In 100 Episodes, we examine the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity. This entry covers American Idol, which ran for 15 seasons and over 550 episodes between 2002 and tonight’s series finale.
Remember “Vote For The Worst?” Starting with the third season of American Idol, an organized band of internet provocateurs started urging their followers to promote the weirdest and the pitchiest Idol contestants, for the purpose of… Well, actually, in retrospect it’s hard to see what the point of VFTW really was. Just to be ornery? Or to expose the hypocrisies and preposterousness of a crowd-sourced “search for a superstar?”
If the backlash against American Idol was incoherent, maybe that’s because at its height, the show itself seemed uncertain about how to manage and maintain its massive popularity. Now, as it prepares to sign off for the last time after 15 seasons, Idol seems like a relic from a long-gone era when America cared enough about a single TV program to be mad at it.
Debuting on Fox in the summer of 2002, at a time when the major networks were dipping their toes into reality TV programming by licensing already successful European franchises, American Idol was so haphazardly assembled that not until very late in the development process did it occur to anyone that they’d have to schedule a separate weekly results show. From the pointless dual hosts (Ryan Seacrest and Brian Dunkleman) to the genuine shock of judges Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson at the viciousness of their British cohort Simon Cowell, the first season of Idol felt like it had been thrown together on the fly.
And yet, the show actually did find and anoint a genuine star: Kelly Clarkson, an earthy, big-voiced Texan who’s remained a relevant pop performer for nearly 15 years now. American Idol itself became an unexpected hit, for reasons that even the people in charge didn’t always seem to understand.
The series went through phases where it tried to be more like Big Brother or Survivor, by sequestering the contestants in a luxurious house and tracking their every move. At other times, Idol exemplified the cruel voyeurism of reality TV by coercing terrible, self-deluded singers into auditioning in front of the merciless Cowell. Because the show was practically unbeatable in the ratings through its first 10 seasons, an irritating arrogance set in, particularly among the judges, who frequently left hard-working contestants standing awkwardly on the stage for minutes on end while they vamped and mugged and bickered among themselves. Throughout its 15-year run—at its best and worst—American Idol has frequently suffered a disconnect between what its producers saw as their mandate versus how the country actually watched the show.
Blame the name. Unlike creator Simon Fuller’s sister show So You Think You Can Dance—a title that promises the spectacle of amateurs flailing around the stage, but which is actually a competition for accomplished aspiring pros—“American Idol” suggests the olden days of showbiz, when movie studios and record labels would groom attractive up-and-comers. Back when Cowell was the main judge, American Idol wrestled a lot with whether it was a singing competition—looks and stage presence be damned—or whether the goal was to find some sexy young thing that Sony could style and autotune into a flash-in-the-pan teen heartthrob.
America rebelled against both visions for Idol’s winners, and not because of any Vote For The Worst chicanery. The contestants who’ve survived into the final rounds haven’t always been the strongest vocalists, or the most likely to go platinum. Instead, they’ve tended to be the best TV characters: distinctive personalities who’ve at least briefly captured the fickle, evolving tastes of the American public. As such, American Idol has been a reliable barometer of what the country wants to see and hear. The show’s actual winners may have a shaky chart history, but a person who never listened to Top 40 could watch all 15 years of Idol and come away with a good idea of what’s been big in music since 2000: from Mariah Carey to Amy Winehouse to Adele, and from pop-country to nu-metal to wispy singer-songwriter balladry.
The history of American Idol has also been a history of middle America’s fluctuating levels of comfort with ethnic minorities and queerness. In the first six years, the show produced more black winners and finalists than it has over the past decade—which may just be a function of who still watches Idol in the 2010s. On the other hand, while the competition never did produce an openly gay champion, the popularity of early-season contestants like Clay Aiken and Adam Lambert may have played some role in Idol toning down the odd, ugly gay-panic jokes that used to be a staple back when Cowell and Jackson were judges.
