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American Idol Requiem: The Good, Bad & Ugly of a Pop Culture Touchstone

Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell were American Idol's original judges, and set a new  standard for  baseness in reality television.  (Photo: Fox)

Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell were American Idol’s original judges, and set a new standard for baseness in reality television. (Photo: Fox)

“American Idol”, like most hit TV shows that eventually crash and burn, is (thankfully) closing out its historic 15-season run on Fox tomorrow night. Let’s face it, the horse is dead. It’s been dead for quite some time now. So what will future generations, say 2,000 years from now, make of this pop culture touchstone?

First, let’s get out of the way what pretty much everyone already knows.

Related: Mariah Carey Lip-Syncing on American Idol? Say It Ain’t So!

The show is a shell of its former self; its format is stale; its never-ending game of musical judges doesn’t have anywhere near the chemistry of the original trio and the overall level of talent just isn’t what it was.

But whether you liked the show or not, you have to admit “Idol” was a game changer in practically every way.

It quickly rose to become the gold standard in the relatively new–for its time–arena of reality television.

Related: Candice Glover Dodges Country Bias to Win American Idol

It was one of those rare moments where art, culture, and commerce collided. As a result, it leaves the medium of television, and, in many ways, us, forever changed.

Starting out in 2002, with absolutely no idea what it was, or would become, the show only aired in first place because of Elisabeth Murdoch, daughter of Fox Network Chairman Rupert Murdoch. She prodded daddy into giving the unknown spinoff of Britain’s “Pop Idol,” a chance in the United States.

Almost immediately, the show was a hot topic of national conversation. Not because of the surprising talent it was unearthing, but because of the way aspiring teenagers were being brutally humiliated on national television by adults. Or should we say “an” adult?

Related: American Idol Facing Legal Action For Alleged Racial Discrimination

Before America met Simon Cowell, no one would dare dream of telling a 15-year-old kid they “sucked” on national television. You would’ve been run out of Dodge. And he almost was.

Lest we forget, Cowell, alone, received a barrage of media scorn that first season.

Nearly every talk show, including Oprah, devoted entire episodes to the propriety of shamelessly insulting kids on national television on a weekly basis.

Related: Nicki Minaj Blow Up: Has ‘American Idol’ Veered Off Course? (watch!)

And, who the hell was this guy to think he could get away with it? Well, he apparently did. And then some.

Now, hardly a minute goes by where someone isn’t telling someone else they’re full of shit, or worse, throwing down.

Everyone from middle-aged housewives to six year-old beauty pageant contestants seem to think nothing of smacking down their nemesis.

The “Fu*k-You” attitude that permeates pop culture these days and the overall desensitizing of America can all be traced back, in some small part, to this little show and its condescending, pompous judge and producers.

Related: Scotty McCreery Tops Lauren Alaina, Wins American Idol (video)

In fact, a few years back, I did one of the few interviews with Brian Dunkleman, “Idol’s” first co-host along with Ryan Seacrest, Inexplicably, Dunkleman up and quit after just one season.

At the time, he said the main reason for leaving what was then a wildly popular show was, specifically, the fact that producers were “more interested in making the contestants cry than they were in their singing ability.”

For better or worse, the most indelible thing the iconic show may leave us with is not the talent it discovered or the millions of records it sold. Rather it’s the fact that it single-handedly was responsible for elevating assholes into pop culture icons (cue Kim and Kanye).

Related: American Idol Plods With Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez (video)

In spite of, or as a direct result of, Cowell and his antics, “Idol” drew an average of 20 million to 25 million viewers a night for years.

In a day when there are 300 channels to choose from, and shows with 6 million viewers are considered hits, that’s quite a feat.

For an unprecedented eight consecutive years, from the 2003–04 season through the 2010–11 season, Idol’s performance or result show ranked No. 1 in U.S. television ratings, according to TV Guide.

Tens of thousands of kids would show up at sites like The Rose Bowl in Pasadena just for a chance to audition. These aspiring crooners would wait in line for days only to be told the show had filled its quota of “good singers” and was now just looking for bad ones.

“Idol” changed the way almost everyone watches, and creates, not just music, but television, as well.

After all, since its debut, record companies don’t sell records anymore. Television shows do.

And, what about those amazing catch phrases like “a little pitchy,” “Dawg,” or classic moments such as “Pants on the Ground.” They all seem so quaint now.

All have been infamously etched into TV history. Truly, the show went way above just kids singing for their supper.

Beyond that, the show prompted pretty much every producer in Hollywood to try and capitalize on its success.

“The Voice,” “America’s Got Talent,” “Nashville Star,” “So You Think You Can (Insert Talent Here) and, of course, Cowell’s own “X-Factor,” popped up with the hope of knocking the champ off its pedestal.

Eventually, the barbarians at the gate would break through the castle wall, but the impact Idol’s had on the ever-changing landscape of the music business cannot be over emphasized.

The show premiered just a year after the launch of iTunes and quickly became one of the revolutionary site’s most successful partners.

Labels, however, were less enthusiastic at first. Not that a giant entertainment conglomerate that lacks vision is anything new, but the idea of signing virtually unknown singers off a TV show wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms. Nor, was it original.

Believe it or not, however revolutionary “Idol” was, it wasn’t the first to offer unknowns a record deal off a television show. Back in the late ’90s, my band, The Rosenbergs, were offered one of the first opportunities to perform on live television for a shot at a record deal.

The show, a short-lived precursor to “Idol” called “Farmclub,” was launched by Universal (now producer of “The Voice”) and featured unsigned acts looking to land a recording contract.

We ultimately refused, due to their horrible contract, and the fact that it aired after “Monday Night Raw” on USA Network. In short, nobody watched.

The Idol contract was rumored to be just as bad. Contestants reportedly were forced to sign away copyrights, future publishing royalties and more. Yet, who could blame anyone of them for jumping at a chance to sign it?


David Fagin

David Fagin

David Fagin is a New York writer, producer and musician. His resume boasts an incredibly diverse range of contributions, from top news sites such as Salon, TheImproper, AOL News, Yahoo and The Huffington Post to a wide-range of humorous entities such as The Onion, The Muppets, Comedy Central, Dennis Miller, and Howard Stern. He is fascinated by technology and social media and the seemingly love/hate relationship we have with the changing world. He is also a food snob.


 

They were unknowns who would be seen by tens of millions of viewers and have a chance to become nationally known artists, literally overnight.

Although the show’s purported goal was to discover chart-toppers, it surprisingly only produced a handful over its 14 seasons. Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson, Daughtry, to name a few.

You can probably name more bombs: Candice Glover, Reuben Studdard, Jordan Sparks, Taylor Hicks, Kris Allen, Fantasia, Lee Dwyze, and, of course, the infamous Sanjaya.

Shows you that, while you may possess a good voice, it takes much more than that to succeed in the music business. Unless you’re William Hung.

Now that Idol is idle, will the music biz ever recover from the revolving door these dozen or so copycat shows seem to churn out on a daily basis, or is this the way it’s going to be for the foreseeable future?

Will the gap between “working musician” and “reality show pop star” ever be narrowed? Can the industry as a whole ever undo what’s already been done?

Will Dave Grohl finally be able to sleep at night?

Regardless of whether you liked it, hated it, didn’t care, or, God forbid, never saw it, you have to admit, we’ll probably never see another show like it in our lifetime. R.I.P. A.I.

Let us know your thoughts and be sure to follow IM on Twitter for the latest music news.


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