Why the World Will Miss American Idol

Between the twilight of the legacy networks, and the dawn of Twitter, there was a ray of light that seemed poised for a moment to bring back the promise of the American dream.  

That dream had never shined brighter than it did on Hollywood, where “any bar maid can be a star made.”  But in the 1990″s, when in the pre-internet days where the three (going on four) TV networks and seven studios held an iron grip on the entertainment experience, which spat out to viewers and moviegoers a highly controlled and regulated product, the idea that anyone could get off the bus from Kansas and find themselves a few months later planting their feet in the forecourt of Graumann”s Chinese seemed a lost myth.

American Idol gave us that story back, and actually made it come true.  Each season started on such a simple note, it”s hard to recall how revolutionary that note was: for weeks every year, the show left Hollywood and toured America – meeting thousands and eventually tens of thousands of young dreamers with songs in their hearts. The show came to them  through weeks of backstory and shameless tear-jerking, visiting in their own humble abodes, among their people.   

And then it brought them to Hollywood where, while the show was at it”s height, the dream of one actually, magically, for real, came true.

In my years spent reporting on American Idol, its producers always insisted that without these opening weeks, the entire show didn”t work; if we met the singers on stage in Hollywood, there was no dream. Simon Fuller's ingenious vision was not just a star machine, but a hero's journey.

In the 14 years since American Idol debuted, the world has been transformed.

It”s also hard to remember that when “American Idol” debuted, there was no YouTube, no Twiter, the word blog had not yet been coined.  The notion that anyone could point a webcam at themselves and build a “brand” was still nearly a decade away.  The capital E, capital I, Entertainment Industry – which truly controlled entertainment –  was as distant and remote from the lives of Americans as the land of Oz.

So it was appropriate that the doors to that kingdom should have been blown open by a little rejected pipsqueak in a backwards corner of the 4th place network on TV.  When American Idol debuted in the long summer months of 2002 – its first episode airing after a rerun of “That 70″s Show” on the hitless, also run, some said doomed Fox network – expectations for the British import were so low that no major newspaper or magazine even bothered to review the premiere. Even though it had in its UK run made good on its promise to create a star, the notion that it would do so here was so preposterous, few took the time to scoff at it.  The very genre – a music competition – seemed a pathetic attempt the recapture the glory of the cheeseball  “Starsearch” which had finally ended its run just a few years before.  

That the show”s biggest draw was faded pop star Paula Abdul only underlined the preposterousness of its grandiose claims.

And then two things happened. First, the show became a hit.  It”s hard to overstate the impact of Simon Cowell in those early days; in an era of highly controlled media, you just didn”t see people speaking their mind, telling it like it was. And in the post 9/11 world, where a sense loomed that the culture had become slippery, dishonest, shiny but hollow – Cowell fed a suddenly awakened appetite for unvarnished straight talk.

Suddenly, there was something on television that seemed “real.”  Between his sharp tongue and the ragtag contestants, the show was such a contrast in authenticity, it was from a different universe.  Idol””s rise in those summer months was meteoric.

The second shocking thing that happened was Kelly Clarkson.  Like everything else in showbiz, everyone assumed the competition was fixed. And if there was ever a genetically engineered ringer at first sight it was Justin Guarini, the handsome, charming, edge-free young man who right up to a week before the finale was the season”s  all but certain champion.  

But out of nowhere came this goofy, awkward, non-glamorous girl from Burleson, Texas.  No odds maker (by that time Idol”s odds makers had emerged) gave Clarkson a prayer of making it to the top two. But six weeks before the finale, in bowler hat and men's tie, during a rendition of “You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman)” Clarkson hit what would become the template for the Idol “big note”  – and in those four seconds, changed her life and changed the history of entertainment.  On a dime, American Idol no longer existed to crown the next shiny teen plaything, but was telling the story of an awkward little girl from Texas coming to Hollywood to find her dream over her more polished foes.

(No matter that it would gradually emerge, post-finale, that Clarkson had had a bit more Hollywood in her background than she let on; during that summer she played her part well.)

And not only would Clarkson win the Idol crown, but she would go on to prove the Idol promise – becoming a bigger star than even the show”s creators imagined with a career still strong a decade and a half later.  For that Moment Like This – and for some years to follow – Idol seemed to have tapped into a basic myth carved into the American DNA and to somehow have found the pixie dust to make it come true. Bringing Paul Bunyon, Johnny Appleseed and Yankee Doodle himself to the stage would hardly have been less shocking.

14 years later, it”s not just that that dream has faded with Idol”s ability to mint fresh stars every year, but very notion of stardom has if not disappeared, then morphed into something unrecongizable and not altogether alluring.

Stardom has become one piece of a celebrity”s brand – a corner of their vast empire sandwiched between the fragrance collection and the bartered Instagram mentions. Talent takes a way way back seat to shamelessness.  Where glamour was once about creating bigger than life heroes, the goal now seems to bring them constantly into the dirt.  

After Idol let the genie out of the bottle came YouTube and soceial media and yes, now, anyone can be a star for the briefest fleeting moment before they are cast down or forgotten.  Andy Warhol”s promise of 15 minutes it turns out vastly overrated the attention span of the future. Today anyone can – and everyone will – be a star for a milisecond – the time it takes to scroll past on an iPhone.

In this context, Idol”s promise seems like an artifact from a lost time.  But watching the premiere of the final season, seeing a young woman sitting at her dressing table reciting the names of the show”s champions and dreaming of following in their footsteps, it”s hard not to get a little teary-eyed for Idol”s fleeting moment, when that great dream had some meaning again.