Why American Idol Keeps Soaring

11 minute read
James Poniewozik

Theoretically, American Idol should not exist. It’s a broad-based mainstream hit when series like that are no longer supposed to be. It has gained viewers in its sixth season, a TV near impossibility. It sells albums, at a time when very little else does. And by awarding a record contract by nationwide vote, it is dedicated to a heretical idea in the niche-media age: that you can please most of the people most of the time.

But weirdest of all–and I’m betraying my professional bias here–it celebrates critics. It’s not just that more than 30 million people watch judges Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson dispense music criticism (if “Dawg, that was all over the place for me” counts as criticism). The show also turns even nonvoting viewers into critics, arguing who deserves success and what makes a “good” performance. Week after week, a society that is not terribly self-reflective asks itself, through Idol, what it likes and why.

The process works: Idol is the most reliable hit-launching platform in show biz. It dominates TV; rival networks refer to it as a “tsunami.” Idol Season 1 champ Kelly Clarkson has sold more than 8 million albums; Season 4 winner Carrie Underwood, 5 million; and even Season 2 runner-up Clay Aiken, more than 4 million. Its alumni have won Grammys (Clarkson), Country Music Awards (Underwood) and even an Academy Award (Jennifer Hudson). To paraphrase Hudson’s Oscar-winning lyric, Idol is telling you it is not going. And anyone in the hitmaking business should be listening to what it says about our national tastes. America does not yet know who will win American Idol. But we know–as tested, argued and ratified over five-plus seasons–what we like.


American Idol, its judges are fond of repeating, is a singing competition. Anyone who wants to win it needs to learn quickly that that is a huge lie. Yes, singing is the price of admission–ask Kevin (Chicken Little) Covais how far you can get on cuteness. But calling the show a singing contest implies that you can run any given performance through the Divatron 3000 and get an objective score, from 0 to 100–nothing personal.

The fact is, performance is nothing but personal. You get on Idol by singing; you win Idol by telling a story. Some do it through the songs: last year’s winner, Taylor Hicks, was a master of that forlorn genre, the cornball story-song (In the Ghetto, Levon). Some make a story arc of their performances, like Clarkson, who grew over Season 1 from wallflower to leather-lunged sensation. Others make themselves the narrative. Season 3 winner Fantasia Barrino, for instance, had the story of teen baby-mamma who made good and subtly underscored it with performances like the soulful lullaby Summertime. “The stories are really key in connecting to the people they were before Idol,” says host Ryan Seacrest. “You say, ‘Hey, she used to work in a bank! I work in a bank. I can relate to that.'”

In a way, Idol is a makeover show. The audience likes to see nerds turned cool, frumps turned glam and awkward kids finding their legs onstage. And it likes to see itself as the invisible hand guiding the changes. A narrative makes the audience feel invested, the same way movie fans do in Brad and Angelina. “The journey of seeing the same people coming back week on week–you have a relationship with them,” says creator Simon Fuller. “You don’t know what’s going to happen. Sanjaya walks out with his crazy hairdo. It’s a living soap opera.” Season 6 contestant Chris Sligh called the job of getting the audience to identify with you “mak[ing] David Hasselhoff cry,” referring to the Baywatch star tearing up when Hicks won last year’s crown. Which brings us to point No. 2 …


America is a country caught between meritocracy and morality. We are raised on fairy tales and movies that tell us nice guys finish first. Then we grow up and go into a job market that tells us it is not just O.K. but also necessary to richly reward the best and cut the laggards, however kind or hardworking they are.

Idol voting plays out this tension. The show is both sadistic–see the hugely popular audition rounds, in which Cowell mocks the worst singers–and sentimental. Voters have proved to be surprisingly ruthless bosses, firing the likes of cherub John Stevens, good kids who end up outmatched. But the voters are also willing to put a thumb on the scales for contestants who’ve paid their dues or have affecting personal stories. Ideally, Idol indulges the idea that the nicest people are the most talented, promising karmic justice in a pop world of Ashlee Simpsons and Paris Hiltons. “There are a lot of people who are not great singers who are selling a lot of records,” Jackson puts it diplomatically. And voters will take points off for arrogance. Justin Guarini was Season 1’s early favorite but lost steam when he started to seem as if he believed he was as good as everyone else said he was.


American Idol is like the Museum of Disposable Music History, with current pop liberally mixed with multigenerational nostalgia: Big Band tunes, disco, the Cure. This may be an odd way to pick a 21st century pop star, but it’s a great way to reach one of TV’s few remaining large, mixed-age audiences. “The average parent has no idea who Arcade Fire or MIMS or Fall Out Boy are,” says Jackson. “This show allows the parent to connect with the kid on something they can both enjoy.” (This applies as well to Gen X- and Yers, themselves parents now, who are if anything more prematurely nostalgic than boomers.) There’s a practical advantage to the show’s oldies focus too. Half the fun is playing critic, which is harder to do if you don’t know the original recording.

