Why I Hate American Idol

Ok…hate might be too strong of a word. But I really don’t like American Idol.

This has nothing to do with the now constant reshuffling of the judges, though I doubt that the changes would do much to change my opinion; I really only liked Simon Cowell anyway as he was the only person who seemed to know what he was talking about. My dislike of the show also doesn’t stem from my general aversion to Ryan Seacrest or my apparent disinterest in talent competition based reality programming. My problem with the show is that I think the whole process is flawed.

Now, unlike Spike Lee, I have actually taken the time to watch what I am about to criticize. I watched all of season 2, back when the show was still in its infancy and featured the final showdown between Clay Aiken and Reuben Studdard (Who? Exactly). I hate to be in the dark when it comes to things pop culture and after everyone was talking about Kelly Clarkson and her win in the first season, I decided I needed to tune in and see what all the fuss was about. This was around the time of my reality show heyday when I was watching a lot of questionable programming (Joe Millionaire anyone?).  As I watched singer after singer eliminated week after week, there was something about the show that bothered me. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it immediately, but it kept gnawing at me. It wasn’t until Disco week that I finally figured out what exactly my problem with the show is: their focus on a variety of genres goes against mainstream success in the recording industry.

When you are a recording artist, you find what genre of music that you are good at and you tend to stick with it. Sure, there are some artists that cross over – Country music seems to be the haven for out of favor rock stars – but for the most part, you sing what you know. Artists tend to cross over only after they have exhausted all their options in a given genre or after they have become established. I can’t think of a single debut artist that puts out an album that is a mix of everything. It would be too schizophrenic; no one wants to listen to an artist that all over the place. I love Dave Matthews Band, but all their songs sound basically the same; they are easily identifiable.  You immediately know that you are listening to DMB. I can’t imagine DMB putting out an album that features one track that is a rock ballad, one that is a throwback 50s song and another that sounds like a Broadway show tune.

However, that is exactly what American Idol is asking of their contestants. They are expected to be able to perform songs across a variety of different themes. During the second season, songs were selected from the following categories: Motown, movie soundtracks, country rock, disco, Billboard Number Ones, Billy Joel, and the Bee Gees (I had to look that up, though it is depressing how many of these I remembered). In what world would a successful artist be forced to cover all these different types of music? When Clay Aiken tried to make the songs his own by playing to his vocal strengths, he was constantly critiqued that all of his songs sounded the same. Isn’t that kind of the point? You only really need to be able to excel at all these genres if you want to be a performer on a cruise ship; if you want to be a successful recording artist, this kind of genre hopping isn’t doing much to help you out. From what I’ve learned from watching Nashville (and if it is on TV, it must be true), artists spend a lot of time looking for the “right” song.  They don’t have a record label forcing them to dabble in everything, though I do find the idea of Taylor Swift being compelled to sing a disco tune kind of hilarious.

This is not to say that American Idol can’t pick out a successful winner – it’s hard to argue with the success of Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood – but I do think that there is a reason that the majority of people who have won the competition are never really heard from again. Versatility isn’t the same thing as bankability. I’d rather a performer has a sound that I like rather than the ability to do a little bit of everything well.

If other people enjoy American Idol, more power to them. But I just can’t get over the general conceit that what I’m watching is more of a dog and pony show than any real quest to find an undiscovered artist that will have a successful recording career. It seems more like musical hazing than anything else. Being able to cross over to different genres of music is a great thing, but isn’t a major determinant of mainstream success. I personally think it is more important for an artist to hone what they are good at before they start trying out a bunch of different genres, but the people behind American Idol just don’t seem to agree with me and they have the ratings in their corner. Maybe I’m the only one bothered by this.

Season 12 of American Idol debuts tonight on Fox (8 pm ET) with judges Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj, Keith Urban and Randy Jackson.

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