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Sex & Low Beach
Does American Idol even exist anymore? Sure, it’s still there on your TV Guide schedule. But the new panel of judges consists of Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj, and Keith Urban—otherwise known as the Queen of Clinton-Era Pop, a photo-negative of Marilyn Manson in Halloween drag, and Requisite Man With Accent. The absence of the original Big Three judges and the growing number of shows with formats similar to that of Idol signals a changing dynamic in the stability of Idol at the head of the TV table.
American Idol seems to be the ideological descendant of MTV and VH1, the ’80s-’90s TV networks that integrated the spectacle of pop music with the television cult of personality. These channels gave the music industry a soul and a sound byte—but the show itself, which premiered on Fox in June 2002, went further and featured us instead of musicians. Idol made its stars from scratch, offering a downsized and BeDazzled version of the American dream, which was the key to its success.
“You make the show about the A&R process, and you make the public the A&R,” says Richard Rushfield, a writer for Vanity Fair and author of a comprehensive Idol history. “That’s how you get the most stable thing on television for a decade.” By involving viewers directly in the making of a hit musician, executives cut their marketing costs and created a community.
Yet, more than a decade after Idol premiered, musical reality TV viewers has moved on to a new selection, chief among them The Voice and The X Factor. These shows are similar in concept to Idol: both are spinoffs of European franchises (respectively Dutch and British shows); they include public voting, elimination rounds, and a final showdown; and, most importantly, they feature a panel of “expert judges.”
Ashlin Yu, a member of Columbia University Television who specializes in pop entertainment, speculates on these new shows’ success: “The Voice is all about the coaches ... It’s fun to see talented and established artists getting excited about undiscovered talent, and it’s even more fun to watch them throw low blows at each other to get the contestants on their team. Also, who doesn’t love watching those chairs spin around?” she asks, referencing a key gimmick of The Voice. In essence, these new shows are American Idol rehashed—so why are they rising to prominence while Idol is struggling to stay afloat?
For one thing, the original Idol teenage demographic is now 10 years older. What Rushfield calls “the natural progression of any TV show” seems to account for Idol’s loss of its initial fan base to time and maturity. For another, as Rushfield points out, “between the singing groups and the young people and the old people, there were only four people on The X Factor’s Top 12 who would have been qualified to be on Idol, and two sang hip-hop, so they would never have gotten to Idol.”
This homogenization of Idol winners over the years has also led to what Huffington Post reviewer Laura Prudom refers to as “WGWG, or White Guys With Guitars” syndrome. The last five Idols have all been white men, all acoustically-inclined, all of whom fit within a middle-class, suburban comfort zone. The X Factor and The Voice feature diversity in age, ethnicity, style, genre, and much more than just That Nice Boy From Down The Street.
And then there’s the genre itself: Ultimately, all reality TV shows about musicians are half-suspense and half-schadenfreude, talent be damned. What Idol viewer could forget Sanjaya Malakar or William Hung (despite many desperate attempts)? Reality TV is about taking people whose personalities capture attention and aggregating them, giving millions of viewers access to someone who would normally be one lucky guy’s “I Met This Crazy Chick At Arby’s Once” story. The quality of performance on American Idol varies according to your opinion, but almost everyone enjoys gossiping about a singer who tanked or a judge who was wrong. Pathos, humor, music, messiness, a chance to smirk collectively at society’s awkward misfits—what did Idol have beyond these reality TV staples to distinguish it?
The answer lies in the judges. Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, and Simon Cowell became iconic, sitting at their table, drinking from Coca-Cola cups and occasionally judging each other more than they did the contestants. Together, they represented the Holy Trinity: the performer (Abdul), the producer (Jackson), and the bad attitude (guess who). Their opinion mattered not because it was right, but because it was theirs. Paula, Randy, and Simon created the persona of the show as they dealt with its drama and scandals. In particular, Simon’s scathing honesty—and occasional heartfelt praise—captivated viewers. Though they were far from perfect, these judges were a collective, and the audience relied on them for familiarity.
So when Carey, Minaj, and Urban are left to hold that bag, it stands to reason that this show may flounder in the inexorable progression of its own changing identity. In Yu’s words, “All of the press surrounding the new season of Idol has to do with the judges and not the talent.” The show has moved on past itself. And, for a point of reference, the same thing happened in a flammable way to Rome.
The Voice and The X-Factor are very possibly the future. But even when Idol finally, and perhaps thankfully, takes its bows—even when new shows replace the reigning champion of undiscovered talent, even when Paula, Simon, and Randy have a special reunion show where they all come together and throw paint balloons at Ryan Seacrest’s head—even so, there will never be anything like American Idol.
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