Valar morghulis doesn’t just apply to us flesh-and-blood types. All shows must die also. But while I knew intellectually that American Idol would leave us someday — and that realization became especially acute in the last couple of years — news of its cancellation (though not before a 2016 swan song) still came as a blow to this particular Idol completist.
Idol might not be the show I’ve written about the longest, and certainly isn’t the one I’ve loved the most, but our long history together has given me a certain feeling of protectiveness about it, and I’ve enjoyed playing pundit (good calls: identifying Phillip Phillips and Scotty McCreery as potential winners based only off their auditions; bad call: ranking Kris Allen as something like the 34th most likely out of 36 Green Mile survivors to win Season 8). And thanks to Ken Barnes and USA Today, the show provided me with the largest audience for my writing I will almost certainly ever have.
A lot of veterans of the Idol online wars have spent the last few days analyzing what went wrong with the show, which is to some extent a futile gesture. There is nothing much that can be done to keep a primetime show on the air indefinitely, particularly one like Idol that has certain fixed costs (and that shed several key sponsors as it lost audience in the key demographic). But the endgame for the show is especially harsh, even humiliating in some ways, and I don’t think there’s much disputing that those responsible for Idol hastened its demise with some poor decisions — some of which were seemingly sound ideas that just didn’t work, and others that I believe fatally alienated its core audience.
American Idol is reminiscent of the character in The Sun Also Rises who says he went broke in two ways: gradually, and then suddenly. I’m going to begin with the “suddenly” part of the equation because there’s a very obvious place, in retrospect, where Idol reached the point of no return. That point was Season 12, which aired in 2013.
It’s hard to believe that just three years ago, Idol was still a juggernaut. 2012 was the year the Wednesday Idol performance show lost its spot as the top-rated show on TV, but it trailed only NBC’s Sunday night NFL telecast, and the Idol results show was still solidly in the Top Ten. What’s more, its most recent champions, McCreery and Phillips, had achieved fairly quick success, turning around what looked to be an emerging trend of winners fading from view. The Voice had premiered and there was some concern that the music shows might cannibalize each other, but it appeared that at the very worst, Idol would settle into a groove like the one Survivor has been in for last ten years or so: no longer a phenomenon, but a reliable performer at a lower level.
But despite the continuing success, some fans of Idol were clearly becoming annoyed by the perception that only the “WGWGs” — white guys with guitars — had any chance of winning any longer. Since the producers began to allow singers to play instruments during their performances in Season 7, only white males with at least some instrumental ability had won Idol (in fairness, McCreery played guitar only intermittently, but he got lumped in with the others). It hadn’t escaped anyone’s attention that the women champions on Idol had clearly outperformed the guys in terms of post-show success — Jordin Sparks had several pop hits, Kelly Clarkson had never stopped selling since winning in 2002, and Carrie Underwood was the biggest female star in country music. By the early part of this decade, male solo artists outside of hip-hop were becoming a rare breed on the charts — as far back as 2006, Idol felt it necessary to remarket Chris Daughtry as a band, figuring it was his best chance to land on the radio.
So the show wanted a female winner by 2013. Perfectly understandable. But how to do that given that the audience for the show, which by 2012 had begun to age and was clearly dominated by women over 30 and not teenage girls, had expressed a definite preference for WGWGs? The answer, as it turned out, was to rig the game so drastically that a woman couldn’t help but win. As Season 12 continued through the audition process and the Hollywood rounds, any male singer who could play a guitar, could sing country music, had any sort of rock sensibility, or had any potential of being seen as sexy by the average middle-aged secretary in Albuquerque was systematically eliminated by the judges, no doubt with the coercion of producers.
Most veteran Idol watchers regard Seasons 3, 6, 9, and 12 as the weakest from an enjoyment standpoint, and it’s probably not a coincidence that they were easily the weakest fields when it came to male talent. But Season 12 was a new low, with men so terrible and/or in over their heads that all of them were eliminated from the finals before any of the women, despite the usual bias of the audience. But that audience was shrinking noticeably week by week in Season 12, as many of the core viewers turned away with feelings of disrespect, never to return. It should be said that the all-woman top five was actually pretty good, especially the top three of Candice Glover, Kree Harrison, and Angie Miller. But a season of Idol without a single compelling male singer (well, maybe Lazaro Arbos was compelling in the same way as the Titanic was compelling as it sank) was a predictable Nielsen disaster.
