AI Crowd

Slightly Pitchy: Overcoming The American Idol Curse


Here’s one of the biggest myths in modern music:

“American Idol contestants sail into stardom without paying their dues.”

Unless you’re already famous, the spawn of someone famous or Rita Wilson, it’s damn near impossible to get a record deal without some sort of sacrifice. The traditional path is no picnic: sweat it out in nightclubs, open for bigger bands, get booed and pelted with garbage and if you’re lucky, land a record deal, score a song on the radio, get a hit — and if you’re really lucky, ride enough momentum to overcome “one hit wonder” status. Option B and C: blow or provide blow to an A&R rep or post a cherry-popping video on YouTube.

American Idol is a whole different hayride through hell:

Phase #1: The Cattle Call

Travel to a faraway city on your own dime. Sit in a stadium for a few days hoping to get the attention of an entry-level production assistant. Audition for a junior producer who will assess “your story” as much as your talent. Go home and await a callback. Drive back to that city weeks or months later. Sit in a hotel ballroom for a few days hoping for your televised shot against three snarky judges who are more interested in good television than good talent.

Phase #2: The Dog Show

Turn a golden ticket into two exhausting weeks of humiliation and orchestrated conflict in Hollywood and Las Vegas. Avoid mass extermination and land a slot in the Top 24. Quit your job and relocate to L.A. not knowing if speed-dialing tweens will even vote you into the Top 10. Get dressed up like show dogs and jump through hoops week after week, filming sappy Ford TV commercials, stumbling through awkward group medleys and suffering through shitty “theme weeks” with setlists even your parents would call dated. You deserve an Emmy nod for crafting a convincing soundbite about what a thrill it was to meet Carole King moments after you were told who she is.

Phase #3: The Hunger Games

Once you make the Top 10, stand there like an idiot as America tunes in to watch the televised execution of your hopes, dreams and career — and those of your 10 new friends. Idol only rewards TWO character types: cute, safe, and slightly scruffy boys; and girl vocal gymnasts who can squeeze in a dozen Mariah/Xtina-ish vocal runs before ending with a Whitney/Celine monster note whether the song calls for one or not. Sadly, in the nine years since Teddy Bear Ruben Studdard won the crown, a black male enjoys the same odds of winning Idol as he does The Bachelor.

Phase #4: Carrie’s Prom

For all but one, there is the pre-booked walk of shame to Kimmel, Ripa, and Hoda before you are branded for life as a musical pariah most critics and bloggers will never take seriously. Even if you WIN the whole thing, there is no guarantee you won’t be back to a day job and selling your own merch after local club shows. After the confetti falls, you should be recording your masterpiece, but instead, you’re hauled off on a national karaoke tour through the fall. By the time you can make your own music, Idol is already auditioning for a new season and Jimmy Iovine has changed his phone number.

Phase #5: Deal With The Devil

At best, you sign away a significant portion of your lifetime earnings; at worst, you end up heavily in debt to the record label that paired you with overpaid producers, hack Malibu songwriters and overworked publicists. That ANY worthwhile art emerges from Camp Idol is a miracle. Most finalists play it too safe and wind up appealing to nobody by trying to appeal to everybody. How else can you explain the season finale’s “record 35 million votes” translating into less than 100K units in first week sales?

Eleven seasons in, and the only American Idol winners who truly became superstars were from Season’s #1 and #3. If the show wants a return to pop cultural dominance, it needs to evolve from a karaoke competition into one that focuses on original music and new hit songs. When Rock Star INXS finalists J.D. Fortune and Marty Casey introduced original songs in the finals, both songs became hits.

If Idol stopped the covers and switched to original songs after the final five, the winner and finalists could launch potential careers while the iron is hot.

At the end of every May, after five months of foreplay, Idol blows its load and goes to sleep in about 90 seconds: winner announced, confetti falls, group hug and boom, you see the 19 Entertainment logo and it’s all over until next January. Imagine the weight of the win if the winner gets 15 minutes to be famous and perform an instant mini-concert consisting of 3 new songs culled from an EP of originals that goes on sale immediately. That would give some weight to the crown. That would spare feverish fans an eight-month wait to spend their money on the winner’s product.

