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: