Can American Idol still generate a superstar?

Reemerging in 2018, the landmark reality TV show faces a more crowded television landscape than it did 16 years ago.

March 11, 2018

In its prime days, American Idol was able to capture our imaginations in a truly unforgettable way. As viewers, we felt a connection to the storylines of people hoping for their dreams to come true and were amazed by the natural talent portrayed. While feeling guilty for laughing, we inevitably felt second-hand embarrassment for the selected “bad acts” that screeched and stumbled their way into a barrage of Simon Cowell’s infamous insults. Following a singer’s journey, from an average person to “superstardom”, was both awe-inspiring and motivational. In our eyes, the winners were surely destined for a long and prolific career as a recording artist. By building a platform where artists could develop a fanbase and heed the advice of industry experts, Idol expanded the opportunities to succeed in the music industry.

Growing up, the show had a significant influence on my life. Watching American Idol allowed me to envision myself as a contestant one day. I even promised my parents that I would sing their favourite song, “Dance with my Father” by Luther Vandross. I was crushed when I realized that you had to be a U.S. resident to even audition (Clearly, the whole “American” part didn’t click). Canadian Idol came out soon after but it didn’t have the same impact as its American counterpart, ending my dreams of being the next Idol.

I first tuned into American Idol for season 2, following the undeniable success of the first winner; Kelly Clarkson. She was launched into the industry and made news by becoming the first ever “American Idol.” Most importantly, her music was everywhere, and she soon became a household name. Her lead single, “Miss Independent,” from her debut album Thankful was my fifth-grade anthem, and definitely related to my preteen years of trying to not care about boys (but secretly hoping to find true love one day).

Clarkson and country star Carrie Underwood are arguably the two most successful mainstream artists to ever win American Idol, with each sporting multiple Grammy nominations and wins. As well, other Idol winners and contestants such as Jordin Sparks (S6), Jennifer Hudson (S3), Chris Daughtry (S5), and Adam Lambert (S8) have been able to carve out a spot for themselves in the music industry. However, as the seasons have gone on, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the success of the winners is far less straightforward compared to the show’s early years.

With the buzz and views dying down, I found that gossip about rumoured tensions between the judges seemed to overshadow stories about hopeful artists that were supposed to break into the industry. I understand viewership was declining and the show had to fight to maintain its relevance, but it was clear that 15 seasons in, their former model for success belonged to a bygone era and after 13 years on the air, the show went on a hiatus.

When I heard that American Idol was coming back for its 16th season, my initial thought was, “…why? Today, can you still achieve success by being crowned the winner?”  After being off the air for almost 3 years, I have to question why the iconic (but dated) show is making a return. Ryan Seacrest has mentioned that there were no big changes, which could be a blessing or a curse depending on what you ultimately want out American Idol’s  most recent era: an introduction to your favourite new artist or, a feel-good reality TV relic.

What we notice with all these shows dedicated to creating a career for emerging and hopeful artists is a recurring pattern: there is no foolproof strategy for “making it” that can bypass the reality of the music industry.

Alongside the tumultuous ups and downs of the American Idol machine, in the last several years new competition from other similar talent-based reality TV shows have begun to gain traction. America’s Got Talent debuted in 2006, but it is more of a glorified talent show and winners get a cash prize only. The Voice, which premiered in 2011, came in with a unique approach of having blind auditions, and every auditioner actually having a good voice. X Factor US (2011 -2013) had the same vibe as Idol but broke contestants down into different categories based on gender, age, group acts, and individuals. Recently, The Four and The Launch are two new shows attempting to launch successful artists as well, with their initial seasons just wrapping up.

What we notice with all these shows dedicated to creating a career for emerging and hopeful artists is a recurring pattern: there is no foolproof strategy for “making it” that can bypass the reality of the music industry. The most successful acts to emerge from the aforementioned shows, Fifth Harmony and One Direction, are both from The X-Factor. Perhaps the real problem at hand is that, like several other parts of our contemporary media climate, the music industry is oversaturated with content being produced with the same end goal. Not only is it often simply too much to consume, but competitive reality TV shows about music face the added challenge of an increasingly fractured audience — more people are finding alternatives to cable television.

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Nowadays, people are far more likely to get turned onto new music via online streaming apps such as Apple Music or Spotify. As well, viral videos and social media play a huge factor in which artists pop off. For example, rapper Cardi B built a significant following on Instagram and was selected to be on the show Love & Hip Hop New York.  She worked her way up the industry until she dropped her massive hit single, “Bodak Yellow,” in June 2017 to international acclaim.

While there’s no denying that American Idol has had a successful run, reemerging in 2018, the reality TV show faces a more crowded media landscape than it did 16 years ago. When it returns with a new logo but a largely unchanged model (much to the gripe of past broadcasting station Fox), thousands of people will have auditioned to be the next “American Idol” and who knows, maybe someone will strike gold.

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