The finalists could also have original singles to sing on the road. The tour could cement those songs into the Billboard Top 10 all summer long. But alas, that probably won’t happen. American Idol is about drama; it’s not about music.

Then again, things could be worse, as my first (and last) attempt at filmmaking speculated in 2005:

Ready for a happier ending? Every once in a while, something great clicks. In the coming weeks, I am going to mix in some detailed reviews of worthy Idol alumni. They didn’t sell out artistically, which is why you have likely never heard their incredible music.

Here’s a preview:

James Durbin (Season 10) reignites ’80s Hair Metal:



Brooke White (Season 7) joins a dynamic duo:

Haley Reinhart (Season 10) keeps it sexy and soulful:

Casey Abrams (Season 10) cuddles up:

  • fairlyoften

    Or you can do like Taylor Hicks and beat them at their game. He did it both ways, paid his dues on the road for many years and the Idol route. And then built himself a solid career without oweing his soul or his money to the Idol machine.
    Big buzz about him in Vegas right now and you should check out his original songs. “Heart and Soul” , In Your Time, The Fall, Hell of a Day” just to name a few. If he had been allowed to introduce them on Idol, I can’t imagine how big it would have been. But then he did “forget” to tell the record store back home that they shouldn’t be selling them. He did okay. lol
    Shadow shows with his own band while the tour was going on. He did it all and thats never happened again. Its been a blast to watch him. He has a voice and a talent that will always be around.
    And through it all, the man still loves Idol. Thats where he got his shot.

  • cleek

    IIRC, they tried doing originals for the final rounds, one season, long ago. but, the songs were bland, generic and totally forgettable.

  • Keith Creighton

    Oops, it looks like my second link – to J.D. Fortune’s “Pretty Vegas” is not working – here is another link:

  • Keith Creighton

    “bland, generic and totally forgettable” – also sounds like every coronation song Idol ever did, until this year’s pretty decent track for Phil Phillips. They need to widen the net beyond those inside the system (like Kara D.). The new albums by White, Abrams and Reinhart show they got decent songwriting chops when paired with some god co-writers.

  • Keith Creighton

    I think Taylor Hicks and Adam Lambert are good examples of “if you’re gonna work, you gotta get on the road and put a memorable live show together.” I can’t wait to see what Haley Reinhart does at Lollapalooza.

  • Ellie G.

    Good article! Love your choices of videos & artists.

  • Melika

    Good article! Whichever way you go the music industry can be a very challenging place to survive or thrive in. Every approach has its own challenges, although people often don’t realize this.
    Another interesting case to perhaps look at is season 9 contestant Casey James. He took a different route. He waited two years before releasing his album, in the meantime he has been paying his dues by traveling and performing most nights of the week, and by doing the exact same promotion other brand new artists usually do. He co-wrote most of the songs on his album, he played all of the lead guitar on his album and he also co- produced his own album. Sony Nashville Columbia are supporting this approach. It seems like his workman approach might perhaps stand a chance to pay off in the future.

  • Sue

    James Durbin will be one of the few survivors from American Idol who will have a long career in his chosen niche. The dude is doing great on the tour scene and is making significant inroads into arguably the most difficult market for an Idol to break into – hard rock/metal. He already has some unique achievements under his belt – he was named one of the 100 Greatest Living Rock Stars by Revolver Magazine; was nominated for Best Vocalist at this year’s Golden Gods Awards and was the first Idol to perform at Rock on the Range. Sales wise he’s done very well for a new artist on an indie label debuting in a niche genre, 100k in only 6 months is nothing to sneeze at these days. I’m looking forward to his next album which he will starting working on in September and will probably be available spring 2013.

  • DwDunphy

    Good work as always, Keith.

