The Legacy of 'American Idol': It Was Always About the Stars

Carrie Underwood; Adam Lambert; Kelly Clarkson
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The singing competition might have been on the air for too long, but its reputation as a star factory secured its place in pop culture history.

American Idol is the essential American reality show of the 00's, and that's not changing. That speaks to Idol's monumental impact on culture last decade, as well as to its eroding relevance in this one.

By the beginning of the 2010's, American Idol had started to become the relic that it is today, the old-timey singing show with the type of plummeting ratings that prompted multiple music sites to use the phrase "being put out of its misery" when news broke Monday morning (May 11) that its upcoming 15th season will be its last. Did Idol overstay its welcome by roughly seven seasons? Probably. Did those first eight seasons justify the run that followed? Definitely.

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One could linger on Simon Cowell and his many razor-tongued quips, or Ryan Seacrest being given the starting line to become the next Dick Clark, or Jennifer Lopez's successful career reinvention, or the painfully funny audition outtakes (we remember you, William Hung, often in our darkest nightmares). But American Idol's legacy will forever be about star-making, a process heavily facilitated by boffo TV ratings.

From the show's first season, when a sprightly 22-year-old named Kelly Clarkson triumphed over a floppy-haired dude named Justin Guarini in front of 22 million viewers, American Idol established itself as a pipeline to Top 40 success and a taste-making juggernaut, where it mattered who America voted a winner instead of a runner-up. If you were a record label in 2002 and wanted to find a new star for your roster, what better way than to scoop up an artist that millions of listeners had fallen in love with before his or her debut single? Clarkson's immediate stardom (her actual debut single, "A Moment Like This," hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 chart) helped legitimize the crossover impact of a hit television series, and a phenomenon was born.

More importantly, however, American Idol's star production was not relegated to each season's winner. Ruben Studdard edged out Clay Aiken in the Season 2 finale, but Aiken enjoyed the more fruitful post-Idol music career. Fantasia became a reliable R&B voice following her season 3 win, while Jennifer Hudson -- who came in seventh that year -- went on to win an Oscar less than three years after her elimination. Artists like Chris Daughtry, David Archuleta and Adam Lambert were just as important for being non-winners as Carrie Underwood, Jordin Sparks and David Cook were for being victors: their presences in pop proved that America was not cherry-picking the competition, but becoming invested in the voices that they had been following from January to May each year. Whether they were thrilled that their favorite singer won or outraged that they were eliminated, viewers actually cared about the Idol results, and followed up on that passion by buying singles, CDs and concert tickets after the finale had aired.

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And how many other reality shows can say that? This decade there have been shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Real Housewives and Duck Dynasty that have made waves in pop culture outside of their time slots, but when American Idol started, contemporary programs like Survivor, Big Brother, The Bachelor and The Biggest Loser ended in the public consciousness after the cameras stopped rolling. Other music competitions, from The Voice to So You Think You Can Dance to America's Best Dance Crew, similarly existed within the realm of television but have very rarely punctured the world of pop music. Whenever The Voice slows down and eventually ends its multi-season run (probably sometime in the distant future), its legacy will be much more difficult to pinpoint, since its appeal has always been its collection of flashy judges. What we will remember most about The Voice will be... what? The interplay between Blake Shelton and Adam Levine? Certainly not winners like Javier Colon and Danielle Bradbery. 

That's precisely why American Idol needs to be shut down: the show was always positioned as a star factory and no longer serves its purpose, with its last quasi-personality coming in the form of 2012 winner Phillip Phillips. The lack of recent star power coincides with the falling number of people who actually watch the show and care about who makes the top 12, and that can be chalked up to viewer fatigue (14 seasons is a long time) and a stale judges table (Lopez, Keith Urban and Harry Connick Jr. aren't exactly live-wire personalities). The truth is, the music industry has changed over the past decade-and-a-half as much as American Idol's format has stayed the same. Stars are discovered through YouTube and Vine covers now, not through a weekly program on a major network. Labels no longer need to watch American Idol to find the Next Great Hope for pop music -- they just need to look at their phones.

I suggested last January that Season 15 of Idol be branded as a star-studded farewell, and then the show be taken off the air for five to 10 years before Fox gives the competition a nostalgia-inducing revival. Part one of that plan is coming to fruition, but who knows whether American Idol can become a fraction as pertinent in the 20's as it was in the 00's. Even if Idol never gets rebooted, its cultural impact will continue to resonate as long as the music from its 15 seasons of talent endures. Like "Since U Been Gone," "Before He Cheats" and "Whataya Want From Me"? Without American Idol, those songs might never have existed. The show gave us stars -- breathing, arena-filling stars. American Idol might be ending with a whimper next year, but its bang was louder than anything that had come before it.