Technically speaking, the end of American Idol will come on April 7, when the groundbreaking musical reality show crowns its 15th and final champion, confetti drops from the rafters of Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre and a verklempt Ryan Seacrest bids America good night and Godspeed.
Historians, though, might trace the show’s demise to an earlier date. According to some Idol watchers, the program began to loosen its grip on the national consciousness and its stranglehold on the primetime ratings in season nine, its first without the original triumvirate of judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson. Others maintain that Idol first wobbled — got a little pitchy, as Jackson would have it — earlier in its run: circa 2005, after its fourth season, won by Carrie Underwood, the last, and possibly the only, true superstar the show ever made.
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In any case, it’s a time for nostalgia and taking stock. Idol itself has been hitting some valedictory notes. A couple of months back, season-one winner Kelly Clarkson appeared on the show as a guest judge. Clarkson also performed her current top 10 single “Piece by Piece,” a ballad whose muscle recalled the big sound that peeled back the nation’s ears in that first season. It was a reminder that Idol, at the time of its debut in the summer of 2002 and for several years after, had an unmistakable ’90s feel: Its musical values were those of the decade that produced Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion and Faith Hill. The tale is told by the “coronation songs” that the Idol winners have been called upon to sing, all of them inspirational pop-pomp: “A Moment Like This,” “This Is My Now,” “Flying Without Wings,” “I Believe,” “I Love You This Big,” etc. The show’s most successful contestants — Clarkson, Underwood, Fantasia Barrino, Jennifer Hudson, Chris Daughtry, Adam Lambert — were the ones who could wrap a pair of outsize lungs around a power ballad and blast it out.
There’s another name for that musical aesthetic: Simon Cowell. Cowell, the British record executive and TV producer, helped creator Simon Fuller get Idol off the ground; more than any contestant, Cowell was the show’s breakout star. His taste in music was defiantly tacky. (After all, Cowell was the man behind such acts as Il Divo, Irish boy band Westlife and the Teletubbies.) But you couldn’t argue with his commercial instincts, and his preference for pap was offset by a dyspeptic streak, by the wearily blunt assessments — “I thought it was like some terrible, ghastly, high school musical performance” — that he would hurl, like rotten vegetables, at the schmo who had just mauled “Open Arms.”
Idol’s conceptual stroke of genius was its interactivity, its “democracy,” placing the ultimate decision in the hands of the (mostly young and female) voting viewership. But the real fun of the show was watching the judges render their verdicts. A slew of A-listers have occupied the judges’ seats through the years, among others, Ellen DeGeneres, Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban, Steven Tyler and, memorably, Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj, who dripped acid in one another’s direction for the length of a very awkward season 12. But the show never matched the wacky chemistry of its original trio: Cowell (acerbic industry don), Abdul (sweet-tempered space-case) and Jackson (goofy muso).
For nearly a decade, up until season 10, the first without Cowell, Idol was a juggernaut. In 2007, the TV executive Jeff Zucker, then the CEO of NBCUniversal, declared Idol “the most impactful show in the history of television.” It topped the primetime Nielsen ratings for several years, averaging a whopping 32.1 million viewers in its peak seasons two through eight. Idol, it turns out, was the last gasp of non-sports appointment TV before Netflix laid waste to the quaint idea of primetime TV as a national hearth-fire.
As for the record business: In the early- and mid-2000s, Idol seemed to be the only thing keeping a besieged industry from tumbling into the abyss. All told, Idol alumni have sold tens of millions of albums and hundreds of millions of digital downloads; they’ve placed hundreds of hits on the Billboard charts. A force that can propel the likes of Ruben Studdard and Bo Bice to No. 2 on the Hot 100 is not to be gainsaid.
Formally speaking, Idol was old-fashioned, a shotgun marriage of two of TV’s hoariest genres, the musical variety program and the game show. Yet it was unmistakably a thing of its time. Alongside iTunes and the iPod, both of which debuted in 2001, Idol helped re-establish the single as the dominant pop music medium and made a long-player feel like yesterday’s news.
It was also a show for an era in which the “rock stars” were pop stars, a period dominated, commercially and artistically, by divas and divos. It had the poptimist gumption to update the Great American Songbook, asserting that the top 40 bubble gum, R&B and power-ballad classics that dominate the world’s karaoke playlists merit a place alongside George & Ira Gershwin, The Beatles and Motown. Idol’s shamelessness and cheesiness were assets, putting it on the right side of history.
Idol hasn’t aged gracefully. It has been years since the show minted a true star, or even a solid second-tier genre artist along the lines of Kellie Pickler. Beginning in season seven, Idol allowed contestants to play instruments; the move seemed progressive, but the results were grim. (Ladies and gentlemen: Phillip Phillips!) The show never properly integrated hip-hop, a failing that has seemed less and less defensible as the years have passed. A savvy Idol would have made room for rappers in addition to guitar-strumming emoters of deep feelings.
Still, 21st-century pop is unimaginable without Idol. In fact, a decent argument could be made that the show isn’t going anywhere, despite leaving the airwaves — that Idol-ism will outlast Idol. The success of NBC’s The Voice is a testament to the enduring appeal of musical talent shows, while Cowell continues to exert his influence on pop: As a judge on The X Factor, he Svengalied One Direction and Fifth Harmony. And the cult of the amateur performer, nurtured by Idol (and Idol-inspired phenomena, like Glee), remains powerful in pop culture. On the Internet you can watch a million bedroom balladeers crooning cover songs to their laptop cameras. Who needs one of Idol’s “tickets to Hollywood” when a singer can upload his or her own curriculum vitae, guerrilla style?
One thing a home video can’t replicate is the glorious schlock-fest of an Idol finale. Surely the April 7 ending will be a spectacle for the ages. Will Cowell be in the house? What about Sanjaya Malakar and David Archuleta, Kris Allen and Crystal Bowersox? A nation holds its breath. One thing seems certain: if Idol tradition holds, it will be like some terrible, ghastly, high school musical performance. And it will be awesome.
This story originally appeared in the March 25 issue of Billboard.