    Every year I come up with a new reason I dislike AI, so there’s not much more I can add to the litany than this: I find it ironic that all these neophyte celebrities want so badly to be pop stars to perform as such in front of massive audiences, and yet every week they squander doing exactly that by targeting their performances to three judges. They are on TV. They have one of television’s biggest audiences right there. Everything they say they want, they have right there.

    Instead, they provide paint-by-numbers performances doing the same set of songs again (“Hallelujah, Bohemians, I’m Not Going!”) for whoever gets to keep Randy Jackson company. It’s the equivalent of dying of thirst in a fresh-water lake.

  • slynnc

    Adam Lambert is rocking it in Europe fronting Queen. You tube the video for the entire 2 hour performance in Ukraine. This was their first concert there after only a week or so of rehearsing. Brian May said that Queen fans in the crowd seem a little apprehensive at first to accept Adam but after one song they are loving him and chanting his name. Adam’s second album debuted at number one on the billboard chart. How did this article not include him????

  • Cesar

    I’ve got my eyes on James, he’s still very young and has followed through on everything he’s promised to his fans except go under a band name, but that may happen in the future. His vocal and showman qualities really add something unique to his genre, all he needs to do now is put out heavier material with his upcoming album. He’s also been adamantly opposed to the idea being a lead on an existing band which in my mind gives him much more credibility going forward.

  • Keith Creighton

    I can see why so many Idol contestants head to Nashville after the show, country music has one of the few fan bases that still buys music – especially in the physical format. I am not a fan of modern radio country because it seems most every artist sticks to the same basic chords, rhythm patterns and vocal delivery (evolving little beyond what George Strait, Randy Travis, Reba and Tammy) started decades ago. I wish country radio was more open to artists that get brandished with the term “Alt Country” (The Blacks, Robbie Fulks, Split Lip Rayfield, Neko Case, etc.) But that’s just me. While I prefer old school Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, etc., there’s still some gold in the new stuff. Casey James’ “Let’s Don’t Call it a Night” is right in line with the genre, but it’s still really enjoyable. I think he’ll have a good career.

  • Keith Creighton

    I never thought about it that way – great point. You don’t get much bigger as a recording artist than having 20 million people watch your show every week. Even when major artists such as U2, Justin Bieber, Adele, etc. have TV specials, those shows rarely get more than 3-8 million viewers.

  • Keith Creighton

    I am a huge fan of Adam Lambert and did not include him in this round-up of overlooked artists on purpose. He is a star and his success (or lack thereof) is solely on his artistic shoulders from here on out and not Idol’s. His launch from Idol is almost textbook on how it should go. I think he is the most talented contestant the show ever produced, even though his artistic choices have not always been sound. Trespassing has only sold 131,000 copies at this point (by this time in its shelf life, For Your Entertainment was already past 500,000, in its way to 830,000).

    FYE and Trespassing are very solid records, but the sales point to the fact that he alienated much of his potential fan base in the US.

    I watched the Queen performance and think that might be his greatest shot at winning back a wider audience. With Queen, Adam unleashes his true showmanship and vocal prowess. On Trespassing, he mutes it in favor of dance songs and ballads where his amazing vocals take a backseat to studio production and beats.

    I could go on and on about Adam. The horrible choice of first single from FYE (Sleepwalker, Strut or Down The Rabbit Hole would have opened stronger), the awful FYE cover art (the European version was much cooler), the American Music Awards performance (too much, too soon), the Beg For Mercy project and lawsuit, the battery arrest… Perhaps in a future column.

    In the meantime, one can only hope they bring that Queen show to the USA (or at least DVD).

  • Keith Creighton

    I agree with Cesar and Sue about Durbin and will be writing more about him soon. Happy to see my review of his album on Amazon “Inner Beavis Awakens… is still top ranked. Seeing how strong his touring band has become, I would love to see them form under a band moniker so the other guys can share the spotlight. And what fun they would have coming up with a great, edgy metal band name.