Why American Idol did nothing for the creation of great pop music
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Why American Idol did nothing for the creation of great pop music

13 May 2015 5 Comments
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americanidolOn May 11, Fox Television Group executives Dana Walden and Gary Newman officially announced that the 2015-2016 Fall season of American Idol will be the final one. A run of 15 years is pretty impressive for a television show – despite its lower ratings in recent years. The show’s premise hit at the very foundation of the notion of the “American Dream” (despite it taking its birth in the UK) by bringing singers out of obscurity and launching them into the music spotlight on an international platform. In doing so, it has become one of the most successful television franchises in history. The show created careers for many people, advertising opportunities for big brands, and a lot of money for Simon Cowell and the Fox television group – but did it do much for music? In our humble opinion, it did nothing positive for music and we are more than glad that it is finally making its exit from television. Here is why we think American Idol did nothing of consequence for music or for the future of music.

a. It was a glorified karaoke show:

Songwriting is the essential ingredient of great music that is likely to stand the test of time. While the “star factor” of an artist or great vocals significantly enhance the core songwriting, they can rarely ever compensate for a weak sonic core. American Idol does not seek to nurture this essential competency of songwriting or reward a contestant for his or her ability to write great music. It conveys the false notion that the ability to sing and be presentable on stage are sufficient to create a body of music that will pave the way for any type of longevity for a musician. There is virtually no emphasis on sonic creativity or originality. Furthermore, for the most part, all that we have seen is contestants singing popular songs by established artists. This bears a striking resemblance to a karaoke party – except that it is being broadcast to a mass audience. While this broke older popular songs to a newer and younger demographic, it rarely showcased new and original music.

b. It created an unrealistic expectation of overnight success:

Most artists have honed their artistry over years before they were able to create music that launched them into the pop music spotlight and into the consciousness for music buyers. Now, with the emergence of an “idol” in every season of the show, American Idol has perpetrated the idea that the greatest path to success is the one that is traversed overnight through the show. It is essentially a “shortcut” to great success. In life, there are no shortcuts to success but Simon Cowell makes contestants believe otherwise by offering a major label recording contract to the winner of each season.

c. It emphasized stardom over artistry:

The name “Idol” alone suggests that the end goal of the show is to find someone that is capable of being the object of mass adulation. While it is very possible for an incredibly talented musician to be this object, in recent years, many such objects have not showcased much in terms of real artistic credibility. Unfortunately, many contestants aspire to be this object of ephemeral value. While some of the show’s alums have gone on to have somewhat substantial musical careers, not enough of them have succeeded to legitimize the relevance of American Idol in the context of helping build new musical legacies.

d. The incentives of the show’s producers were not necessarily aligned with music:

The measure of success of American Idol was not based on its creative output. It was based almost entirely on its ability to hold the attention of masses that enjoyed watching glorified Karaoke. Very often, the ability to hold the attention of the masses was also a function of how long certain “high interest” or popular contestants stayed in the competition. These “high interest” contestants did not necessarily have to be the most talented ones but they were key to keeping an engaged audience that kept returning for more. Hence, at times, there was a strong incentive for the judges to keep less talented contestants in the competition for much longer than those contestants deserved to be around. This certainly could not have helped the “musical” endeavors of the show. The “popularity contest” element of the show was clearly at odds with the aim of discovering musical talent.

It is unlikely that the realizations that we have highlighted above have much to do with the upcoming demise of the show. The novelty probably just wore off and the formula got really old. Moreover, the relevance of live television for music is probably significantly lower now than it used to be when this show first saw the light of day. As a radio station that celebrates inspired musicians with great talent and legacies, we are happy to see the disappearance of a show that did not really seem to care about nurturing artistic talent. More often that not, it created personalities that eclipsed talented artists. As a result, at times, it hurt the career prospects of artists that opted to take the conventional “difficult” route to success.

Have we been too harsh in our criticism of the show? Please feel free to share your thoughts and feedback via the comments section below.

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5 Responses to "Why American Idol did nothing for the creation of great pop music"

  1. Frannie says:

    I totally agree with your points. The only artist I have ever liked that came from American Idol was Kelly Clarkson who I think is a great artist. But she only became successful by distancing himself from American Idol and doing more rock leaning material which she didn’t do on the show.
    I never understood why they only did songs by other artists. Even if you are talented how can you show what you can do by doing a song by an iconic artist like Cyndi Lauper or Michael Jackson? How can you compete with them? Why not let contestants do their own songs or get unknown songwriters write for them. Not all pop singers write all of their own music but the best ones know how to pick out material that works for them written by others and have an instinctive feel for what will work with their voice or attitude. I want to see what type of music someone does before I would be interested in buying their album.

