The End Of 'Idol': There Are No More Songs Left To Be Sung

May 22, 2012
Originally published on September 18, 2012 2:47 pm

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.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

The latest season of "American Idol" wraps up this week. It is still the highest-rated show on TV, but the ratings are not what they used to be. This season's first episode was watched by fewer people, in fact, than any other season since the debut a decade ago. And the median age of people watching gets older every year. Even its competitor, "The Voice," has lost audience. Yet new shows, like ABC's "Duets," keep popping up.

We're going to talk about this with NPR Music's Ann Powers; she's in our studios.Welcome, Ann, once again.


INSKEEP: So singing show fatigue - is that what's happening here?

POWERS: I know I'm experiencing it. After six years or so of writing about "Idol," being a huge fan of certain "Idol" winners and runner-ups, I have to say - I'm bored.

INSKEEP: Oh, come on, come on. There's dramatic suspense every season. You never know who's going to win. You never know what might happen. It's a live show. You've got the judges, everything. What's wrong with that?

POWERS: Well, in fact, one problem is that we generally do know who's going to win. "American Idol" has been won by a, quote-unquote, "white guy with guitar" many times in a row now. And Phillip Phillips is another one, and he's onboard to possibly win tonight.

His competitor, Jessica Sanchez, is in another classic "Idol" mode. She's a teenager with a huge voice, who sings ballads and is very soulful. She would be the first Filipina Latina to win "Idol." But really, we just aren't seeing anything new on "Idol" this season - and it's getting crazily repetitive.

INSKEEP: I suppose there is some repetition in the music that's chosen year after year.

POWERS: Well, this is another key problem, Steve. We hear songs again and again and again. The songbook is not - if it's growing, it's growing incrementally.

INSKEEP: Well, let's just mention, there are millions of songs in the world, but there are certain songs that get repeated year after year after year. And in fact, we have brought you clips of one of those songs heard again and again. Let's listen.


UNIDENTIFIED CONTESTANT #1: (Singing) How can you just walk away from me when...

UNIDENTIFIED CONTESTANT #2: (Singing) ...all I can do is watch you leave? There's...

UNIDENTIFIED CONTESTANT #3: (Singing) ...there's so much I need to say to you, so many reasons why. You're...

UNIDENTIFIED CONTESTANT #4: (Singing) ...the only one who really knew me at all.

UNIDENTIFIED CONTESTANT #5: (Singing) So take a look at me now...

INSKEEP: Yeah, take a look at me now that my day is ruined - because I'll be hearing that song all day long.


POWERS: Well, that - of course - was "Against All Odds," by the immortal Phil Collins. This season, we heard other songs we are so over. "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Leaving" - come on, just leave. Let's not hear that one from "Dreamgirls" again.

INSKEEP: OK. One final thing to ask about, then. Let's bring up the phrase "jump the shark"...


INSKEEP: ...which we should explain for people. I think people think that means the series is over. But actually, that's the moment in the series when the producers realize they're running out of ideas ...


INSKEEP: ...and so they do something crazy to try to shake it up.


INSKEEP: Have we reached the jumping-the-shark moment for "American Idol" yet?

POWERS: "Idol" has jumped the shark so many times ...


POWERS: has its own exhibit in Marine World. What happens with "Idol" is that just when you think you want to walk away - like in that Phil Collins song - something interesting does happen. So...

INSKEEP: (Singing) Take a look at me now...

POWERS: So we were so bored, and then Adam Lambert came along and was the most fascinating Idol of all time. However, the past two seasons, I've been so bored. And I haven't had that magic moment. I fear it's just - every element's played out.

INSKEEP: And the competitors?

POWERS: The competitors are fun. I like "The Voice." And they do feature a wider array of music, and a wider array of contestants. But again, it's boxed into that particular musical structure of the big song, the big ballad, that doesn't allow for real musical change. So in the end, you had a guy - Jermaine Paul - who won by singing "I Believe I Can Fly," the R. Kelly song that is one of the most overused and abused songs in signing competitions. It's just really hard to break the mold.

INSKEEP: Well, Ann Powers, enjoy watching the "American Idol" finale - if you can.

POWERS: I'm going to be out at a rock show, Steve.


INSKEEP: NPR's Ann Powers. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.