The current judging panel of Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban, and Harry Connick Jr. is the best of the series. Less concerned with camera-time or controversy than their predecessors, this trio has offered informed critiques, discussing vocal techniques and performing styles from a place of experience and knowledge rather than just from their personal tastes. Cowell’s era was often defined by his ignorance of anything that wasn’t already broadly popular, and by his resistance to certain perfectly legitimate styles, like Broadway and country. The last three seasons of American Idol have seen declining ratings and a diminished cultural presence, but they’ve been better overall, thanks to the agreeable company of Keith, Harry, and J-Lo.
That said, even improved judging hasn’t been enough to solve Idol’s persistent problems. The show has been more focused on the music than the personalities of late, and the judges have been more open to a wider range of genres. But American Idol still falls into the same patterns it always has, where what seems like a diverse and talented slate of contestants gets duller and plainer by the week. This current season actually has two terrific potential winners—La’Porsha Renae and Trent Harmon—but they’ve been surrounded by a lot of busters, who looked exciting during the early stages of the competition but then proved to be shakier and more limited through the weekly grind of performances.
Even when it was a ratings champ, American Idol had trouble figuring out how to challenge its contestants—and its audience—in ways that would keep the show fresh without becoming too alienating. Too often, the show defaulted to the same set of pop, rock, and R&B standards year after year, making the singers seem more of touch with contemporary trends than they probably were. Each season, as the field narrows, the judges talk about what kind of album the remaining contestants might make (or “who you aah as an aah-tist,” as Urban says). But very rarely have the winners or also-rans recorded music that sounds even remotely like what they did on Idol—because there’s actually very little sustainable market for competently sung Stevie Wonder covers.
The collapse of the music industry’s traditional models has a lot to do with the inconsistent Billboard chart performance of Idol’s winners, but even given the state of the biz, the numbers have been alarmingly and increasingly dismal. Some contestants who started out with gold or platinum albums have seen their sales drop off a cliff almost as soon as another season begins. And some are now lucky to sell in the low five digits—or roughly 0.1% of the current weekly American Idol viewership. Meanwhile, though each episode still routinely lands in the Nielsen Top 20, the show doesn’t always win its own time slot any more, and it draws fewer viewers overall than NBC’s similar The Voice.
So when American Idol says goodbye tonight, the farewell may be coming about five years too late. As a brand, American Idol has long ceased to be meaningful—which is really the show’s own fault, for not always understanding what it was doing or why people tuned in.
But here’s the thing: As diminished as American Idol may be as a cultural force, it still works just fine as a television show, and for the same reasons it always has. The one constant through all 15 seasons—the host, Seacrest—remains an undervalued asset, mocked on social media for his ubiquity and his apparent vacuousness, when he’s actually a master at performing a job that’s nowhere near as easy as it looks. American Idol is also the rare weekly network primetime series that’s genuinely family-friendly, which is something that shouldn’t be taken for granted in an era when even Family Feud is now about 75 percent smut.
Mostly though, the reason to lament the end of American Idol is that each episode held the promise that some previously unknown singer would deliver a knockout performance, in front of a national audience many times larger than the number of people who buy albums these days. This, in the end, is what fans were actually voting for: not for the next corporate media cash-cow, for but someone they’d want to see blow the roof off the studio for 10 straight weeks. Fans always understood what Idol was really about. For them, it was always first and foremost a weekly talent show, and not a farm system for the major labels.
That’s why this final season has been such a pleasure to watch, even with all of its dull stretches and inexplicable eliminations. Idol still has some impact, as evidenced by Clarkson’s rapid rise back up the charts after she performed a stripped-down version of her months-old single “Piece By Piece” earlier this year. But even if nobody in season 15 ever has a hit record, it’s still been a joy to see performers as unusual and as talented as the big-haired belter La’Porsha and the wiry, unclassifiable crooner Trent get five minutes or so each week to sing their hearts out to 10 million people.
American Idol has shown a remarkable ability to stumble on singers like these two, who’d otherwise stand almost no chance of getting a fair hearing from a big record company. But here’s what’s even more important: America has been voting for them, week after week. It’s enough to restore a person’s faith in democracy.