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Shiftless When ‘Idol’

Approaching the end of ‘American Idol’ and ‘Glee,’ and the new era of music television shows

Like all fantastically successful institutions, American Idol benefited from perfect timing. Back when the most popular TV talent competition in history debuted on June 11, 2002, the record industry was in the midst of its pre-market-collapse prime. From 1998 to 2001 — coinciding with the teen-pop boom spearheaded by the Backstreet Boys, ’N Sync, and Britney Spears — total album sales soared to more than 700 million per year. In 2000 and ’01, sales figures flirted with the 800 million mark. Overall, the pop machine moved 3 billion–plus units during these years. Even Aaron Carter and the Baha Men went platinum. Record sales were so robust, major labels were using $50 bills as toilet paper and toilet paper as dog toilet paper.

But as everybody now knows, this was pop’s BALCO period, when enthusiasm over preposterously big numbers put up by bloated stars concealed a deeper rot that was about to be exposed by the emergence of online file-sharing services like Napster. By the end of ’02, sales had dropped from 763 million the previous year to 681 million. A decade later, the tally would be less than half of that, and it continues to drop annually. (In 2013, it was at 289.4 million, down 8 percent from 316 million in ’12.)

Idol’s emergence coincided with the mainstreaming of a once-radical idea: Listeners could now consciously decide whether to “support” corporate record labels without having to give up on music consumption. Suddenly, adopting a Steve Albini posture was economically convenient for millions of people who had never heard Atomizer. Downloading music illegally wasn’t mere theft; many argued that it was a protest against companies with despicable histories of mistreating artists. Rationalizing unethical behavior via somebody else’s unethical behavior was perceived as noble.

How Idol exploited this cultural shift was pure genius. First, it foregrounded pop’s behind-the-scenes machinery, essentially making it the star of the show. Then it turned this apparatus into a game show–slash–Choose Your Own Adventure book. How could you hate the record industry when you were the one choosing the next star — or, better, you were the one being chosen as that star? Idol tasked the pop audience with acting as an army of A&R representatives for label bureaucrats like Clive Davis, and then turned around and sold those artists back to the very same people.

Like I said: pure, uncut, Merck-quality genius. Except the record industry isn’t a machine, really, but an animal. (Or to use a less charitable metaphor, a virus.) It’s not a fixed organism mindlessly running by rote into infinity — it lives, it breathes, and, most important, it evolves. Right now, after an inarguably impressive run, we are witnessing the phasing-out of American Idol from this animal’s genetic makeup. TV viewers in 2014 are no longer tuning in to watch an amazing display of singing ability, to paraphrase Martin Scorsese at the end of Quiz Show. They just want to watch the money.

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Before delving into the numbers that appear to spell Idol’s impending demise, let me make the usual caveat about how the vast majority of TV network executives would happily gorge on Taylor Hicks and Lee DeWyze records for a month straight in exchange for the kinds of numbers this show still pulls. Last week, for instance, Idol drew 10.5 million viewers on Wednesday, narrowly beating out another ancient reality property, Survivor, to win the night.

But is Idol still doing well by Idol’s (old) standards? Roughly 10 percent of last Wednesday’s audience, or 1.3 million people, came from the coveted 18-49 demographic. As Vulture’s Josef Adalian reported last week, in 2011 Idol garnered a 7.8 rating among this age group for its first Wednesday show in March. In 2012, it fell to 5.7, and then to 3.8 in 2013. Last week’s rating was 2.7, about a third of what Idol drew at that time just three years ago. Like Simon Cowell used to say after sizing up a so-so wannabe diva, nobody is jumping out of their chairs over that performance.

Idol’s rapidly disappearing audience has been the predominant media narrative of this season, the show’s 13th. Last month, 21st Century Fox CEO Chase Carey admitted to The Hollywood Reporter that Idol was “winding down” and that ratings have “fallen faster than we hoped.” Unsurprisingly, sliding ratings have caused advertisers to slowly back away, including one of Idol’s most important benefactors, AT&T, which severed ties with the franchise this year after supporting the show since 2003. Factor in declining ad rates and ballooning expenses — including hefty $15 million salaries for Ryan Seacrest and Jennifer Lopez — and what was once a cash cow could potentially become a money loser.

