American Idol finalists Phillip Phillips and Jessica Sanchez on stage with host Ryan Seacrest on the Fox TV show Tuesday night.
American Idol finalists Phillip Phillips and Jessica Sanchez on stage with host Ryan Seacrest on the Fox TV show Tuesday night. Michael Becker/Fox
Tonight, when Ryan Seacrest announces who has won the 11th season of American Idol — when the confetti falls and Jennifer Lopez sheds a perfect dewy teardrop and Randy Jackson's thought bubble explodes with "Dude, that was a moment moment MOMENT" and Steven Tyler purses his immortal lips in that vampire-connoisseur way he does, smelling the perfume of another sweet young victory — I will be out to dinner with friends, far from the agony and ecstasy finalists Jessica Sanchez and Phillip Phillips will endure. After six seasons of following Idol as a critic and unashamed enthusiast, I've finally found myself truly bored while watching the show. Not even the soul ministrations of my latest favorite, third-place finalist Joshua Ledet, could cure my disaffection.
I'm not alone. Since this season's first episode — the least-watched in the show's history — this year's Idol story has been the program's wilting status, a symptom of a larger loss of interest in the singing competition format. Interest is flagging across the board: Erstwhile Idol honcho Simon Cowell's English import, X Factor, tanked spectacularly enough that he dumped his loyal sidekick Paula Abdul for the riskiest stock on the market, new judge Britney Spears. The Voice, a show with cooler celebrity panelists and better song selections, briefly threatened to out-buzz Idol but then suffered a ratings drop. Variations keep surfacing — the latest is Duets — but none has captured the public's full imagination.
Commentators usually cite the same reasons when discussing the Idol fade. The judges don't really judge; the same kinds of contestants always win; the song choices are predictable. (I talked about these particularities on Morning Edition today. You can listen by clicking the audio link.) These are merely symptoms, however, of an overall failure of purpose.
Great television rivets us when its narrative, unfolding over time, reflects and heightens a particular kind of experience. Cheers did it for bar life. Friends did it for, well, friends. American Idol did it for the dream of pop, exposing the starmaking process and even allowing fans to become part of it. Just as online music began pushing the corporate music industry toward a radical new reality, American Idol laid its essence bare, and let average people (contestants and voting viewers) taste it.
But now, Idol and the programs that emulate it have played out all the stories mainstream music once offered. The ingenue rising from innocent obscurity; the contender getting another try; the marginalized person pushing her way into the center — these scripts have been exhausted. The songs aren't the only things repeating; the basic plotlines of each series have been exhausted and feel increasingly irrelevant.
Before we say goodbye to the golden era of singing competitions, let's acknowledge Idol's impact. The show launched Carrie Underwood (12 million-plus albums sold) and Kelly Clarkson (10 million and counting), along with a slew of solid hit makers from Chris Daughtry to Jordin Sparks to the redoubtable Adam Lambert. It brought back the culturally dead, renewing the careers of Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler and taking Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson from the margins to the majors.
Idol also reshaped the American songbook. It helped establish relatively obscure gems, like Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and Nina Simone's "Feelin' Good," as mainstream essentials. More often, extolling the likes of Elton John, Journey and the Diane Warren-era Aerosmith, Idol lent legitimacy to music previously dismissed as less than canonical. In a world dominated by Idol, the glitz of Queen makes a stronger impression than the grit of The Rolling Stones; craftsmen like Phil Collins count for as much as do visionaries like Stevie Wonder, and the interpretive art of selling a song again finds equal footing next to the introspective act of writing one.
Most important was the way Idol led us toward a new way of viewing ourselves in relationship to mainstream popular culture. Its moment coincided with an economic boom that made the glory it promised seem attainable — remember how everything seemed attainable in the go-go early 2000s? — and then a collapse that has made Big Everything, including big music, seem deeply suspect. As the top-down society crumbles, new paths toward fulfillment emerge. At its best, something as corny as a singing competition can stand as a metaphorical bridge on one of those paths, connecting the classic Hollywood dream to the multicentered popular culture of the future.
Idol and shows like it have significantly contributed to what the theorists Charles Leadbeater and Paul Miller called "the Pro-Am Revolution": the rise of a new creative class pursuing passions on a freshly built bridge between hobby and career. Artists have always been cultural entrepreneurs, but as "pro-ams," they shift their trajectory, finding ways to expose and establish themselves before partnering with a bigger machine. E.L. James, the author of Fifty Shades of Grey, is a pro-am. So is Mark Zuckerberg. So, I'd argue, are the most interesting Idol and Voice alums, like Adam Lambert and Juliet Simms.
On the surface, Idol and its imitators harken back to an older tradition: the amateur hour that lifts exceptional ordinary people into the glamorous life. Yet because it was structured as a "journey" for contestants whose interactions with the judges and others — stylists, celebrity mentors, the band — helped them focus a gift and turn it into a product, this updated version of the star search felt less like the kiss of a fairy godmother (or cranky Simon Cowell-esque godfather) and more like the reward for contestant's entrepreneurship. As Idol matured and its rival shows emerged, the classic talent-show facade fell away. Hopefuls confessed past experiences touring and recording; even the youngest, like this year's finalist Jessica Sanchez, now come equipped with a resume of YouTube clips.
Within this framework, the story of innocents thrust into the spotlight became one of self-made contenders perfecting their games. Viewers engaging in the process have often been compared to judges, experiencing the secondhand frisson of playing Svengali. More naturally, however, Idol fans identify with the performers. Children who've grown up videotaped by weekend stage parents recognize themselves in someone like Sanchez. A more "artistic" possible winner like Phillips reps for all the bedroom auteurs out there, tinkering with Ableton after a hard day's work.
As the Pro-Am Revolution unfolded, however, the audience for singing competitions became more creative than the cast. A world that includes Kitty Pryde and Christina Grimmie doesn't need the machine a network television program provides. In a sense, the Idol era ended when Justin Bieber's reign began: Here was a kid who figured out his own method of making songs his own, to quote an Idol canard, and who never needed to survive Billy Joel Week to stand in the winner's circle.
This year's top two Idols embody the end of one Idol era and the possible beginning of another one. Sanchez is on the old-fashioned end of the Pro-Am Revolution, having honed her craft under the watchful camcorder of her family, but clearly still longing for the kind of packaging a conventional record deal can buy. Phillips, however, has barely shown interest in what guidance Randy, Jennifer and Steven have to offer. He's more like a YouTube star, fully formed and just in need of a delivery system.
What really seems irrelevant about singing competition now isn't the song selection, the garishly lit set, or even the useless advice doled out by the judges. It's the idea that a centralized medium like network television could guide anyone toward a successful career. Pop now still may have old-fashioned stars, from Beyonce to Adele; but they aren't taking us into the future. Neither is Idol, with its focus on that fixed astral pattern. What feels new is the universe of rogue satellites orbiting that old home planet, gathering information, sending their own signals back.