When “American Idol” made its debut five years ago, it was decried by some as another vapid reality show attempting to create another vapid pop star — and at first glance, the critics seemed to be right.
There were geeky contestants warbling cheesy ballads, dramatic divas over-singing their way through a song, and it’s panel for judging talent included Paula Abdul.
“Season One, you couldn’t take the show seriously,” says Jessica Shaw, an Entertainment Weekly senior writer who wrote this month’s cover story on the show. “Someone like (runner-up) Justin Guarini, you knew this was never going to be someone who was destined for music superstardom.”
But as America’s most popular prepares to kick off its sixth season Tuesday, it’s getting harder and harder for music snobs to deny its cultural import. “American Idol” has consistently churned out multiplatinum stars, Grammy-nominated artists and engaging celebrities (and, just maybe, an Oscar nominee in “Dreamgirls” star and “Idol” alum Jennifer Hudson).
“There were a lot of naysayers,” says Randy Jackson, who along with Abdul and Simon Cowell are the judging trifecta of “Idol.” “(But) it validates itself every season because somebody great comes out of it every season and does really well.”
“At a certain point, whether it’s respectable or not it just becomes undeniable,” says music journalist Alan Light, who has written for publications including The New York Times. “For a few years, there was a sense of novelty, but after a while, there’s more of a sense of institution.”
Rod Stewart, Prince made appearancesLast year certainly seemed to put the exclamation point on how venerable “Idol” has become — not only as a television phenomenon, but a music industry beacon. Its fifth season was its most popular, as established stars like Shakira and Rod Stewart vied for the attention of “Idol” fans with guest appearances and saw their album sales boom; even highly respected stars like Mary J. Blige and Prince made an appearance on the show’s finale.
And while that season’s contestants were battling to become the next “Idol,” the show’s veterans were showing why the title was so coveted. Kelly Clarkson won two Grammy awards for her breakthrough, multiplatinum second disc, “Breakaway,” while Grammy-nominated Carrie Underwood became one of country music’s biggest stars with her debut album, which has sold more than four million copies; she even beat out established veterans for awards (much to Faith Hill’s apparent televised dismay).
Fantasia, another multiplatinum former winner, had her own TV biopic and released another critically acclaimed disc in the fall. Season five “Idol” finalist Chris Daughtry put together the band Daughtry and released a smash album, and Kellie Pickler had success with her country debut.
And Hudson, a season three contestant, is now nominated for a slew of awards — including a Golden Globe for best supporting actress — for her dazzling turn in the film “Dreamgirls.”
“The show has proven it has a valid way to pick talent and a proven way to sell records,” says Harvey Mason of the production team The Underdogs, who have worked with Clarkson, Guarini, Fantasia, Ruben Studdard and other “Idols” alumni.
“There are still some people who feel it’s not the exact road to a long career, but some people have already realized that this is a very important way to market artists and I think the artists who have come off the show have proven that they are long-standing artists.”
The turning point for “Idol’s” credibility may have been the success of Clarkson’s sophomore album, released in 2004. While her first album, released soon after her win on “Idol,” was a platinum success, it only generated two hit singles and her success seemed tied into her newfound fame. But her hard-rocking second disc, which contained smashes like “Since U Been Gone,” and the ballad “Because of You,” garnered her critical acclaim and made her a bona fide success apart from “Idol.”
“At that point, the show was not just finding a one-hit wonder. It wasn’t just finding someone who could win a TV reality show and have a huge No. 1 single,” says Shaw. “It was finding someone who would have a career with longevity.”
In “Idol’s” early days — and to some extent, even now — the show was criticized for looking for a generic-kind of talent that would be palatable to mass audiences, sacrificing individuality or uniqueness.
But as “Idols” like Clarkson, Underwood and Fantasia continue to carve out their own niche in the music world, those arguments may be fading.
“(Clarkson’s success) was a time when one of the winners was able to establish a persona away from the show ... and stand on her own two feet, and got recognition from the Grammys and from critics, and there was a sense that this was somebody who had been cultivated to be a pop star outside of what she was within the ‘Idol’ boundaries,” Light says.
When legendary mogul Clive Davis, who overseas the albums of the winners and many contestants, first reached out to Mason to produce records for the show’s contestants, he was skeptical.
“Everyone thought it was just a TV show, another reality show, but I remember specifically meeting with Clive Davis ... and him telling us that this TV show was going to change the way the industry works,” he recalls.
“This is just the evolution of how we find our talent, that’s just a fact. Before you used to have to go into somebody’s office and sing to a guy playing piano to get a record deal. Now you can go on a TV show,” Mason adds. “It’s the same exact thing.”
And that talent continues to captivate American audiences — even more so than established pop acts.
“What it really is is the kids getting exposure on TV and the public falling in love with them, during weeks and months ... so by the time they put the record out, the public knows who they are,” says Jackson. “The public might know better who these kids are than they might know the artist from any record company.”
Last year’s Grammy Awards, which went head-to-head with an episode of “American Idol” and got crushed in the ratings, might be the best example of that.
“If that many more people want to watch an episode of ‘American Idol’ than the biggest awards show in the music business, I think it tells you what kind of power they have,” Light says.