Well, another season of that star-making reality series, American Idol, is off to a full start. Yes, American Idol that oft-contrved ad-space marketer disquised as "the greatest talent show in the history of television" has returned for its sixth season. A great many things have happened since 'Idol's Stateside inception in 2002 (the show is a spin-off of Britain's Pop Idol): the show's first season winner Kelly Clarkson has since shed the show's cookie-cutter, safe-pop image to carve out a critically (and commercially) successful career for herself complete with two Grammys; season 2 and 3 winners Ruben Studdard and Fantasia Barrino respectively have both had successful albums; season 4's winner Carrie Underwood has garnered a recent Grammy win and is second only to Clarkson in sales. More, runner-up contestants like Season 2's Clay Aiken and Season 5's Chris Daughtry have since went on to surpass their respective season's winners in sales and popularity.
If ratings are any indication, American Idol has only has only grown in popularity since its beginning. Indeed, rival networks often plan their programming around the AI juggernaut so as not to compete with it; rumor has it that CBS recently cancelled "Armed and Famous" another so-called "reality show" that placed D-list celebrities in the roles of cops-in-training due to the show's inability (and the network's unwillingness) to compete with American Idol.
And what keeps bringing the viewing public back to American Idol season-after-season?
Well, the answer would seem to be multi-fold and involve more the television aspect than the actual talent show component. An overwhelming amount of the American Idol viewing public tunes in to hear Simon Cowell's (often) brutally honest criticisms of 'Idol hopefuls and/or finalists. This is given credence by the fact that fellow judge Paula Abdul's (mostly) positive critiques are often positioned to be counter to Cowell's denunciatory remarks a sort of tug-of-war for the masses, if you will; judge Randy Jackson would seem to be a balancing point between the two of them. As far as the talent aspect goes, much of the viewing audience more often seems captivated by personality than outright musical aptitude; Taylor Hicks' win last season is proof of this, as many have argued that Hicks was the most popular from his season not necessarily the most talented. Hicks' current slow music sales could be seen as an affirmation of this. [This is strangely analogous to the John Stevens phenomenon of a few seasons ago, wherein the then-teenage crooner outlasted a far better singer Jennifer Hudson and went on to secure a major recording deal with Maverick Recordings; his "popularity" didn't translate into sales, however, and he was eventually dropped.]
This year, 'Idol's sixth season has been somewhat overshadowed by the successes of one of its more underappreciated alumni season 3's Jennifer Hudson. Hudson is currently the proverbial American sweetheart, with a successful musical big screen debut Dreamgirls and a record deal with none other than Clive Davis to boot. More, her beautiful visage is soon to grace the covers of Vogue and Life magazines. Jennifer Hudson originated from the same season as winner, Fantasia Barrino a moderately talented singer (at best) with a commanding stage presence. Jennifer Hudson's time on the American Idol program was wrought with controversy. In the early stages of the competition, Hudson despite her obvious talents was often relegated to the bottom 3 by the American voting public (?). More, she [Hudson] was a constant victim of judge Simon Cowell's vitriolic remarks, whom oddly enough seemed to favor raspy-voiced Fantasia Barrino's stage image to Jennifer's potent four-octave abilities. Also, Jennifer Hudson was one of the three "divas" relegated to bottom 3 status on the infamous April 21, 2004 results' show broadcast (the others being Barrino and Latoya London, another multi-octave singer who rivalled Hudson vocally). The April 21 episode ended with Hudson's ouster (London would follow on an equally controversial May 21, 2004 results show, which saw her receive fewer votes than the considerably less-talented Jasmine Trias).
There have been many theories put forth concerning Simon Cowell's downplaying of Jennifer Hudson's abilities during 'Idol's third season all of which have with the advent of Hudson's meteoric rise to multi-media star again come to the forefront. Many have speculated that Simon Cowell found Jennifer Hudson's somewhat fuller figure less-than marketable. Cowell's all-too common assertion season-after-season that certain 'Idol contestants look "commercial" would seem to support this. Indeed, this is further substantiated by the successes of the negligibly talented Carrie Underwood from Season 5, whom the judges especially Simon complimented even in her most unspectacular performances (not to mention Cowell's selection of the very talentless Carmen Rasmussen as a so-called "Wild Card" in Season 2). I suspect something more sinister to have been in Cowell's dismissal of Jennifer Hudson, however; I believe he [Simon Cowell] already had his mind (and marketing machine) geared towards Fantasia Barrino and wanted no deviation from his goals of making her the American Idol. Jennifer Hudson with her powerful 4-octave range presented a threat to Cowell's plans, so he proceeded to sway public opinion of her [Jennifer] as often as he could by verbally undermining her performances.
In fairness, much the blame for missing the "It" factor inherent in 'Idol contestants like Jennifer Hudson and Chris Daughtry must be placed squarely on the voting public. Many of the problems in garnering support faced by Jennifer Hudson were also experienced by Kimberley Locke the season before; people often make the 'Idol voting process a popularity contest, giving little or no consideration to talent.
In its defense, American Idol despite its obvious flaws can serve as something of a generalized character study of the American viewing public. It has confirmed time and again that people do see things in terms of race, sex and attractiveness. I remember visiting the official AI message boards during Seasons 2 and 3; I was awestruck by some of the comments posted on them by the show's fans about their favorites (and non-favorites). For instance, many of thes show's self-professed white viewers ascribed a "diva-like" personality to Jennifer Hudson (?) and categorized her vocal style (as well as those of Fantasia Barrino and Latoya London) as "too black."
"She [Hudson] screams too much," they would say (?) the same criticisms dogged Kimberley Locke the year before. Of course, I was put off by such remarks especially when I reflected on the probability that many of these selfsame white fans loved Clay Aiken, who sings in a rather non-subtle (loud) dramatic tenor, but isn't criticized as "screaming" (or "yelling").
When all is said and done, American Idol has its place. You aren't likely to have a singer/musician with a real edge emerge from the 'Idol series winners like Kelly Clarkson, and finalists like Jennifer Hudson have since achieved their greatest successes divorced from the 'Idol machine what 'Idol can (and does) provide is entertainment (not necessarily art).
Here's hoping for a less formulaic "search for a superstar" this season!
Categories: American Idol; Simon Cowell; Randy Jackson; Paula Abdul; Fantasia Barrino; Jennifer Hudson; Latoya London; Chris Daughtry; Carrie Underwood; Taylor Hicks; John Stevens