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Goodbye ‘American Idol’ … and good riddance

“I feel you, dog, but we’re gonna hafta let you go. You won’t be making it to the next round of the competition.”

So “American Idol” will be canceled after one more go-round, the show’s parent network Fox announced on Monday. The highly influential series, diluted in recent years by the appearance of several copycat karaoke contests like “The Voice” and “The X-Factor,” will pass its last judgement after returning for a 15th and final season in January.What does this mean for pop music? Not much. The damage has been done.

“Idol’s” effect on popular music has been immense, and largely negative. The show was premised on offering hopefuls a fast track to mega-stardom. It was also predicated on nurturing homogeneity, praising oversinging as long as it was in tune, and generally turning the cultural clock backwards to the pre-’60s world of one-hit wonders and variety show-styled entertainers.

This meant success for the music industry, or at least, for parts of it.

During the show’s premiere season, in 2002, a new conception of the pop star emerged in the form of Kelly Clarkson, a virtuosic singer with very little in the way of musical personality. The show generated between 25 and 30 million viewers per episode by the time of its sophomore run, and Clarkson turned her Season 1 win into a career launch, signing with RCA Records in conjunction with “Idol’s” own 19 Records, and hitting the top of the charts with overblown dreck like “A Moment Like This.” Not quite country, not quite adult contemporary, not quite rock, and not quite dance music, Clarkson was (and remains) the perfect figurehead for the show’s modus operandi – by letting America do the voting, music industry executives were able to home in on the lowest common denominator in pop music, and with great relish, began to fully embrace the idea of manufacturing pop stars, rather than developing artists over time.

“Idol” came along at the perfect time to capitalize on the explosion of the Internet, social media, and the digital dissemination of musical products. It wasn’t doing anything new, but it was doing it with the precision of a surgical strike. Even the losers on the show ended up eking careers out of their run.

At its peak, “Idol” could claim total market penetration. Its audience spanned several generations. It was like “The Ed Sullivan Show,” minus the Beatles, but with the addition of a cast of judges given to statements like “It was a bit pitchy” or “I didn’t feel you really inhabited the song like you did last week.” Most of these judges did not seem to be fully qualified to comment on music as an entity separate from “musical entertainment.”

The guy who got the whole thing rolling, Simon Cowell, was pompous and condescending, and he also had a few bad qualities; Paula Abdul liked everyone, it seemed; Jennifer Lopez is an actress and middling singer more concerned with fashion than music; Steven Tyler is the singer from Aerosmith, and should have stayed the singer from Aerosmith, though he tended to be a fair judge; Keith Urban came across as a nice guy, and he’s a good songwriter and guitarist, but I’m not sure what he really had to offer the “Idol” hopefuls, other than lessons on what it’s like to be impossibly good looking and married to Nicole Kidman. Only Harry Connick Jr. can really boast the chops to judge from a wholly musical standpoint, since he’s musically educated and fluent in genres ranging from straight-ahead jazz to pop. Connick was firm but fair.

What can we thank “Idol” for? The biggest talent of the former contestant bunch is certainly Jennifer Hudson, who has proven herself to be a worthwhile contemporary R&B artist and a good actress to boot – her role in “Dreamgirls” won her an Oscar, and her records have sold respectably, if nowhere near the volume moved by Clarkson. The show’s greatest success story, commercially speaking, has been Carrie Underwood, who, like Clarkson, is a strong singer who specializes in unremarkable and largely generic music. America loved that music, though, to the tune of 15 million-plus units. Underwood nabbed herself six Grammys along the way, too. Though she’s been more successful than fellow “Idol” contestant Kellie Pickler, in some ways, Pickler is the more legitimate artist – she was country when she arrived on “Idol,” she was country when she left “Idol,” and she’s still country today.

Chris Daughtry – the show’s version of a rock artist, which basically means Nickelback – parlayed his “Idol” run into a strong career base for his band, which continues to be successful as both an in-concert and commercial concern. Adam Lambert landed a gig fronting Queen, which was more of a dream come true for Lambert than it was for Queen fans, many of whom would’ve rather the band had called it a day than toured itself into the ground with a Freddie Mercury impersonator. (Lambert has an incredible voice and an explosive stage demeanor, it must be acknowledged.)

Who among these artists is likely to be remembered in 10 or 20 years? Probably only Hudson, Underwood and Clarkson.

But the “American Idol” legacy – the idea that artists should be on the fast track to superstardom; that record labels should take chances only on already proven commodities; that the concept of developing artists over time and allowing them to grow in an organic manner is now archaic; that singing and performing are themselves quantifiable things that can be interpreted in the same way that judges score an Olympic gymnast or figure skater – this will affect popular music for decades to come.

And that legacy sounds a bit pitchy to these ears.


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