American Idol is finally dead, to the delight of those who’ve always hated it, and the relief of those who used to love it. At the peak of its reign, the show was everything to everyone: the launching pad for the pop careers of Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, and Taylor Hicks; the linchpin of the Fox prime-time schedule, where it once enjoyed a full 41-episode run; the means by which affable host Ryan Seacrest transformed himself into America’s Most Overemployed Man; and a chance for this nation’s most bankable monosyllabic brands (Coke, Ford) to get even bigger.
But the end has been long coming, and Monday’s announcement that the show’s upcoming 15th season would be its last was inevitable. Its sponsorship deal with Coke, once as vital to Idol’s imagery as the neon-script logo, ran dry last year. Ratings dropped increasingly week to week, lagging far behind even CBS’s fellow reality-show grandfather Survivor; the post-season touring version cut its lineup in half and booked smaller venues than the arenas of yore. Meanwhile, most recently minted winner Caleb Johnson split with Interscope, the official Idol label, saying that he was on the lookout for a team that would give him “actual support.”
Yes, the synergistic dream of huge ratings and legitimate pop stardom is finally dead, and the final season will serve as its lengthy funeral procession, which will likely include pre-YouTube viral sensation William Hung, a barking track called “Pants on the Ground,” and a glancing reference to Kara DioGuardi wearing a retaliatory bikini. Expect also to hear ad nauseam about the show’s few actual success stories, perhaps the only remaining edge it has on its competition.
Idol’s initial ascent dovetailed perfectly with the early-’00s pop hangover. By the time it premiered in the summer of 2002, *NSYNC had gone on hiatus, Britney Spears had entered the restaurant-mogul phase of her career, and Christina Aguilera had been talking to MTV about her “aggression that needs to come out in a not very precise or articulate way.” R&B-leaning pop ruled radio, with Ashanti’s whisper-soft “Foolish” topping the Hot 100 and Jennifer Lopez’s remix album leading the albums chart. Idol’s formula—a steeplechase of youthful singers from all across the land singing covers of pop staples to advice- and smarm-dispensing experts—smooshed together the game show and the variety show, two workhorse formats that had even more prime-time appeal when combined.
It’s tempting to argue that Kelly Clarkson, the show’s first winner and certainly the victor with the most sympathetic record-company woes, is the quintessential Idol candidate, and that the show should have self-destructed the moment her celebratory confetti fell. She had a great up-from-Texas backstory and even better pipes; putting the entire AI machinery behind her would have been an effective mic drop for the show’s mission to find the next global pop star. (“We did it, cheers, thanks a lot, goodbye.”) But even if it was all downhill from there, those first few seasons, when the show was still getting its sea legs while also enjoying its blockbuster status, are fun to revisit. The also-rans—Ryan Starr, Bo Bice, LaToya London—don’t have the social media-honed polish of modern-day contestants, and actual chemistry blossoms between the judges and the host. Mastermind Simon Cowell was surly, but he hadn’t crossed over to being tan and smug; Paula Abdul was dippy, but seemed to be having a good time; Randy Jackson was the knowing session man not yet reduced to a series of “dawg”-centric catchphrases. And Ryan Seacrest was, well, Ryan Seacrest, growing more self-assured with each post-elimination tear that seeped into his suit jackets.
But then we get to 2006, and season five’s strange, portentous case of Taylor Hicks.
My colleague Chris Molanphy has asserted that the Alabama-born soul singer’s win “broke” the show, thanks to its viewers electing to crown a king whose entire style was out of step with pop-radio trends. Hicks was the sort of blue-eyed soul singer you’d maybe see on MTV during Bruce Willis’s Bruno phase, albeit more talented and less famous. His post-victory week atop the Hot 100 in 2006 sticks out even more given that he was soon replaced at No. 1 by the likes of “Promiscuous” and “SexyBack.”
I don’t know if Hicks represented the first ding in the show’s armor; if anything, that came two years prior, when a spurned Jennifer Hudson showed us all how an Idol loss could be a stepping stone to even bigger things. Elton John’s grumbling about the show’s racist voting tendencies was a legitimate concern, however: Hicks’s win did show how Idol’s format (people sing on TV, people at home vote, America figures out this “democracy” thing once and for all) was not only imperfect, but could eventually serve as a liability, showing plainly the gap between the show’s graying demographics and the ever-younger pop market. That gap, too, would only increase as the years went on: Singers who got too modern or adventurous were dispatched earlier and earlier.