    I also don’t like the focus on just singers. Some of my favorite artists are bands. I like seeing the interplay of different personalities and musical tastes. There is so much more than just the lead singer. There was a show on US tv awhile back sorry can’t remember the name, that featured contestants including bands that did their own material, I thought it was good, but it was a ratings flop. For some reason, people seem to like to hear only songs they know already.

    The only people it seemed to benefit was some older pop artists such as Jennifer Lopez who got jobs as judges that made them a lot of money. These shows do provide employment and visibility for certain pop artists who have been a bit out of the spotlight or their prime.
    The only thing I would disagree with in your article is that although American Idol is cancelled, I don’t think the format is dead. The Voice is still going strong and so is the X Factor in the UK. I don’t see the whole singing competition format going away anytime soon unfortunately.
    I also don’t think it hurt the career prospects of people who took the conventional road to success. Actually very few people on these shows besides Kelly Clarkson achieved much radio or album sales success. If you look at the bigger pop stars of the last couple of years, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus whether you like them or not, none of them came through these shows.

  2. @Frannie: I think you made an interesting comment on solo artists vs bands – and how the Idol format focuses exclusively on the solo artist. But then again, that isn’t surprising given what they are going after right? I mean, they are looking for a single person that has the capacity to be an object of mass adulation. They are not looking for someone that shares credibility with others. The provision of a post “shelf life”” career as judges is a great thing for artists – albeit a pretty sad one. I think the issue of hurting the career prospects of those that take the conventional path might have been an extreme expression on my part. But, for any artist releasing any album or single after the season finale of this show, scoring a #1 is out of the question – and having a #1 does give an artist some credibility – at least from a commercial perspective.

  3. Frannie says:

    I guess this comment may be late but I was thinking about this the other day. The focus on the solo artist kind of makes it hard for them to focus on songwriting or original material though. There are a few people who can write a great hit song completely by themselves, but that’s relatively rare. Most great or hit songs tend to be written by more than one person collaborating together. So if they don’t let bands or groups of people enter, how can there be a songwriting competition? A lot of solo artists aren’t really solo in that they work together with other songwriters or producers.

    In general as you said they focus too much on the “star” quality not enough on the musical part. There are superstars who have that star quality that masses of people idolize but almost all of them also have the music talent in addition to the iconic star quality. I’m thinking of people like Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson, David Bowie etc.

    Also, the music business is a hard business and the most successful people tend to be very self motivated, have strong personalities and create their own vision. They certainly don’t look to some mentor or coach to tell them what the right way to be is and what songs or type of music to sing which is the premise of most of these shows. So basically the whole concept of these shows go against what makes a music superstar. True stars kind of instinctively know what to do and don’t need to be mentored by some already famous person.

  4. Mark GLJ says:

    Kelly Clarkson is a piece of trash and will only be an American Idol Plastic Bimbo every time she opens her nasty holwing mouth. This Us guff show is even worse than the guff UK one, not least cos all it ever does is act like its own awful country is the only place in the world to do music. Ha! Yeah-such variety. Country tunes on the left-power ballads on the right and rap down the middle. And they gave us Madonna, the vilest thing in the world. Says it all! Madonna wouldn’t have music talent if you rammed it up here, all it would do is give her a high!

    If America was so brilliant at music, it would have turned out the likes of Kim Wilde, Kirsty MacColl, Duran Duran, ABBA, China Crisis, Crowded House, Ace Of Base, Sandra, Alphaville, A-ha, Sade, Kate Bush, Big Country, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, Emma Hewitt, Keane, Tina Cousins, Roxy Music, David Bowie, The Divinyls, Ladyhawke, Roxette, Maggie Reilly and The Corrs. That’s a prestigious selection there, listing many of the best (and most underrated acts who easily beat the most lauded every day-I should know, as I can’t get through a day without playing/humming/singing/remembering a Kim Wilde/Kirsty MacColl/Duran Duran/ABBA/A-ha/Sandra/Alphaville song.

    What America gave us of true worth that impresses me is scarily small-and tellingly comprised off acts they themselves don’t even bother holding as important. These are: Bangles, ‘Til Tuesday, Voice Of The Beehive, Berlin, Belinda Carlisle-mainly women interestingly, but of later times, considering the state of music everywhere these days, Blondfire, MsMr and Haim sound like they have a point.

    The problem is that the US is too held up on its own xenophobic ideas that everyone has to sound like the Beatles before they’ll take notice. I always says it says it all for a country if they can be delivered pop music at its most perfect-ABBA-and STILL not be impressed enough to take it in the same amounts every other part of the world did! Seems to still be that the rule is that if it’s not from their shores, than stuff it!

