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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer. This week and next, we're looking at changes to the music industry over the past decade. Today we go back to 2002, the year Fox Television unveiled a talent competition. Maybe you love it, maybe you hate it, but �American Idol� has become a force in popular music. Stephen Thompson of NPR Music has these reflections.

STEPHEN THOMPSON: "American Idol" wasn't the first TV show to make a pop star, and it hasn't been the last. Just this year, America's top-selling album came from the runner-up on �Britain's Got Talent�: 48-year-old Susan Boyle.

(Soundbite of song, �I Dreamed a Dream�)

Ms. SUSAN BOYLE (Singer): (Singing) I dreamed a dream in time gone by.

THOMPSON: Remember "Star Search" in the '80s? You voted for the winner by phone, from the comfort of your couch. "American Idol" not only has viewers and callers but emotionally invested participants � super-fans with power-dialing software, email accounts, even Internet message boards.

A few years after it started, "American Idol" pushed the idea of audience participation even further by letting one lucky fan write the show-stopping ballad that would close out the season. The songs they used in the first few seasons were always horrible � some piece of mawkish flotsam about dreaming big, climbing mountains and rhyming believe with achieve. Here's the first winner, Kelly Clarkson in 2002.

(Soundbite of song, �A Moment Like This�)

Ms. KELLY CLARKSON (Singer): (Singing) Oh, I can't believe it's happening to me. Some people wait a lifetime for a moment like this.

THOMPSON: Now, I have no musical aspirations myself � no desire or talent to become a pop star or a songwriter. But when they announced that they'd let a viewer write the big ballad, I immediately began sketching out what I believed to be the perfect "American Idol" song.

I wanted something vaguely patriotic and sort of religious, and I wanted to capture the way a very uncomplicated pop singer might feel at the conclusion of an unlikely journey. My song was called "On the Wings of Dreaming Eagles," and it may be the worst song ever written by a human being.

(Soundbite of song, �On the Wings of Dreaming Eagles�)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Now I can fly in the sky on the wings of dreaming eagles, 'cause I believe in myself. I know that miracles are real.

THOMPSON: I never actually submitted "On the Wings of Dreaming Eagles." I couldn't get past the fear that it would win, and that 40 million people would one day remember who I was, and why.

"American Idol" is about to enter its ninth season. Three months from now, the most famous person on the Internet will be someone no one has heard of today. It may be a plucky dreamer from the wrong side of the tracks, or a grizzled veteran of talent camps who's dreamed of stardom since birth. Some of us will hate this person with a sick fury; others will paint his or her name on poster board using glitter.

In any case, eight years later the return of "American Idol" means that a few more stars are about to be born, whether we watch or not. And in May, by the time it's all over, those stars will bask in the embrace of a divided nation, secure in the knowledge that because they believed in themselves, they know that miracles are real.

WERTHEIMER: Stephen Thompson is an editor for NPR Music. As part of our coverage of music in the past decade, we challenged our online audience to write and record a song in just one weekend. More than 150 people sent us songs. You can hear them all at NPRMusic.org.

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