The Not-So-Obvious Ways 'American Idol' Had a Profound Impact on the Pop World

Kelly Clarkson during "American Idol" Season 3 Finale 2001
Kelly Clarkson during "American Idol" Season 3 Finale

Kelly Clarkson during "American Idol" Season 3 Finale on May 26, 2004.

The influence of American Idol on pop music is circular: it's a show based on interpretations songs that have already been lasered into the musical consciousness. However, Idol did exercise a profound influence on the American pop landscape, particularly during its primetime-steamroller early years.

But for a show that was initially built on honoring late-20th-century pop's Holy Trinity of Whitney, Mariah, and Celine, rock crossover plays a surprisingly large role in Idol's wider influence: male and female belters on Idol, from David Cook to Crystal Bowersox, increasingly saw success when they married their beats to guitars. Breakaway, the second album from Season One winner Kelly Clarkson, allowed her to define a strand of pop that had been on the ropes: feisty, guitar-based and female-fronted. Its hit-packed tracklist included credits from Avril Lavigne and eventual Idol judge Kara DioGuardi, but "Since U Been Gone," her lightning-in-a-bottle collaboration with Max Martin and Dr. Luke, showed how guitars that sounded borrowed from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs could be paired with show-stopping vocals. The song inspired covers from all corners -- Ted Leo, Kidz Bop -- and helped prime the pop world for tracks like Pink's "Who Knew" and Paramore's "Misery Business," not to mention later Clarkson hits like "My Life Would Suck Without You." 

'Idol' Fades Out: Preserving the Show's Legacy Despite a Precipitous Decline

Delving even further into the rock realm, season Five fourth-place finisher Chris Daughtry's eponymous band outperformed that year's winner, Taylor Hicks, on the charts with post-grunge-influenced pop tracks like "It's Not Over" and "Home," which coexisted on top-40 radio alongside similar rock-leaning acts like Hinder and Nickelback. Later, rock crossover hits like Imagine Dragons' "Radioactive" and AWOLNATION's "Sail" would put a slightly modern spin on the band's post-grunge bombast.

In 2005, Carrie Underwood became the first country artist to win the big prize. Yet her victory ultimately begat more sass than brass: That spring, Miranda Lambert -- a runner-up from the Idol clone Nashville Star -- released her debut album, a spitfire collection that called back to honky-tonks of yore. Kerosene quickly put the Texas-born Lambert on the map, and she and Underwood spent the next couple of years sending barbed, catchy kiss-offs to radio (Lambert's fiery "Gunpowder & Lead"; Underwood's "Before He Cheats" and "Last Name") and eventually staked out enough territory in an increasingly male-dominated genre to conspire on the "real-life Thelma & Louise" anthem "Somethin' Bad" in 2014.

'American Idol' and Its Deep Impact On The Country Format

As the show’s audience waned, so did its influence: Phillip Phillips's "Home," the first Idol coronation single to reach the top 10 since 2008, was helped by the Idol brand as much as it was by its anticipatory jangle, while attempts by recent winners Candace Glover and Caleb Johnson to work in out-of-fashion genres (R&B and hard rock, respectively) got the cold shoulder from radio programmers. Which makes sense, in a way: Ultimately, Idol set the stage for Hot AC-friendly pop-rock to crowd balladic pomp out of pop's center lane.

A version of this article first appeared in the May 23 issue of Billboard.


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