Earnest Pettie, comedy writer
Ratings are down 10% for American Idol this year, text messages are off by about half, compared to this same time last season, and the cast has been in flux for two years now. American Idol is, without a doubt, in decline. There’s almost nothing American Idol could have done to prevent this. You see, American Idol’s problem isn’t that it’s any worse a show than it was last season or even nine seasons ago. It’s that the world has changed around American Idol, and now American Idol has become increasingly irrelevant. When American Idol began its Nielsen-dominating run at the beginning of this decade, reality TV as we would come to know it was still in its infancy, Friendster was the only social network people had ever heard of, and record companies had been shoving pop groups and stars down our gullets for years. American Idol was supposed to be the remedy to the latter. The television audience would determine its own pop stars through a months-long gauntlet of singing competitions. The winner would, by definition, be a viable pop star because the audience would have already demonstrated its preference for the singer.
It’s fun to go back and look at those early episodes. All the contestants are dressed like what they think pop stars are supposed to dress like, wearing clothes that none of today’s contestants would be caught dead in. It really was a different era. Kelly Clarkson won that season and was considered a success by all measures and wouldn’t be topped until Carrie Underwood won the contest in 2005. The 2005 season represents kind of a high watermark for the show because the audience for the show was reaching its peak and Carrie Underwood was the last American Idol winner to make real waves in the music industry. It was also the last year that it was possible for Idol to be Idol.
2005 saw the explosion of Myspace and the birth of Youtube, two tools that would inevitably change the music industry and replace American Idol as the avenue Average Joes took to becoming pop stars. Need proof? The elimination episode of this year’s semifinals featured Justin Bieber, who owed his enormous popularity to Youtube videos, and the other performer on the show, Travis Garland, made his name through Myspace. Now, what seemed like a unique concept– that anyone could be a star without having to rely on the traditional route to stardom– is our everyday reality. In fact, we learned long ago that the winners of American Idol weren’t the only contestants who would receive recording contracts, so not only is the premise of the show no longer unique, the prize isn’t either. The audience, rather than choosing one contestant to make a star, has become a focus group for twelve musicians.
The music business isn’t the only thing that has changed since Idol began. Reality TV has grown by leaps and bounds, so much so that by 2005, the airwaves were quickly filling up with reality TV programs. What this infusion of reality TV programming did was make stars of regular people and make stars seem like regular people. Reality TV collapsed the allure of stardom, and aspiration to stardom was something that American Idol was built on.
So the world around American Idol has changed greatly since the show debuted a decade ago. What does American Idol have left to offer that hasn’t been usurped by reality TV and the internet? For a long time, what American Idol had to offer was a strange interplay between the bratty but professional Ryan Seacrest, the enthusiastic Randy Jackson, the ever-loopy Paula Abdul, and the schoolmaster Simon Cowell. But even that has changed. Ellen Degeneres replaced Paula Abdul, Kara DioGuardi slid in between Randy and Simon, and Simon has one foot out the door. Everything the show had to offer has dissipated, and all that we, the audience, are left with is the hope that we might tune in and see something special that reminds us of why we watched the show in the first place. In short, American Idol is the superstar that has become a nostalgia act without even knowing it. Sadly, the show that was to allow us to pick the next Britney Spears has become Britney Spears.