On 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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