Saturday, May 16, 2015

The End of Idol

This is being treated like a big deal and deservedly so.  "American Idol" is arguably the most successful show in the history of television.  It was #1 in the ratings for seven straight years, a record.  It won in its timeslot for over five consecutive years, a streak that was finally broken by a nightly broadcast of the 2010 Winter Olympics.  It wouldn't be knocked out of the catbird seat in its time slot by a regularly scheduled show until "Big Bang Theory" managed the feat the year after.  No other reality show can come close to this record of success, and few scripted shows can come close in terms of viewership and cultural impact.

And that's just the purely TV aspect of it.  "Idol" launched probably two dozen genuinely notable music careers (and Jennifer Hudson's Oscar-winning acting career).  Not "notable" as in, one or two minor radio hits either, but actual superstardom by anyone's definition.  Carrie Underwood and Chris Daughtry were the biggest selling album artists in all of music in separate calendar years.

Maura Johnston summarized the show's triumphs and its slow decline for The Concourse, and I don't think anyone would disagree that the seeds for its demise were set by the trend of boring white guys with guitars winning over several deserving women and more maverick male talents.  Tween girls were drawn to the cute hearthrobs who had charisma but couldn't really sing, the teens and twentysomethings supported the oddballs (or voted for The Worst), and the housewives swooned for the boring white dudes. But like in any election, political or otherwise, approval ratings break that false equivalency.  White guys with guitars drew some measure of support from across the age spectrum, but the oddballs could only garner votes from their key demographic, anyone in the younger or older demo didn't really understand them at all.  That's why Lee DeWyze and Kris Allen could fly under the radar under the very end of the season and then crush the competition once it was down to the final three.

Maura repeats the tired meme that Season Five's Taylor Hicks helped to break the show because his style was so out of sync with contemporary pop music.  Season Five was the highest rated in the show's history.  The top six was arguably the most talented final group they ever had.  If Hicks was killing the show, there sure were a lot of people happily tuning in to watch him kill it.  That's precisely the point that I found missing in most analyses -- what makes for good TV isn't the same as what is marketable in terms of music sales.  Taylor Hicks was enormously entertaining and led a great cast of finalist, half of whom went on to rack up impressive album sales on their own.  For different reasons, people tuned in to Season Six to watch Sanjaya Malakar survive until the top seven, and to see Jordin Sparks and Blake Lewis (the most polar opposite final pairing that AI ever had) fight for the crown.  It was AI's second most successful season in terms of viewership, so Taylor Hicks' supposed destruction of the show must have been a very slow kill indeed.  

The relationship between the voting results and contemporary pop music trends was always complex. For every Kelly Clarkson or Jordin Sparks, i.e. singers in the right time and place to merge smoothly into the pop landscape, there were five other R&B divas who were desperately pushed into the spotlight by AI judges and producers only to get rejected by the voters.  Clay Aiken fit nobody's mold of a contemporary pop star when he auditioned, but until Kelly Clarkson's re-breakthrough album "Breakaway", he was the biggest selling AI alumni in the then five-year history of the program. Blake Lewis nearly won Season Six years before EDM became a thing. Plenty of other contestants were praised for their uniqueness and never caught on with voters.  

Like many others, I'll be tempted to watch the final season after basically giving up circa Season 10.

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