American Idol's Overdog Status
It won't die!
I've written about this before, but it really is sort of amazing that American Idol has managed to maintain its position as TV's number-one show at a time when the music business falls apart more every month and music itself has become a smaller niche in the pop-cultural universe. The people clogging stadiums to audition for the show are only sort of competing to become actual famous singers these days; I'd have to imagine that the lure of instant TV ubiquity is just as powerful. The new season of American Idol starts tonight, and this season will be an interesting one because it's coming right as the show is starting to show a few chinks in its armor. Last year's season was the first that didn't build on its audience from the previous year, and in the past couple of weeks the show has endured a blizzard of bad publicity, though none of it is potentially as damaging as that Paula-Abdul-going-nuts business from a couple of years back. Previous winners Ruben Studdard and Taylor Hicks both just got dropped from their labels, as did runner-up Katherine McPhee. Last year's winner, Jordin Sparks, released an album a few weeks back and debuted at #10, making hers by far the worst-performing debut of any American Idol winner ever. Someone leaked the names of all the contestants who made it to this year's final rounds, and it includes a whole lot of music-industry refugees who spent time on major labels or reality shows. One hopeful, Carly Hennessy, famously sold 300 copies of a debut album that MCA had paid millions to market, not exactly the sort of inspirational beating-the-odds story that the show loves to pimp. Chris Daughtry, the only honest-to-God star that the show's managed to make in the past couple of years, just talked a bunch of shit about it in a Rollingstone.com interview: "It’s in a state of decline and if they don’t do something about it, it’s probably not gonna last too much longer. I’m sure that’ll be used against me, but that’s the truth, you know?"
Some of that timing must be intentional, a product of record labels or former contestants venting some annoyance at the show. But the unimpressive sales of both Sparks and Blake Lewis, last year's runner-up, are more instructive. In a Times article, executive producer Nigel Lythgoe tried to explain away the shitty sales of Idol alumni: "Just because a granny in Omaha falls in love with Taylor Hicks, it doesn’t mean she will go out and buy his record, even though she will pick up the phone and vote for him ... I don’t produce records, and I’m not in the record industry." The show isn't selling music, then; it's merely selling itself; what happens to winners after they win is none of his concern. And it always strikes me as being a bit weird that winners take at least six months to crank out albums after the show wraps; you'd think they'd want to work faster to capitalize on the massive publicity that the show affords. I really liked Jordin Sparks on the show, but I didn't particularly care by the time the album came out. Even without that delay, though, it's near-impossible for people to become stars through music in a time when nobody buys records. At some point, that grim reality has to have some affect on the show's talent pool. It's tough to imagine hundreds of thousands of people wanting to become the next Jordin Sparks, and it's equally tough to imagine tens of millions caring enough to watch and vote on whatever diminished group of talents makes it through to the final rounds.
And maybe that's why that leaked list of contestants is so clogged with music-business refugees. The people who must want stardom worst are, I'd imagine, the ones who have already dedicated their lives to attaining it, the ones who have tried and failed and now have to resort to a longshot show like this to find a second chance. In fact, I'd be curious to see a reality-show exclusively dedicated music-business failures: people who'd been dropped from labels or lost on other reality shows. If that's what this season of American Idol turns out to be, it'll make for a fascinating wrinkle in the show's history.
The show's producer's are trying out a few new ideas to combat last year's ratings slide: a new intro to replace the blue androgynous CGI figure riding an elevator (never understood that one in the first place), fewer celebrity mentors, a heavier focus on contestants' backstories. All those changes are pretty cosmetic, but the biggest change is that the show will now allow contestants to play instruments while they sing, an addition that will surely add a few new unbelievably irritating characters to the show's enormous roster of freaky attention-desperate audition-show rejects. But even if the show's ratings slide continues, it'll still be TV's biggest earner by a pretty considerable margin. And with the writers' strike likely continue for the entire run of this year's season, expect the recent bad publicity to add up to less than nothing. American Idol is the rarest of animals in music and TV and pop culture in general: an institution that maintains its massive popularity year-in and year-out. If its judging panel stays intact, it's easy to imagine the show keeping a stranglehold on its position for another ten years, easily. American Idol could outlive us all. Hegemony doesn't end so easily.