Then there’s the actual music. Taking stock of contemporary pop’s pulse was once inconceivable if you didn’t at least casually keep up with Idol. Not only did it rank among TV’s top watercooler shows — where washouts like William Hung and Sanjaya Malakar were nearly as famous as winners like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood — but it was also a legitimate avenue for discovering the next platinum-selling pop star or even Oscar winner. But that was a long time ago. Tuning in to Idol last week (years since I’ve watched the show regularly) had a strong “listening to Poison the week Nevermind came out” feel. If Idol is a little long in the tooth as a television enterprise, it is practically the walking dead in pop-music terms.

This year’s most notable Idol contestant is MK Nobilette, an otherwise unexceptional coffeehouse chanteuse type with the distinction of being Idol’s first openly gay competitor. That this barrier wasn’t already obliterated by Season 8 runner-up Adam Lambert (or Season 2 runner-up Clay Aiken, or any number of other contestants) speaks to how old-fashioned and flat-out delusional Idol has been regarding the sexual orientation of its performers up until now.1 During last Wednesday’s episode, after surveying Nobilette’s stiff and unconvincing rendition of Train’s “Drops of Jupiter,”2 Harry Connick Jr. (playing Cowell’s vacated role as the acerbic but mostly refreshing “honest” judge) noted, “It looks like you don’t want to be here.”3 If that’s true, can you blame her? Idol’s deathbed embrace of “diversity” is not only ineffectual when measured against the rest of the pop world, it no longer seems relevant either.

Tellingly, there are no contestants on this year’s show in the mold of 2013’s winner, Candice Glover. It’s too early to accurately gauge whether Glover’s pop career is a success, but early indicators aren’t positive: Her debut album, Music Speaks, debuted last month at no. 14, moving just 19,000 units. The record’s first single, “Cried,” was a nonstarter on the Hot 100. A powerful vocalist more than qualified to pull off the melismatic theatrics Idol singers have become known for, Glover’s weakness (on the basis of Music Speaks) is that she has no discernible identity as an artist. Music Speaks is a competent though hardly necessary pop-R&B record; it establishes Glover’s talent without ever making a convincing case that she’s a legitimate star.

The same could be said of past Idol winners who were either MIA on the charts (like Kris Allen, DeWyze, or Hicks) or has-beens after a flash of postshow stardom (like Ruben Studdard, David Cook, or Jordin Sparks). The majority of Idol’s musical output is simply not compelling for listeners who haven’t already formed emotional bonds with the singers by watching them on the show. Sometimes, apparently, not even that bond is enough to get people to pay attention once the show ends.

Given the decadelong year-in, year-out grind searching for yet another budding pop singer — and the market oversaturation from the countless X Factors, Sing-Offs, and Nashville Stars that followed in Idol’s wake — perhaps it was inevitable that American Idol would become American Yeoman. The music doesn’t seem special, because it is, by its assembly-line design, not the least bit special at all. For every Clarkson — the first Idol winner and likely to be remembered as the best — there are many more Idol offspring like Season 11 winner Phillip Phillips, the most successful recent victor, who has carved out a workmanlike career as a front man for flavorless, sub-Lumineers “silent-majority rock” hits like “Home” and “Gone, Gone, Gone.”

The current cast includes several potential Phillipses — just, you know, regular guitar-strummin’ dudes like Alex Preston, C.J. Harris, and Sam Woolf, who will inevitably be praised for their “uniqueness” and “originality” by the judges because they can approximate a decent Dave Matthews or Ray LaMontagne impersonation.

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Lea Michele Signs Copies Of Her "Louder" CD

With all this speculation about Idol’s possible (probable?) demise, it’s also worth noting the official conclusion of Idol’s unofficial network cousin, Glee, currently in the midst of its final season. While not formally connected to Idol, Glee always seemed like an idealized depiction of Idol’s audience. The quirky, chirpy denizens of William McKinley High School were hopelessly hooked on putting their own show-tune–y spins on the popular songs of the day, just like the people trying to impress Simon, Randy, and Paula. Glee was more stylized than Idol, but it was also more relatable for millions of young, aspiring performers whose pop-star fantasies almost never escape the local auditorium.

