I watch American Idol, and have every year since season one. If you want to start snickering, start now. If you don’t want to stop, you can skip the rest of this post, because it’s all about Idol.
If you’re still reading, here’s why I watch American Idol. First, for a while there they had some pretty interesting talent. They don’t now, which is what most of this post will be about. Second, my wife loves it, and I love my wife. Third, I’m fascinated by the business model they created for this show. They’ve dramatically altered the supply chain for talent. Instead of a producer finding an unknown talent, grooming the talent at the producer’s expense, and then launching the talent into an uncaring void–the model for the industry for at least decades, maybe centuries–with a so-so chance of success, the show offloads the risk and expense onto advertisers. The competition builds an audience for the talent week by week, grooming the unknowns in public, and by the time the winner is picked the best of the lot has an audience numbering in the millions, ready to pay for more. It’s all pretty amazing.
But the thing that makes it worth watching is amazing talent, and this year’s show, even more than last year’s (which was pretty dismal) has talent that is simply not amazing. The biggest talents in the room are behind the judges’ desk, and they’re not producers, they’re artists. By the way, I’m referring to Keith Urban and Harry Connick Jr. when I say “talents.” Jennifer Lopez isn’t a singer, she’s a star. Her appeal has very little to do with her voice. If it did, she wouldn’t have any appeal at all, because she’s barely got any voice at all. But she’s got star power, and maybe that’s the problem. When you think you need a mega-star behind the desk to get people to tune in, you’ve basically admitted that the talent on the stage isn’t good enough to do the job. You’re inviting the audience–and maybe the performers–to forget that the point of the show is the contestants, not the judges. The judges this year aren’t horrifying assholes like Nicky Minaj, but they thoroughly overwhelm the poor contestants.
Maybe that explains how Idol can audition 100,000 people and wind up with a bunch of bar singers who seem to sleepwalk through every performance. I don’t know. Something must explain it. When you’re down to the top 6, and Ryan Seacrest and the judges are practically yelling at the contestants after every performance to get it on, for God’s sake, do something great, you know the show has gone terribly wrong. The show’s producers aren’t on-camera, but if they were we’d probably see them tearing their hair out and screaming for someone, ANYONE, to turn in a killer performance.
In previous years, you didn’t have to beg the talent to blow your mind. 100,000 people auditioned every year, and out of those 100,000 there would be one or two–in a great year, three or four–who called down the lightning with every song. The first time I saw Fantasia perform on Idol, singing “Let’s Give Them Something to Talk About,” the hair literally stood up on my arms. Adam Lambert practically tore the set apart with every performance, as if no stage was big enough to contain him. Kelly Clarkson threw down with everything she had, every time. Jennifer Hudson brought every song to a spectacular boil, en route to an Oscar-winning performance in “Dream Girls” that made Beyonce look like a nice kid doing a guest spot with a wedding band. It was amazing to see how much better than very, very good the best were, year after year. It was an object lesson in the rarity of real brilliance.
This year’s crop don’t exactly suck. But there’s nothing especially exciting about any of them. They’re nice kids playing rock star to the best of their abilities, following the directions of their coaches in every particular. They’re not doing what it takes to tear your heart out with every word they sing. They don’t know how.
What happened? How can you run out of brilliance? Maybe it’s the predictability of it all. Everything runs on rails: the staging, the backup musicians, the pop repertoire that by now has been played and sung to death on a million bazillion stages worldwide. Surprise has been engineered out of the show. The performers are doing their damndest to play out a scenario that’s been played out too many times already. They can’t excite us because we know all the moves they’re going to be advised to make, and the only question is whether they can make those moves more or less perfectly than everyone else who’s trying to do the same. You can measure the individuality of these performers only by how far they fall short of what’s required.
Whatever the reason, there’s less chance this year that you’re going to see something amazing on Idol than there ever has been. And without that amazement, the whole thing falls apart. which is what we’re seeing this year, and why neither my wife nor me really feels compelled to keep watching. If this keeps up, Idol is a goner.