In a bigger sense, Idol has figured out the challenge of mass entertainment: how to please an audience that craves novelty but rarely rewards the jarringly new. The New Old is the aesthetic of mass-market America: new-build houses with Tuscan accents, summer movie sequels, Harry Potter knockoffs. Idol celebrates interpretation, not creation; if any Idol contender has been a great songwriter, he or she has been smart enough to hide it. The ideal Idol performance–a hip-hop Sweet Home Alabama, a beatboxed Time of the Season–mashes up old and new, letting viewers feel cool in their squareness. Christina Aguilera’s new swing single, Candyman, which conjures nostalgia for both the USO 1940s and the Bette Midler ’70s, would be perfect on Idol, minus the lines about panties dropping and cherries popping. Speaking of which …


Well, not too much, not on Idol. There’s a big audience that wants a safe haven from supersexualized pop culture–Josh Groban is not buying all his albums himself–and it now has a steady date on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Idol shows that you can tap this wide mainstream audience, in TV and music, if you do it exactly right. Peter Liguori used to program the edgy FX cable network before becoming Fox’s president of entertainment in 2005, but he says he’s watched Idol with his kids–now 13 and 15–since it started, because “it was something we could all comfortably watch together.” Idol’s women need to offer the flavor of a Beyoncé while reining in the bootyliciousness; the men need to reach the moms but not scare off the 10-year-old girls. (More than two-thirds of Idol voters are female.) Aiken had pipes, but he appealed in part because, as far as the public was concerned, he was as sexual as a Ken doll.

This has worked against rockers, since rock-‘n’-roll performance is all about swinging one’s, er, microphone on stage. (Last season’s rocker, Chris Daughtry, finished fourth, though he’s been the best-selling performer of that season.) The no-raunch rule may also be one reason that there’s no place for hard-edged hip-hop on Idol. Season 2 winner Ruben Studdard has some hip-hop inflections to his R&B crooning, but he was enough of a “velvet teddy bear” to, as it were, soften the edge.


“It’s not a singing competition–sorry, Simon–it’s a voting competition”: those are the sage words of Herman’s Hermit and recent Idol guest Peter Noone. In other words, it’s an election. Idol may not reflect our political beliefs–this is not the part where I tell you that Hicks’ win presaged the Democrats’ taking Congress–but it has a lot in common with the political process.

An Idol season is basically a primary. Early on, it helps to have a base: geographic (like Hawaii’s favorite daughter Jasmine Trias), musical (the chick rocker or the boy crooner) or psychographic (the “character,” like Season 3 cutup Jon Peter Lewis). There are coalitions and realignments (will the Daughtry delegates go to Yamin or McPhee?). There are strange bedfellows, like the saboteurs of votefortheworst.com who encouraged fans to vote for Washington’s Sanjaya Malakar in spite, or rather because, of his weak performances. And woe to the candidate who splits a vote, like Hudson, who lost out in a field that was too crowded musically (there were several R&B singers …) and demographically (… who were black women).

The trick is expanding beyond that base without alienating it, being versatile without seeming to sell out. There’s even an element of dealing with the press, in the form of Seacrest, the Jim Lehrer of the Idol primary, during whose interviews a contestant can redeem a bad song with charm or lose votes with cockiness. “They know they are instant politicians from the moment they begin to speak,” Seacrest says. “I’ve felt the energy change in the auditorium when they say something humble or take the criticism in a clever way. They are judged on how they handle a tough situation and adversity.”

And as in politics, winning is only part of the battle. Last season Hicks charmed the TV audience but his CD sold disappointingly. “Idol gives them a fan base and a core audience,” says Seacrest, “but if they don’t deliver, they’ll fade away quickly.” Just because you get elected, in other words, doesn’t mean you can govern. Which brings us to the last lesson …


All this politicking is a delicate act. The audience is savvy enough to know it’s being courted–part of the fun is judging how contestants change in response to the voting–but it doesn’t like to be reminded of it. Authenticity is Idol’s buzzword (Keepin’ it real, yo!), and to win, you need to evolve without seeming contrived. (Sligh, who billed himself as a studied strategist of Idol, came off as overly calculated and got the boot.) You need to convince the audience members that you didn’t change yourself to win but that they helped you become a better version of yourself.

But isn’t Idol an inherently contrived contest? Yes! And the media-savvy audience knows it–the people in the audience are the ones it’s being contrived for, after all–which means that sometimes the greatest reward comes from fighting against the show’s constraints. Last season’s rocker Daughtry may have done himself a favor by finishing fourth–staying in just long enough to get exposure, but with the added cred of having proved too “real” to win. “Some of these [contestants], they’re great talents, but they don’t know who they are,” says Jackson. “Chris was a rocker when he came in. He was a rocker when he was on the show. Guess what he is after the show? A rocker.” Fuller–the music impresario who developed the original show in Britain–chose to manage Daughtry instead of Hicks after last season. “It was almost like the public made a mistake,” he says. “And I think the public felt the same: ‘Actually, s___, he was good. Maybe we made a mistake.'”

It’s worth wondering, in fact, if Hudson could have won an Oscar if she had won Idol. Her Dreamgirls character Effie, after all, paralleled her Idol story: the plus-size musical powerhouse badly used by the starmaking machine. That the fans themselves were the starmaking machine only adds to her story’s postmodern appeal. Hudson’s loss became part of her Cinderella story at the Oscars, as America cheered her comeback from her cruel rejection by … itself.

That’s the beauty of this show. It lets America be right, even when it’s wrong. Sometimes, American Idol tells us, you can win for losing.

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