Season three of Fox’s spectacularly popular “American Idol” series concluded live Wednesday from the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles as 19-year-old Fantasia Barrino claimed the top prize, and the record contract.
The astonishing and assured earthiness of Barrino’s church-derived Aretha Franklin-meets-Macy Gray voice and charismatic, natural stage presence is in a different — and higher — universe from DeGarmo’s spunky, “Annie”-on-steroids showbiz appeal.
When “American Idol” first imposed itself upon the cultural landscape in the summer of 2002, I, like many others, was deeply skeptical of the concept and resentful of the brash audacity of a show that vowed to mine gold from open singing auditions and pyramid-structured competition. How could something as ineffable and fragile as pop music stardom be generated by such a gross and unsubtle process?
Even the name seemed an inflated self-parody: “American Idol.” The Fox network and the creators of the show, Brit pop impresario Simon Fuller’s 19 Entertainment, didn’t aspire to create mere stars, but objects of worship, “idols” standing astride all of America, their glory resplendent in the midday sun. “Ha-ha! Such hubris will be rewarded with scorn and neglect,” thought I. I was wrong.
“American idol” is now the cornerstone of the Fox schedule. In its third season, “Idol’s” Tuesday night sing-offs and Wednesday results shows are the first and third most-watched in all of television. Tuesday “Idols” average 25.8 million viewers, 4.6 million more than last year, while Wednesday shows draw 23.6 million viewers, up 3.6 million. Tonight’s final is expected to grab the rapt attention of around 30 million viewers.
For all of Fox’s promotional bombast and the creator’s smug assumptions, the show itself has turned out to be appealingly unpretentious in its update of the age-old talent competition format, very entertaining and sometimes dramatic to watch, and its slowly unfolding winnowing process creates a strong dramatic arc as viewers get to know and identify with the young (16-25) contestants as they survive the ax one more week, or perform a farewell swan song over the closing credits, as did 17 year-old Hawaiian Jasmine Trias last week, setting the stage for this week’s showdown between Barrino and DeGarmo.
Giving viewers the vote on finalists and the ultimate winner has encouraged audience investment in the contestants, and having viewers vote to keep their favorites on the show keeps the process positive rather than punitive. Despite sharp-tongued judge Simon Cowell’s reputation for verbal cruelty, he’s really just honest, upholding his vision of the show’s integrity. (Okay, so sneered adjectives like “pathetic,” “tragic,” “abysmal” and “malodorous” may go a tad beyond the bounds of descriptive necessity, but why not work on the old vocabulary while he’s at it?)
The reality on the ground is that the show is very respectful of its contestants (at least once they are out of the preliminary rounds — the show does revel in the awfulness of the worst auditioners, but such is the penetration of the show into American culture that the worst of the worst, William Hung, has become a novelty success in his own right), seeks to present them in the best possible light, and sends them off with warmth and regret (before bringing them back for the 52-show live summer tour, of course, and guest appearances on subsequent shows when their records come out, and…).
Recording success each season
Even more astonishing — to me, anyway — is the recording success of at least three of the show’s alums: season one winner, former Texas cocktail waitress Kelly Clarkson; season two winner Studdard, the enormous Alabaman with the angelic smile and buttery R&B voice; and the show’s biggest recording star thus far, season two runner-up Clay Aiken, the skinny special-ed teacher from North Carolina with the big ears and even bigger voice, who has inspired a legion of wildly dedicated fans known as “Claymates.” Season two finalist Kimberley Locke recently released her debut album, and season one finalist Tamyra Gray not only saw her debut album, “The Dreamer,” come out Tuesday, but Wednesday’s results show featured Barrino and DeGarmo both performing Gray’s co-written song “I Believe,” which will be the winner’s first solo single.
How has “Idol” succeeded (the franchise is in dozens of countries including the original “Pop Idol” in the U.K.) in producing recording successes where other talent shows have failed? Two things: as Cowell wisely noted in an interview last week, the show was not created by a television company using music as the basis for a TV show, but by a record company (19 entertainment) looking for new talent via a TV show. The show is, in fact, a launch pad from 19’s perspective (if not Fox’s) for the music careers of the show’s stars, er, idols.
I think it more likely than usual that some combination of Aiken, Clarkson, Studdard, Barrino, DeGarmo, London, Gray, and others spawned by the series will have lasting careers because 19 has the motivation, the promotional outlets and clout, and the stable of writers and producers to keep the material coming and the performers in the public eye. It won’t always work — season one runner up Justin Guarini has bombed out already — but the odds are better for the Idols than for most.
There most certainly is a dark side to this rosy picture: for all the “synergy” created by 19 providing management, marketing, merchandising, touring, recording contracts and TV exposure to its chosen few, this holistic approach also leaves the artists totally contractually wrapped up, at 19’s professional mercy, and yielding up to 50 percent of their income to the company. If you are Aiken, Clarkson, Studdard or any of the others in 19’s good graces, this would appear to be amply worth it, for Guarini and others who fall out of favor, much less so.
For this week anyway, as a fan, I will choose to see the glass a half full.
Eric Olsen is editor of Blogcritics.org and a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.