“American Idol” set forth on its three-night celebration of the competition’s history and farewell in the format that millions of faithful followers, musical superstars, and those aspiring to become such, have soaked into their consciousness since 2002 on April 5. “American Dream” was a deliberate, well-thought-out mixture of why and how the original foray into talent TV for the millennium generation became such a game-changer for the music industry and entertainment, and a stroll through sweet memories. Simon Cowell has been his usual assertive, and maybe another word starting with “ass–,“ in declaring that he has not watched the show since his departure, since “Paula was the right leg, and I was the left leg. And with both legs gone, it wasn’t the same show.” The acerbic judge is probably right, but “American Idol” continued to shape bedroom singers into superstars, and all of America became passengers and cheerleaders in the journey.
It was February, 2002, when the concept show of “American Idol” was green-lighted, based on the success of the British “Pop Idol” series success. Original boss, Nigel Lythgoe, and company aspired to bring not a copy, but an American version of the competition, and it was not without bumps , and restarts. One thing verified by Adam Lambert, Carrie Underwood, Ruben Studdard, Jennifer Hudson, and the others in the congregation of “Idol” alumni included was that to a person, every one of them had tried for years to be seen, much less heard, through every traditional channel, and had no luck, no money, or never discovered the right “push” to break through, never losing their dreams. The first shift noted from the success of the show was moving the power of creating stars away from the record labels to the public. Simon Cowell was the judge that show runners insisted on bringing to the first chair, and he had to be lured to take that seat, with promises that he would be on the cover of TV Guide within months. It happened. The feuds between him and friend, Paula Abdul, were not conjured for dramatic effect, but very real. She was in disbelief that Cowell would call ill-prepared singers “losers,” and worse, so much so that she related “I quit eight times the first day.” Being so brand-new, drumming up singers to audition became an effort. Kelly Clarkson was living in her car, waitressing and working at bars when she got word, and was just happy to get fed! Her audition, soaring with Etta James, was the turnaround for her life, and for the entire show. Kelly also staunchly defends judge Simon, concurring that, “If you can’t handle Simon Cowell in this industry, you’re screwed,” knowing that the critiques get much tougher. Simon was especially rough on Jennifer Hudson, who finished seventh in her third season, but two years later, was cast in “Dreamgirls,” and taking home her Oscar from the same theatre where she performed for Cowell. That’s pure poetic justice.
Paula Abdul’s words on how America was still healing from 9/11, and how “American Idol” brought a focus point for families to come together, enjoying songs that both parents and their children knew, were especially touching. Scenes were shown from nursing homes, with elderly couples, to single people watching from studio apartments, fixated waiting for those verdicts. 2 million people cast votes in the first season, and everything from then snowballed.
Current judge, Harry Connick, Jr. was in the audience for that first finale, and he decries the accusation that the contestants on his show never pay proper dues, insisting “they are thrown into a world where what takes most performers years to learn comes down on them in eight or 10 weeks– it’s a school of paying dues.” Ruben Studdard playfully joked, “yeah, it might be cheesy, but we keep tuning in,” and he’s still doing at 37 what won him the title at 22. It was fun to see Kelly Clarkson’s friend and runner-up, Justin Guarini, look back and fondness at the process and the pleasure in seeing Kelly’s journey, and still have gratitude. Randy Jackson equated the feeling to that of “proud parents” seeing their “kids” validated, and sending them off into the world. For Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Ruben Studdard, and Jennifer Hudson, vindication translated into millions of record sales, that would never happen in today’s download era, but it was the same entrée into technology that brought texting as the way to vote for Idol favorites. Jordin Sparks confessed that her mother learned to text because of voting. Sparks was among the talents who had to be seen three separate times before being granted permission to move on with the competition. One of the things that no amount of rehearsal or practice can create are the reactions to the news that alters life for the singers forever, like Chris Daughtry’s stunned gaze at being sent home, or Jennifer Hudson, Fantasia Barrino, and Jennifer London ever being a “bottom three,” but it all happened. Simon Cowell was likely not alone among professionals who told Taylor Hicks that his future was bleak, but his “soul patrol” contingent kept the votes coming.
No matter the flood of imitators since, “American Idol” continues to deliver what its title conveys– bringing voices from behind those bedroom doors to the biggest stage that they can imagine, but then, the work really starts. Nothing in the competition promises a career, only the opportunity, and as Chris Daughtry declared, “it doesn’t fall into your lap.” Those grinding group week experiences, the rehearsals, the summer tours, all are proving grounds for lasting talent. The most valuable prize professionally is the recording contract, as described by Clive Davis. The very best songwriters, engineers, and musicians are brought in to support the creation of that first album, as Adam Lambert expressed, relating his wonder at working with Lady Gaga as a “launching” artist. Many of the same crew and producers have remained steadfast through 15 years, through all the shifts on the panel, such as Ellen DeGeneres, who loved new talent, but didn’t like declining anyone. The miserable mistake of Mariah Carey with Nicky Minaj, and the ever unpredictable, but always fun. Steven Tyler, who kept censors on the bleep button for the first time in the competition. Tyler admitted that “I had no idea what was going on” when he took his judge’s chair, but he knew the power of “everyone in America” seeing Kelly Clarkson’s “Piece by Piece” moment. The fact that the show became more “nurturing” with the coming of Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban, Harry Connick, Jr., and those like songwriter Kara DioGuardi in between, didn’t cause drastic losses of audience, which “barely changed.” What did continue to happen is that big stars wanted their appearance on that oval on the stage to grab the biggest audience possible. When the show was asked by the network to drastically cut costs, producers realized that that could not be done and “stay the same show,” so it was determined that they would go out “with our head held high” in this final season.
It remains to be seen if the original and best of its kind singing, star-making competition will have the dramatic affect on British-American relations that Simon Cowell ascribed “in the last 200 years,” but it is certainly true that America has shared joys, shared tears, shared the pain, and the pinnacles for favorite hopefuls over 15 years, and always felt what Paula Abdul phrased as “an inheritance of hope” in that process. It is more than entertainment, more than music. It is about the power of music to transform lives.
Tonight is the first of the two-night finale for the landmark, and for the Season 15 competitors.