Book Review: Richard Rushfield’s ‘American Idol: The Untold Story’

01.18.11 7 years ago 21 Comments


I know a lot about “American Idol.” 
When you consider the eight seasons of regular recaps (two or three per week), the steady stream of reliably banal conference calls with eliminated contestants, the glitzy and substance-free “Idol” premiere parties and even the periodic attendance at live tapings, my spring immersion in “American Idol” is all-encompassing. I can toss out a punchline involving Scotty Savol or Lashundra “Trenyce” Cobbins or Noel & Jesus Roman with a speed that would make your head spin.
That’s a preamble to this point that I’m all-too-happy to admit: For all that I’ve gleaned about “American Idol,” Richard Rushfield has forgotten (or been sworn to secrecy) about more “Idol” minutiae than I’ll ever know.
In preparation for Wednesday’s (Jan. 19) 10th season premiere of “American Idol,” I burrowed into Rushfield’s new book, “American Idol: The Untold Story,” which proves to be a strong encapsulation of the first chapter in the life of FOX’s runaway hit, a period that might as well be known as The Simon Years. 
I don’t often get the chance to do book reviews, so click through for some thoughts on “American Idol: The Untold Story.”
“American Idol: The Untold Story” actually begins before “American Idol” was even a glint in FOX’s eye, setting the table by introducing us to a young Simon Fuller and charting the genesis of 19 Entertainment and the British beginnings of “Pop Stars” and “Pop Idol.” Rushfield takes care to introduce us to key figures like Nigel Lythgoe and, of course, Simon Cowell on their home turf and the 267-page tome is 40 pages in before we travel Across the Pond to meet enterprising FOX executives like Mike Darnell and Preston Beckman. 
This is where Rushfield’s research and history are at their best. His description of the negotiations and compromises that brought “American Idol” to the air in the summer of 2002 is thorough and packed with either new information, or familiar information expanded in depth. How did “Idol” end up on FOX? How were the judges chosen? How did those first auditions play out? What format changes were suggested from the British version? What were the early interactions between Simon and Paula like? True “Idol” fans know the answers to some of these questions, but not with this much attention to detail. Rushfield’s insight continues through the first season, where he’s gifted with solid interview access from principles like Justin Guarini, RJ Helton and Nikki McKibbin.
Most of this early section was new to me, even if I was disappointed not to see “From Justin to Kelly” covered in any way.
Nobody would quibble that birth and first year of “Idol” were the show’s most important, but some Johnny-come-lately fans will wonder how eight season of “Idol” came to be squished into the second half of the book, with more than a few popular or interesting performers failing to get even a passing mention, much less the sort of loving treatment accorded to a McKibbin.
After the Season One coverage, Rushfield’s approach becomes a little fragmented, which proves to be both a positive and negative in fulfilling the mandate of the “Untold Story” piece of the book’s title.
It all comes down to access and, I suppose, desire (or ability) to dig deeply into the dirtier aspects of the “American Idol” underbelly. 
Rushfield has substantive, detailed and exclusive chapters on the dismissal of Brian Dunkleman, the rise of the Vote For The Worst website (while simultaneously questioning its power) and the key of one fundamentalist Christian ministry in recent “Idol” seasons. He also has impressive detail on the contract negotiations that led to Paula Abdul’s departure and appealing catty insight into Kara DioGuardi’s difficulties fitting in as a judge. The power struggles between Cowell, Fuller and Lythgoe are well documented, giving each man credit for what he brought to the “Idol” table over the years.
But when it comes to other scandals, Rushfield either has no additional information or has chosen to keep what he knows under wraps. If you’re looking for new insight into the Corey Clark/Paula scandal, for example, there are none to be found. Looking for perspective on Frenchie Davis’ dismissal and the subsequent decisions to keep other scandal-plagued contestants? Very little. If you’re curious about the circumstances surrounding Mario Vasquez’s abrupt “Idol” departure, I’m pretty sure that his name isn’t even mentioned in the book. And if you’re a conspiracy lover seeking validation for any of your “Idol” Vote Rigging Theories, Rushfield laughs off every one, with increasing brevity. It’s impressive, in fact, how many primary source quotes Rushfield has for the cleaner and prettier aspects of “American Idol” history and how totally those sources vanish when the bigger scandals arise.
The formal and positive history of “Idol” comes equipped with the big-name quotes and formal citations, but the tawdrier details are accompanied by a more tabloid-y level of reporting. McKibbin, for example, accuses Cowell of an icky bit of sexual harassment, but not only does Simon (interviewed many years later) not remember the incident, but similar accusations aren’t brought up by any other contestant, making it impossible to know if this was a serial behavior, a strange and isolated incident or a total fabrication. An alleged love triangle between Kelly Clarkson, Tamyra Gray and Justin Guarini may well have occurred, but Rushfield’s only supporting evidence is a totally generic lyric in a song written by Gray and Clarkson. Several prominent contestants — including Carrie Underwood and Taylor Hicks — weren’t on Rushfield’s Rolodex, barely get any page-time and yet are thrown under the bus by anonymous backstage forces who tell Rushfield what “the crew” thought of them, always in unflattering terms.
On a purely nitpicky level, the book feels rushed and suffers from scattershot editing. There are semi-frequent typos (little things like “bawled/balled” errors) and factual errors that speak to a desire to get the the book on shelves by January, rather than to crafting a clean text. Like when Lythgoe says of Kelly Clarkson, “And then she did some stuff like that there, a big band number,” I know that Rushfield knows Lythgoe is referring to Clarkson’s performance of “Stuff Like That There,” even if his editor didn’t.
There are also countless redundancies within Rushfield’s effusive prose that could have been finessed with a more eagle eye. For example, hyperbole is one of the most effective tools of Rushfield’s trade, but a thesaurus might come in handy when you’re referring to David Cook as “sultry” twice in two pages.
Most readers aren’t going to quibble over repeated florid adjectives or whether or not Fantasia Barrino was in the original Broadway cast of “The Color Purple,” nor will most readers be irritated by Rushfield’s trope mocking journalists for misreporting any and every “Idol”-based story. 
Most readers will be looking for a fast-paced, entertaining read that reminds them of the things they’ve loved about “American Idol” and adds new information and insight to the saga. On that front, “The Untold Story” mostly succeeds.
[Editor’s Note: Richard Rushfield is a current member of HitFix’s board of directors.]
“American Idol” returns on Wednesday (Jan. 19) night.

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