Amazingly, Glee at its peak was even more prodigious at turning out hits than Idol. Releasing several songs per episode for download allowed the cast to quickly rack up record-breaking chart stats — in 2010 alone, Glee had 79 songs chart on the Hot 100, more than the Beatles had in their entire career. Overall, the Glee singers scored a total of 207 chart “hits,” the most ever for a pop artist, nearly 100 more than Elvis Presley. Yes, those numbers are misleading at best and fraudulent at worst — 84 percent of Glee’s singles dropped off the chart after one week — but the cast still sold 42.2 million downloads, a ridiculously large haul given that we’re talking mostly about straightforward covers of overly familiar chestnuts like “Don’t Stop Believin’” and “Jessie’s Girl” performed by Spotlightz-style semi-knowns with virtually no vocal personality or interpretive inventiveness.

Alas, like Idol, Glee has fallen on hard times as a pop entity. Only two songs by the cast charted in 2013, and nowhere near the Top 10. Glee’s most famous cast member, Lea Michele, just released a solo record, Louder, whose title accurately conveys its emotional tenor. (Louder’s lead single, “Cannonball,” topped out at no. 75 on the Billboard chart.) Glee’s legacy is reflected more vibrantly (in sales terms, anyway) by the aggressively innocuous pop duo A Great Big World, whose “Say Something” is one of the more inescapable pop hits of the last few months. AGBW actually got its first significant career break from Glee when “This Is the New Year” was featured in a 2013 episode. Singer Ian Axel’s reedy, needy tenor resembles Glee’s house style — he sounds like a fresh-faced cherub hell-bent on impressing the grown-ups. (Axel turns 29 later this month.)

“Say Something” and “This Is the New Year” are both included on A Great Big World’s debut LP, Is There Anybody Out There? released in January. The album begins with “Rockstar,” an annoyingly chirpy piano “rocker” about being “born” to be a famous musician, making it a theme song of sorts for the Idol/Glee generation. But even with a hit single to their credit, Axel and partner Chad Vaccarino aren’t yet rock stars themselves, as the version of “Say Something” entrenched in the Top 10 is a rerecorded take starring Christina Aguilera that relegates A Great Big World to a supporting role.

Aguilera “discovered” the song last fall and unveiled her version in November on the reality talent show that has overtaken Idol in popularity, The Voice. While not nearly as culturally dominant as Idol once was, The Voice is the clear ratings champ right now, with a 4.0 rating in the 18-49 demo and 14.4 million viewers overall for last Tuesday’s episode. Just as Idol’s timing was ideal for the early ’00s, The Voice is attuned to present-day realities, in that it’s designed for an audience that would rather watch a TV show that features music than a music program that happens to air on television. The distinction is fine but important: Idol was about finding new recording stars, while The Voice is geared more toward converting established pop figures like Aguilera, Adam Levine, and Blake Shelton into TV personalities. As for the contestants, they seem like afterthoughts compared with the celebrity “coaches” angling to defeat their friendly rivals in a human game of pop-music checkers.

The Voice - Season 6

The Voice’s track record with winners is already a bit varied: Season 3 winner Cassadee Pope topped the country-album chart with her debut, Frame by Frame, released one week after The Voice’s finale, while Season 1 champ Javier Colon has already parted ways with his record label, blaming the company for under-promoting his poor-selling record, Come Through for You. The other contestants are in various stages of jump-starting their careers, though whether they have anything unique to say seems dubious.

Does any of that matter? For The Voice, not really. People watch The Voice to see Levine and Shelton banter good-naturedly or Usher seduce every female drawn into his gaze, not the plebs they’re ostensibly guiding. The music on The Voice is a condiment for a more palatable main course of celebrity and television spectacle. It’s like what Aguilera did to that A Great Big World song: Innocent amateurs were cute for a while, but it’s time for the professionals to step back in.

Filed Under: Music, American Idol, The Voice, Glee, steven hyden

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Steven Hyden is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden

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