an oddly shaped pod. The rumored couple both play around with vintage sounds -- Reinhart better grasps the nuances of classic blues, but Abrams has that big stand-up bass as a weapon. Both rose to the challenge of going more mainstream this week. But these youngsters have old (or at least baby-boomer age) souls.
The truth, in fact, is that both are closet ... hippies. The jam band scene, which has quietly evolved into the most eclectic corner of American rock, is where they belong. They should give up on their Michael Buble and Diana Krall ambitions and take some lessons from Crystal Bowersox, who's having a nice, Internet-fueled post-"Idol" career.
So there you have it -- real criticism to fire up the end of "Idol" season. Vote with your teeth bared, America. Make those nice kids sweat.
Powers, formerly music critic for the Times, is a special correspondent.