Some things are obvious to all but those directly involved with them — case in point, last night’s American Idol season 10 premiere. The ratings for the season debut saw a steep decline in viewership, the critics have called the new judging staff including Jennifer Lopez and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler “non-constructive” and “ineffectual,” and many were turned off and creeped out by Tyler’s leering at the fresh young flesh of the potential contestants. Everyone seemed to be so very shocked by these turns of events.
The problem is two-fold. First, in past seasons, the audition episodes have become less and less an interest to the viewership, so much so that two years ago there was a very vocal flirtation with doing away with them altogether. That people didn’t bother checking them out shouldn’t be all that surprising.
Second, most obvious and most importantly, the show has lost its star. People may have hated Simon Cowell‘s snide, arrogant and unpleasant unpleasantness, but they loved to hate it. In equal parts, viewers loved to watch a contestant stumble about at first, on the verge of total embarrassment with Cowell’s merciless browbeating providing the soundtrack, only to see them improve over time to, finally, gain Cowell’s approval. They enjoyed his evil streak but they really enjoyed when these young singers “proved” themselves to him and he had to offer his respect to them in the end.
This is, in a way, like every underdog flick from the ’80s where the slobs show the snobs what for, and the snobs had to clap, very slowly, and hiss out a well-earned “good show.”
Cowell was, in fact, the most impartial of the judges because he was not a musician, nor was he truly involved with the creative end of the industry. He was the guy with the Lite Brite. Plug the right colored bulbs into the right spots and get the expected picture, each time, every time. If anyone wondered why all the Idol alums all seemed so similar and programmed, well this is the answer to your question.
The bigger answer is that American Idol has nothing to do with creativity or talent or even music. Sure, facets of all of these filter into the narrative, and fans of former Idols can and will defend them unto death, but the truth is that Idol is a soap opera. Viewers watch to pick their favorite participants, see them get put through the wringer, and if things go their way, watch them emerge as a star. Few remain as such after the show, as only Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson and Carrie Underwood have really found sustained career mobility. It is just like a soap opera in that, when their part is written out of the show, they either show up on another in vastly different ways, or are forgotten when similar contestants bring on convenient audience amnesia. There’s a reason why each season finds them all singing the same songs, for the most part. “The part of Dr. Chaz Sexington will now be played by Jerry Understudy.”
But I cannot stress this enough: this soap opera lost its Erica Kane. Without the tension Cowell provided, all we really have is copious amounts of “dawg” doo, J Lo sympathy and Tyler’s uncomfortably close calls with the age of consent. Is that enough? Will the audience warm up to the new regime, or is this finally the silver bullet that puts this Idol down? Time, and ratings, will tell.
- Poll: Can ‘American Idol’ be successful without Simon Cowell? (seattlepi.com)
- ‘American Idol’ Premiere Ratings Hit Historic Lows (mtv.com)
- TV Review: American Idol Returns, Unfortunately (blogcritics.org)