The word is that American Idol is going to cease production so I imagine I will not be the only one writing about this in the coming days and weeks.
American Idol has become something of a punching bag for ‘serious’ musicians and ‘serious’ music fans. There is some merit to the assessment that it is a misguided shortcut to success in the music business. There is also much proof that disputes this shortcut and that American Idol and its imitators haven’t done all that well in creating stars. With the obvious exceptions.
When the first season aired, I, like many North Americans, was glued to my set. The idea of an amateur singing contest where the prize was a recording contract, to me, is a fantastic idea for a TV show. Season one was a bunch of kids who ran their local karaoke nights or sang in the shower or a bit in their home town bar getting a chance to see if they actually had real talent.
The show’s judges were amazing archetypes. Randy, your uncle, the legit musician, Paula, the supportive mother hen, and Simon, the hard driving, sometimes cruel Dad who showed you how unforgiving the real world was. But when you did a good job, he’d say so and it was the sweetest feeling. Simon was also British which ushered in a new idea of the British on television as sociopaths who insult and ridicule people and generally act like boors. Witness the Hell’s Kitchen dude among others. For the majority of the show’s audience, these judges were unknown, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson’s best years were behind them. So it all started out pretty small.
When Kelly Clarkson beat out Justin What’s His Name, (the fact that I can’t remember his last name is part of the point of this piece), it was an incredible moment. The fact that the best singer who ever came out of the show was part of this first season is also very significant in my opinion.
Why? Because after the first few seasons, it stopped being an amateur singing contest and turned into something more sinister. In those initial seasons, no one really understood the possibilities of the show. Idol couldn’t get clearance from publishers for almost any songs and the kids were generally forced to sing old standards. Later on, when Kelly Clarkson actually became a star and AI became a ratings blockbuster, two things happened. Every singer or wannabe singer in America without a record deal saw this as their shot at fame. And the record companies and publishers saw it as great publicity for their artists and song catalogs. They started climbing all over the Idol producers to have their songs sung and their artists appear on the show as special guests. So around season 4, the show lost its innocence. It was a bunch of professional singers looking for an easy way to become a star instead of working their ass off for years until they were finally good enough to get someone to notice them. The show became part of the music business machine. Eventually the original judges were replaced which killed the show’s chemistry.
So there are two aspects to American Idol that should be addressed. One is that it was a TV show. As a show, it was pretty great at least before they wore out the formula. A music show where kids competed against other kids in a singing contest that was ultimately judged by the viewing audience made for compelling television. One of the big attractions of the show were the auditions. Here the TV audience would get a look behind the scenes at how the finalists were chosen. The producers would air the good, the bad and the ugly. The really great singers who would be, “going to Hollywood,” the show’s catch phrase for contestants who were moving on in the contest, the really bad singers who would essentially be made fools of by both themselves and the judges and the just plain weirdos who saw the auditions as a showcase for their performance art, comedy or delusions. There was something very cruel about this process as the cameras followed contestants crying or cursing, who had their dreams smashed when they were dismissed by the judges.
That brings us to the second part of AI, the show as star maker. At this, Idol was remarkably unsuccessful considering there were 14 seasons worth of singers. One might think that, having the exposure of a massive international audience would be a surefire route to fame and fortune. I can’t remember how many finalists were in the actual show each year, 12? 20? But the list of singers who have had meaningful careers or anything resembling a hit single or album is embarrassingly short. I always felt the show was selling a lie, that you could be made into a star overnight. I think that Idol had an overall negative effect on peoples’ perception of what it takes to be a professional singer.
Because the reality is, very few people get to be stars and stars are not made, they are born. It didn’t help that the songs the winners were given to sing as their first single were uniformly awful. One exception was Phillip Phillips song Home, which was an incredibly sophisticated choice of song that was actually a hit in waiting. So he turned out to be much luckier than the majority of Idol winners. I think many of the finalists were able to use their five minutes of fame to generate some local, home town interest in themselves, some made records but most faded from public view once the next season of AI revved up. A couple of the smarter ones, Jennifer Hudson and Katharine Mcphee went on to act, which seems perfectly logical as they were already TV stars. Sadly, most of the contestants, like Justin What’s His Name, faded into obscurity with only a great tale to tell their grandkids.
One might think the show could go on forever. There seems to be an inexhaustible supply of American kids who want to be stars, like the exponentially growing raccoon population of Toronto. But ratings have fallen over the past several seasons, apparently Coke, who must have been their biggest sponsor judging from all the product placement, bailed on the show so, like all good things, it is coming to an end. This will be bad news for those who think kids who tough it out in dive bars, clubs, local state fairs etc. honing their craft and building an audience are suckers. But despite the protestations of millions of Idol haters, that still seems to be the path to success for the majority of people in show business. People may believe something different, but the statistics speak for themselves.
At least a few Idol winners had some play, most of the copy cat shows don’t appear to have made a single person meaningfully famous. Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and Jennifer Hudson are legitimate superstars. But that it was so easy to name them says it all. In the end, it was a good TV show and Fox made a bundle and it probably helped finance Family Guy so I’ll choose to see it like that.