American Idol: Into Darkness

I could say I watch American Idol ironically, or make some academic excuse, such as I’m analyzing it’s reflection of society and what the American Dream has become.

But, that would be a lie.

I watch American Idol because I enjoy it.

I watch it as loyally as I watch Star Wars, Doctor Who, and The Muppets.

Just as others watch basketball, football (both kinds), baseball, hockey, and quidditch, I watch this annual singing competition.

And now, twelve seasons into this ride, with countless ups and downs along the way, the show is at risk.

For an entire decade, every single airing of this show was number one.  However, with viable competition in its genre via The Voice (which is hipper, slicker, and fun), and time-slot via The Big Bang Theory, cracks are showing in the once impenetrable hull of American Idol’s ship.

Could this be the end of the show?

Is time approaching like Benedict Cumberbatch in a high-collared space-trenchcoat to destroy what has lasted far beyond its expected time?

Or, can the show follow the wise trajectory of Doctor Who, and regenerate itself?

It has tried several times over the past few seasons.

Producers have changed.  According to the press, the final member of the original judging panel is moving on.  While I’ve never been a Randy Jackson fan, I will miss my family’s drinking game.  Take a sip of your beverage of choice (mine is usually chocolate milk) when he says, “In it to win it,” “You can sing the songbook,” “Best performance of the night,” and, this season, when Mariah Carey’s critique lasts longer than a minute.

Each shift and change in the judging panel has made little to no improvement.  Steven Tyler was great when he was awake and caring, and Keith Urban’s critiques are usually spot-on while fun.  Everyone else has had moments of lucidity and honesty, but these are scarce.

There have been a variety of other missteps in trying to keep the show fresh and relevant.  For example, lowering the minimum age to 15, or the entirety of season 9 (excluding Crystal Bowersox).  Also, the producers attempt to manipulate the show immensely.  In this current season (12), I am sure there were men who were cut early for the sake of having a completely female top 5.  And yes, there is a clear sympathy vote, as well as a ‘country’ vote, and a ‘they’re hot’ vote.

So, how does American Idol reboot itself as Season 12 comes to a close and the speculation for Season 13 begins?

Hire J.J. Abrams, and add lens flare.

[While this has worked for Star Trek, and will probably work for Star Wars,  I don’t think adding lens flare, monsters, and more sci-fi elements will work for Idol.  Also, Idol already has uses intense and epic smoke effects, and stage-encompassing, mystery-suggesting LED screens (which have been more subtly utilized this season).  However, the judges may benefit if they received a script approved by Abrams.]

The Fox executives need to focus on what works in American Idol.

1. American Idol is an event show.

To return anticipation to American Idol, Fox needs to cancel The X-Factor.  The audience is fatigued of singing competitions, and the contestants can now bounce between The X-Factor, Idol, and The Voice, in audition to anything else ABC or a cable network attempts in a year.

In England, the BBC has long shown that less is more: Downton Abbey Season 2 had 9 episodes, Sherlock Season 1 had 3 (at 90 minutes each…) and the current Doctor Who series (7.2) has 7.  At the end of each, we feel fulfilled, and are left wanting more.

2. The show isn’t about the judges.

This is The Voice’s strength.  Twice, they have found the delicate balance of charm, camaraderie  and critical feedback which makes a strong judging/coaching panel.  Part of this is due to Adam Levine’s studliness, and Blake Shelton’s good ol’ country boy charm.

While judges are needed to fill the gap in time, and drink from Coca-Cola cups, the true power of Idol was never found in the judging panel.

3. The live band and behind-the-scenes vocal coaches.

Over the last few seasons, the band has taken a more visible role onstage, and the vocal coaches have been high-lighted in Hollywood week.  These unsung heroes usually work to arrange and complement the contestants, no matter how poorly or off-time contestants sing.  The band isn’t always perfect, but they usually add to the show.  Last season, Philip Phillip’s win wouldn’t have worked without the saxophone player who usually jammed with him, and this season props must be given to the hot guitar player who is often jamming on stage.

4. Your Host:

In all the over-blown production of American Idol, the one element keeping everything flowing smoothly has been Ryan Seacrest.  When he began, he was as cheesy as the rest of the show.  Over the course of twelve years he has transitioned into a great host, keeping his calm as he keeps the show moving along through the verbosity of the judges, the squealing crowd, and the actual performances of the crying contestants.  He has well-earned his multi-million dollar paycheck.

He is American Idol’s Kermit the Frog.

5. The Contestants

First, over the last few seasons the exploitation of delusional auditions has decreased.  We can thank The Voice for this improvement.  Skipping past Auditions, Hollywood Week(s), and Semi-Finals, what matters in the world of American Idol are the final ten-twelve weeks of the season: The Finals.

The Finals are an epic adventure, where farmers and front desk clerks transform into viable music stars, where skills are improved week by week, and every so often a magnificent performance occurs.

The Voice’s finals is the only place the show really fumbles by rushing through the final group.  Each time the confetti has rained down on The Voice’s winner, I try to remember who that person is.

Whereas, on American Idol, we have watched them pass each round, striving to make their mark week by week for the past two to three months.  We learn contestant’s stories and, hopefully, see their talent flourish.  I would argue that 9 out of the previous 11 seasons, the winner has earned their place.  And this season both Kree Harrison and Candice Glover deserve to win.

Some may argue many contestants are off-key, are cheesy, can’t sing, can only sing treacly ballads from the 70’s, I will admit there is some truth to that.

I also counter with this question: What would the music industry be like today without American Idol?

There would be no Kelly Clarkson, no Carrie Underwood, no Jennifer Hudson, no Daughtry.

Or even, Fantasia, Jordin Sparks, David Cook, Adam Lambert, and Philip Phillips.

Or, Kris Allen, Kellie Pickler, Constantine Maroulis, Michael Johns, Carly Smithson, David Archuletta, Melinda Doolittle, and Crystal Bowersox.

Or, Tamyra Gray, Bo Bice, Blake LewisJason Castro, Brooke White, Allison Iraheta, Joshua Ledit, Elise Testone, and Haley Reinhart.

Or, the entire top 4 of season 12: Kree Harrison, Candice GloverAngie Miller, and Amber Holcomb

This seems a dark world indeed.

Without American Idol, my MP3 player would be a far, far emptier place.*


What shows do you watch, even though you know they are silly and ridiculous?

Do you think American Idol has made a contribution to music?

Are you as excited as I am for Star Trek: Into Darkness coming out this week?  Or possibly finding out Doctor Who’s name later this month?

If the Doctor were on American Idol, what would be sing?  And, would Clara sing Hungry Like A Wolf?

*I do not have albums from all above contestants.  Listing is based both on merit on the show and success after the show…  That being said, I have a lot of music from Idol Alumni

Literary Side-Note:

Stephen Colbert and Carey Mulligan visit Reading Rainbow to learn about The Great Gatsby

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