This week, American Idol announced that it would be entering into its 15th and final season on Fox next year—after 15 years on (often) live television.
Personally, I was a fan during Season 5 (2006), when some of my favorites—Ace Young, Elliott Yamin, Chris Daughtry, and Kellie Pickler—were eliminated prior to Kat McPhee and Taylor Hicks winning runner-up and finalist, respectively. Incidentally, that was the highest rated season, and the exposure led to all ten finalists (and another 8 semi-finalists) earning record deals—nine with major labels.
For a stretch of eight years (2003 to 2011), Idol ranked number one among all U.S. television shows in ratings, but the last several years have seen a dramatic decline in viewership due to saturation in competition-based reality shows on prime time television.
Unquestionably, Idol had a great run and opened the door to a handful of enormously popular singers who may never have been “discovered.” However, it would be imprudent not to include in our reflection the show’s less sterling qualities over time: Its prominence in American culture merits our attention—starting with the clever brand name, Idol.
- Americans don’t need to be encouraged to do any more “idol” worship. Idolatry is considered a sin in the Bible, because it separates followers of Christ from man’s true source of joy: God. Even the irreligious can appreciate the importance of eschewing idols, however. When man places another man on a higher plane of importance, the first man mistakes the second man for his ego. The “reality” of an individual’s life or life’s circumstances are filtered—much like an Instagram photo—so that only the goodness shines through. Accepting our faults (whether or not you believe in the concept of “sin”) is a virtuous goal. Whether you believe that ego separates us from reality, or sin separates us from God, the principle is the same: A man should be judged by the totality of his character, not only the parts worth worshiping. Being aware of your own limitations automatically requires being aware of your fellow man’s limitations, too. Placing your brethren on a pedestal because they sing or entertain well only furthers the epidemic of low self-esteem—and it’s especially harmful for our youth.
- Speaking of youth, Americans don’t need more ageism or exploitation. For the first three seasons, Idol limited contestants to an upper age limit of 24. For the remaining seasons, the limit was raised to 28—hardly an improvement. Call me a cynic, but I am certain this was more strategic than it was about encouraging young people to go after their dreams: Young contestants are more likely to sign lopsided contracts that reduce the amount of ownership the winners retain over their careers. In 2009, one of the lower-ranked finalists called his Idol contract a “slavetract” and voiced his concern that the reason he was kicked off the show was because he dared to challenge the terms of his contract. Idol, as a brand management property, isn’t interested in youthful and artful exuberance as it is in exploitation. (If you don’t agree, read this MSNBC report, describing Simon Fuller, the show’s creator, as a “Svengali,” a term originally used to describe a villainous hypnotist.) Singers who were aged out of the Idol competition before they had the chance to compete should be grateful: Not all that glitters is gold, and that goes for the glistening of ink before it dries on a questionable contract.
- Speaking of exploitation, Americans don’t need to be brainwashed by any more “ugly duckling” tales. Americans are obsessed with rags-to-riches tales, and this can be attributed to generations of folklore and fairy tales. But these themes are counterproductive in the modern era. In the age of outrageous Photoshopping and cosmetic surgeons run amok, it’s hardly helpful to watch a talent competition turn into an extreme makeover story. Idol is famous for pushing contestants to change their hair, wardrobe, and makeup at the expense of compromising an individual’s unique style. The message: You can sing, but can you sell? The focus on marketing each contestant’s image throughout the season and beyond has become such a focal point that talent becomes secondary: Singing takes a back seat to entertaining. While that may be the “American” way, it’s worth noting that it’s not how young minds should be molded. It’s more important than ever, in the digital age, to emphasize the special, wonderful traits—personality, physically, and character-wise—that each person possesses. Extreme makeovers on television are popular because they appeal to every human’s desire to be the best they can be—but most of these shows operate on the assumption that there is an ideal “way” to be: typically, that means thinner, taller, and more fashionable and beautiful than you were the day before. Fifteen years of beating on that drum is enough.
Certainly the handful of extremely popular Idol winners have formed the basis for some fascinating case studies in the music industry, traditionally characterized as a “whom you know” kind of game. American Idol pretty effectively sold the public on the idea of bringing a panel of judges to Anytown, USA to discover some raw talent that may never have been revealed.
Unfortunately, in the end, I don’t think Idol represents a significant break from the industry standard in terms of its value system. At the end of 15 years, Americans have had enough of the glitz and the glam. We’re just not convinced it’s all too different from business as usual in a field that’s pretty lacking in virtues to begin with.