Would it have been so bad for Idol to simply accept that its audience was what it was, and work with that? These last two years, Idol basically stopped caring about this sort of manipulation and let its remaining audience do what it wanted. Seeming to prove that the Season 12 girls’ club could only have come about through dramatic engineering, one of the stronger males cut during the Season 12 audition process was Caleb Johnson, who would go on to win Season 13 despite a ’70s approach to rock belting that had zero chance of making a commercial mark. By this past season, the audience had gotten so low that Nick Fradiani and Clark Beckham were the two finalists despite being the two most similar males in the entire top 12. Even a few years ago, enough people were watching that there would be no way for these two to split the same fanbase for long, but by 2015, that fanbase was about all that Idol was still playing to.
It wasn’t just the contestant pool that ruined Season 12. The judging panel did its part as well. For starters, Idol made the decision, apparently under pressure from The Voice, to return to the four-judge format that no one seemed to like the first time around (in Seasons 8 and 9). No one who wrote about the show seemed to think this was a good idea, but there was at least a good deal of interest in the three new names coming aboard to join the unkillable Randy Jackson. Likable country crooner Keith Urban was an acknowledgement that Nashville had always gotten behind Idol contestants, even those like Lauren Alaina who were thoroughly boring. Mariah Carey would bring undeniable musical crediblity that neither Paula Abdul nor Jennifer Lopez could remotely approach. And Nicki Minaj would be the first Idol judge who was still a frequent presence on the pop chart. Minaj wasn’t as famous in the wider world as Mariah, but she was key — an attempt to reach out to the younger viewers who were starting to abandon the show, or were being distracted by the newcomer on NBC.
This all made a certain sense, and early reviews seemed fairly positive. The audition episodes were edited in a way to highlight Minaj, who seemed to naturally assume leadership of the panel without exactly being asked. She offered good advice on presentation, which was arguably badly needed. But things seemed to off the rails once the auditions ended. Mariah had difficulty offering critiques, or being remotely concise — all of her vast knowledge was wasted in a blizzard of stammers. Reports of the personality clashes between the two female judges began way back when the auditions were being filmed, and they couldn’t be hidden any longer once the live shows began. Carey had been under the impression she would be the only female judge, and couldn’t hide her disdain for the hip-hopper, who conversely was not one to let disrespect go unremarked upon.
The feud between the women was bad enough. But Nicki made things worse with incidents such as the time she simply arrived late for a live show, the only time in Idol history anything like that had ever happened. Her treatment of some of the contestants came across as harsh, particularly her Twitter explosion at a frustrated eliminated singer named Devin Velez. On another occasion, she visibly lost any interest in an attractive male singer when she found out he was married. Simply put, Minaj was a bad fit for Idol, and her hiring totally backfired — hip kids weren’t going to return to the show, and many in the core audience (let’s call it like it is: white people over 40) couldn’t stand her and bailed.
Bringing on Harry Connick Jr. for Season 13, like the decision not to try to steer voters away from Caleb, was an acknowledgement that Idol had made errors; that its attempt to halt the trickle of departed viewers had turned the problem into a deluge instead. But it was all too late.
Some other factors that have led to the waning of the Idol reign, which I will deal with more briefly:
The loss of Simon Cowell: That ratings didn’t immediately drop when Cowell left after Season 9 was taken by some as a sign that his importance to Idol may have been overstated. The failure of Cowell on the USA version of The X Factor led many to conclude that the phenomenon of Simon had run its course, and maybe that’s true (I assume we’re going to have another chance to find that out, fairly soon). But even though Cowell had his clear biases and his understanding of the American music market was flawed, he had credibility that no other judge before or since could muster. Connick has massive amounts of musical knowledge, but too often his critiques would wander off into irrelevant neighborhoods, such as whether a young woman should be singing about sex.
The changing tastes of American music listeners: Think about the state of music when Idol debuted 13 summers ago. Carey was still regularly charting. Celine Dion was just past her commercial peak. Christina Aguilera was a role model for young singers (Kelly Clarkson’s first post-Idol single was a Xtina reject). Whitney Houston, though mired in the spiral that would end her life, was an influence of Jupiter-sized proportions
When Idol contestants were reflecting that wider music scene, the show took off; but as ballad belters (save Adele) and rock of all kinds became more marginal on the charts, and dance music with a hip-hop influence became dominant, it became harder to imagine even the best graduates of the show having a career of hits (with the exception, again, of those with a country bent). The inability of Idol to come up with a young black singer who reflected what their own demographic was listening to was a problem the show never did solve. Cowell always dreamed of coming up a singer on Idol that would mirror the success of his U.K. discovery Leona Lewis, but even Kelly Clarkson had to stop belting and put her career in the hands of anonymous Swedes to lengthen her hitmaking days.