    This is further proved by all the silly kids not picking ONE non-Yank song to “sing” for the stupid show-or if they do, it’s a hit from a tiresome non-US legend whose songs are done to death anyway! The fact that US critics give naff and utterly ill-conceived reviews to non-US artists as they did in the 80s courtesy of the stupid All Media Guide, including such hilariously inept and plain innacurate descriptions of scary synth-rock tunes as “dramatic ballads” (!?) or power-pop that sounds like one of their own artists, when it’s usually the other way around! Idiots! Clearly the songs of non-US artists are just too challenging for them. Plus the judges on these show represent the kind of reprehensible trash making lousy records anyway and who don’t deserve a career-Jennifer Lopez for one such nonenTITy!

    This superstar thing you’re expecting people to be is wrong though. The best people-true artists barely ever claim to be that. Sure-big showoffs like U2’s Bono desire it, and that nasty hag Madonna simply wants to be known to be known, figuring that if she makes big enough stink through all her boring, ancient and shop-worn little marketable controversy gimmicks to get herself sold beyond the clouds, despite her actual product having all the talent, weight and essence of an ameoba’s fart. And she was and still is a horrible person-feeling that was the only way to do it-besides sleeping with everybody too, which would have seen everyone else dropped from a height had they tried it!

    A true superstar is one not trying to be-you measure it by how brilliant, how original and clever their music is, but also how they libve their life, and Kim Wilde, Kirsty MacColl, Duran Duran, Sandra, Alphaville, A-ha, Big Country, Bangles, Berlin and others are perfect examples of this, as were ABBA. It’s not about the stupid fake statistics that nobodies keep blagging out about chart poisitions, gold records, most amount pof plays or anything. Just cos something sells bucketloads, doesn’t mean it’s any good. AND its not music anything DOES sell today, unless it’s an underground act or hiding in the small vestiges of the internet.

    Today it’s all about selling stupid little girls and boys to equally stupid little boys and girls who have equally stupid parents that were also products of a dumb decade that did the same thing and never questioned it, feeling it right. Look were we’bve got now, where no one can be objective about acts any more-or you’re a “bitch”. Whatever happened to individual thought? Not being swayed by a bunch of patronising, lofty losers who are barely better than the idiots they champion for having a go at you for having the brains tp question the highly dubious existence of everything in the scene trying to make records and being bloody lousy about it! Records should at least be good, be sung properly and be fun-and certainly so if they’re beyond telling an imaginative and exciting story or even a relaistic slab of life.

    The record business is a poisonous nasty place, and true star David Bowie knew it, saying quite recently again how he never intended to be a star-he just did what he felt he needed to do, and was suprised it happened, with the daring and groundbreaking stuff he did do. Record labels in the 80s use to rule the best people (very often women) and exist toruin and trample all over them. Then the 90s and after dawned and now women get all the breaks with men, only now they’re rubbish-as are the men, get loads of power and don’t deserve it. So much for the digital age “harming” them-it did nothing, just made it harder for decent artists deliberately already ignored and forgotten about to get things out and be promoted.

    If rubbish Idol really want to grab my attention, they can hold a Kim Wilde evening for instance-even while I cringe and roll eyes and scream, but at least it would be a bit respectful to a far better richer country of music than they’ll ever be-which of course they’ll never do. So best thing for it-destroy the show-and all of them everywhere.

    Music today is not about that-it’s about selling identikit supermarket product of disposable and drearily awful nothing to a consumer as bereft of common sense and individual thought as they are-and all it does is make all the undereserving rich and make people even thicker!

  5. Jennifer Robertson says:

    Honestly, I could not stand the karaoke style of most of the seasons of AI (and I love a naturally good voice and watching artists develop), however, when Harrick Connick, Jr., came on the show and co-judged with J. Lo and Keith, I DID watch. It was still a popularity contest and I rarely liked the ultimate winners, but they tended to choose singers with a songwriting history (some even played their own single on AI) and a live playing history. So in effect, these up and comers were not achieving instant success. In fact, it was expected at that point post-season that these singers would be just starting their careers in the public eye. And Harry seemed to care about vocal ability and its importance as he threw out all sorts of music theory words and I was learning, gasp (and so were J. Lo and Keith)! However, they must’ve told him after the first season to ‘cut that out’ and it took away some of the seriousness and purpose the show had gained. I also really loved when the judges got up on stage and jammed together. It was as if Harry had gotten together with Keith and J Lo and said, hey, let’s set the bar higher for this show so it can go on. Unfortunately, that’s obviously not what the producers and/or their audience had in mind. They could do a new show with what I feel the three judges (or at least Harry who is a genius) intended and seek out a new audience but the AI brand had too much weight to it by the time those three had inherited it as a team. This new show would have been a great thing for someone like George Michael to take on if he were still alive and had the interest. Unfortunately, we seem to be losing geniuses fast and TV, besides early MTV and PBS, has never been used as a fun educational tool for music lovers. I would like to think it’s possible someday soon.

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