My breaking point with Idol came at the end of season eight. The show’s 2009 bench was astonishingly deep: the neo-Ne-Yo Anoop Desai, the sharp interpreter Megan Joy, the young spitfire Allison Iraheta. It even had its own villain in Danny Gokey, he of the scream and the smugness. Then there was Adam Lambert, the outré caterwauler whose reinventions of Johnny Cash and Led Zeppelin grabbed headlines, and who was clearly the best performer overall since Jennifer Hudson way back in season three. He lost to Kris Allen, an aw-shucks crooner whose undeniable talent and humble charm made him extremely endearing, and an obvious victor during any other year. But Lambert was the guy to make the cover of Rolling Stone post-finale, because he seemed like a rock star, like the apotheosis of the Idol dream: He went from dude with emo hair to soul singer with a political edge over the course of his season, stopping along the way to give EDM DJs sampling ideas. Allen and Lambert are both still making music, of course, but you can probably guess which one is working with Queen and Max Martin.
Watching Idol flail toward relevance in the post-Lambert years was painful at times, like being trapped inside the sad middle part of a Behind the Music episode with no comeback arc in sight. A confused Ellen DeGeneres showed up to replace Abdul as a judge and bailed almost immediately. Simon Cowell departed for the greener pastures of The X Factor, which birthed the pugilistic me-first pop of Fifth Harmony before shrinking back across the Atlantic. Meanwhile, The Voice launched on NBC, hogging all the buzz with its big-name judges and fancy swivel chairs; Idol responded by hiring even more famous people—Steven Tyler! Nicki Minaj! Mariah Carey!—to sit behind its Coke cups and opine. But upgrading the voters was a much tougher job.
Indeed, recent seasons of Idol were most defined by viewers hellbent on keeping a particular, and somewhat archaic, strand of pop alive: those who would, through hell or bad reception, unfailingly text their support for the most Jason Mrazian of the bunch, which led to Lee DeWyze’s unfortunate season-nine victory and a string of white dudes vanquishing any women or R&B-leaning males who dared reach the Top 4; last night’s elimination of Jax, the Jersey girl who sang Paramore and Evanescence before being sent home, set up yet another mano a mano finale. To their credit, those dudes were at times mystified by their own success, but their worthier foes were unfairly vanquished all the same. (Crystal Bowersox, your earth-mother stylings and ability to stay on pitch will not be forgotten.) These singers got their very own acronym from Idol watchers—WGWGs, for White Guys With Guitars—and made the prospect of Another R&B Song Getting Covered In A Gimmicky, Overly Caucasian, YouTube-y Sorta Way grimmer and more inevitable by the week.
Eventually, the producers decided to all but put the fix in for a female winner, and what better time to do it than after the guaranteed-from-drop victory of the blithe WGWG apotheosis Philip Phillips; despite season 12 victor Candice Glover’s formidable pipes and talent for pop reinvention, her 2013 win was overshadowed by the judging panel’s more boldfaced names sniping at each other and undermined by new associated label Interscope’s indifferent marketing.
That Glover couldn’t become a pop star, though, was hardly her fault, or her label’s; the top-down type of influence once wielded by American Idol has waned as the pop market has become completely upended. Once you reach music’s A-minus list—just below your Beyoncés and your Rihannas, to the level of artists whose attempts to coin cute fan-base names don’t quite catch—brand names matter way less, particularly to harried, overstimulated listeners. A “funny” viral-video fluke like Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” or Psy’s “Gangnam Style” is worth far more than a spot on some TV show. Just look at The Voice, which for all the breathless fans and NBC-saving ratings has yet to market one of its contestants successfully; the already-famous judges are getting way more out of it than the singers themselves. Idol can still manage a must-see performance occasionally, but those blips are clawing for attention in a much bigger, much more chaotic landscape.
This shrinking of American Idol was inevitable; the pop market that spawned it needed it less and less, and the TV landscape it helped shape has since mutated uncontrollably. With this cancellation announcement, it can ride off into the sunset with at least a little bit of dignity left. At the very least, we’ll always have this.
Maura Johnston lives in Boston, where she teaches at Boston College and edits the culture periodical Maura Magazine. She also spins records at WZBC and writes for the Boston Globe and Rolling Stone. She’s on Twitter @maura.
Lead image by AP Photo/Charles Sykes.
The Concourse is Deadspin’s home for culture/food/whatever coverage. Follow us on Twitter:@DSconcourse.