This tension between what will present well in a televised contest and what might sell on iTunes has been there all along, really. The biggest selling record in the year Idol debuted was by Norah Jones, who was about the right age to be on Idol but couldn’t have even gotten past the auditions with her understated style (or inability to play the piano). Colbie Caillat auditioned for Idol with her own “Bubbly,” which didn’t impress the producers at all but wound up as a hit anyway.
Diversity helped Idol artistically, but at a price: I believe that the two big changes Idol made to increase its contestant pool — raising the age limit to 28, and allowing the use of musical instruments onstage — were both for the better. The talent level on Idol between Seasons 7 and 11 was almost ridiculously deep (even Season 9 would have looked better in retrospect had the voters not made so many goofy decisions in the early rounds). The 12 best unsuccessful semifinalists from the 36-person Season 8 semis were probably a superior group to the actual finalists this past season.
But as the contestants got older, better, more experienced, and more diverse, the more successful contestants began reflecting the opinions and tastes of an older audience that for the most part wasn’t interested in new music or new sounds anymore. Season 5 is regarded by most as Idol at its imperial peak, but the victory of cornball fake-soul Taylor Hicks over the ten-years-younger Katherine McPhee can be seen in retrospect as a watershed. It seemed that with each passing year, more Idol contestants were looking at the show as their last chance to get their name out there, not as the beginning of something. Again, this took a toll with younger viewers.
The contestants stopped standing out as personalities: My favorite version of the Idol format was the one first adopted in Season 4: a few weeks of auditions, a couple of weeks in Hollywood, three weeks of gender-segregated semifinals that cut the field from 24 to 20 to 16 to 12, and then the finals. This lengthy process gave viewers the chance to get to know the contestants a little bit as people, and to notice when they were beginning to show signs of growth. Paula Abdul’s use of the word “journey” was more than a little insipid, but it did kind of fit the course of an Idol season.
However, the producers of the show were always frustrated by the fact that viewership for Idol peaked with the auditions, hit a lull in Hollywood and the semifinals, and then began to rise again as the finals progressed. Shortening the period where the audience dipped became an obsession with them, and various attempts were made to make the transition from the auditions to the vote as quick as possible. I think Idol a lot in the process, though, with the result being that the judges now loom larger over the show than they did in the Cowell years. It would be impossible for someone like a Kellie Pickler to emerge on Idol today, because viewers got to know Kellie from her lengthy audition segment and from her goofy chats with Ryan Seacrest and the judges. This past season, with the elimination of the results show and the rushed nature of the live shows, the contestants were easily the most anonymous they have ever been.
The talent pool has gotten worse: It’s possible not everyone will agree with me here, and will say that I am romanticizing the old days, and confusing the drop in the Idol audience with a drop in talent. But I’m not really talking about the beginning years of Idol, when the show was at its ratings peak. There were contestants on Idol in its early seasons, fairly successful ones, who were stunningly bad by the standards of more recent seasons. Who was the better fifth-place finisher: this year’s talented teen Tyanna Jones, or Season 4’s oafish Scott Savol? (Answer: I agree with all of you).
What I’m really talking about, as I said above, was the talent level from Seasons 7 to 11. The drop from those few short years ago till now is pretty apparent. Take Angie Miller, who finished third in Season 12. Despite her “Rachel Berry come to life” personality, she was far and away more talented than anyone on either of the last two Idol seasons. Whether she could have actually won those years is a different story, since she can’t pee standing up, a requirement to win every recent Idol season other than the one she was on.
A middling blandness settled over Idol this past season. Yeah, Daniel Seavey was terrible, but someone like him shows up on Idol about every other year and goes way too far. But everyone else was just “kind of OK.” There were times I’d wonder if they would get to the final four and then just declare a mass tie, since no one had the feel of anything more than a fourth-place finisher.
Frankly, I think The Voice is now getting better contestants than Idol. The NBC show may be unapologetically focused on its celebrities, but it also features fresher, more diverse music. Idol is stuck with the same old warhorses, and no longer requires its singers to navigate goofy theme weeks that often led to happy surprises like Adam Lambert doing “Ring of Fire.” I doubt this situation will change much in Season 15, since Fox will be loath to raise spending on a show that’s on its last legs.
I hope Fox and Idol can pull something interesting together for the last roundup next season; and that future imitators of the show, possibly even the inevitable Idol reboot in 2020 or whenever, can learn from these mistakes.