Opinion: What ‘American Idol’ Judges Won’t Tell HunterGirl
If you played a drinking game where you took a drink every time an American Idol judge was critical, you'd drive home sober. Country music's most promising singers could use a little criticism, even if it's just the constructive kind.
HunterGirl (real name Hunter Wolkonowski) stands out from the pack on Season 20 of American Idol. Her performances on the show's YouTube page are among the leaders in terms of views, ahead of other country performers like Dan Marshall. A poll at MJ's Big Blog finds her third among all competitors in terms of favorite performances. Yes, these are very unofficial metrics, but along with Luke Bryan, Katy Perry and Lionel Richie's early praise, they're promising.
Perry did offer one critique after HunterGirl's performance of "Banjo." The pop singer said she thought the hopeful had missed a few notes, but she hedged, noticing that the Winchester, Tenn., native did not have her guitar to support her.
On Sunday night (April 17), all three judges tripped over one another to compliment not just HunterGirl, but all remaining finalists. You can see why — skip to the 2:22 mark of Tristen Gressett's "energetic" performance for an example:
"It's not that your vocals were bad," judge Luke Bryan begins to say. That's all he gets to say, because the audience booed like he'd just delivered a Simon Cowell-esque critique. And it's here where the "get off my lawn," OG American Idol viewers can complain about how the tone had changed over the last five seasons. Go ahead, get it out. You're not wrong.
Right now, country music would benefit from a ready-made star. That's what Carrie Underwood was in 2005 and it could happen again. Reality television isn't as influential as it once was, sure, but so many stars leave the show ill-prepared for what's next. They're awkward on stage or during in-person interviews. There's no business sense to bolster the art in meaningful ways. Or, they're just too young! Look at Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina as two more recent examples. Gabby Barrett may have beaten the trend, but she's an exception. Despite the perception that artists on country radio are younger than ever (not true, but that's another topic), you'll still find more hitmakers north of 30 than you will south of 20.
23-year-old HunterGirl's resume is unique for her business degree from Middle Tennessee State University and the hours she's put in inside Nashville's Lower Broadway honky-tonks. "Heartbreak Down" is the original song she sang on Sunday night. That track can be found on her One Day EP, released earlier this year, when she knew she'd be going places on ABC television. That's a savvy move from someone who understands the difference between labor and emotional labor. Here's another from that project. It's called "Houdini."
Two things will hold her back, however: The first is song selection. An original at this point in the competition is a calculated risk that should pay off later, but back-to-back Rascal Flatts songs as an introduction leave viewers wanting more. They fit her, but neither song is memorable on its own. When was the last time you heard either "Riot" or "Banjo" on the radio? HunterGirl will need to put her stamp on an iconic song to get beyond the Top 5, because voters vote for the song as much as they do the performance.
The other thing holding her back is a name that no country radio deejay wants to commit to saying (beyond the context of reality television). HunterGirl is her "goes by," but it's an AOL Instant Messenger handle at best. In country, real matters, so artists need real names, even if they're fake real names. Eric Church (real name: Kenneth Eric Church) is a great example. He "goes by" Chief, but would never require the industry to call him that. It'd be pretentious.
Wolkonowski is a mouthful, but surely she has a middle name or meaningful family name to fall back on as a stage name? Choosing one now would be a smart mid-show pivot that will pay off longterm. It has happened before. Who remembers voting for Scott McCreery in 2011?
Nobody does, because he became the lovable "Scotty" McCreery after he auditioned.