A Fond (No, Really!) Farewell To 'American Idol'

Apr 7, 2016
Originally published on April 8, 2016 6:12 pm

Oh, American Idol. You were too good for this world.

OK, maybe not too good. Maybe too rooted in people voting via telephone calls.

When the show, which concludes its run Thursday night, started in June 2002, the first publicly available iPhone was almost five years away. Imagine starting a show today where you asked people interested in pop music to use a phone to dial a toll-free number. You might as well ask them to vote by waving a fountain pen at a dodo. Sure, text and online voting came along later, but at the outset, it was audience engagement by telephone call. That says something about just how long this show hung on. And on. Tonight's battle between La'Porsha Renae and Trent Harmon will be its last.

The keys to the show's long-running success? For one thing, it was different (at the time). It offered nasty (but often right) Simon Cowell at one end of the scale and sweet (but sometimes hard to parse) Paula Abdul at the other, with catch-phrase-y (but extraneous) Randy Jackson in the middle. There was, at first, a strange thrill in seeing people's dreams dashed, as if we were all gradually reclaiming every moment we'd spent listening to performances we didn't think were very good from people who seemed to ... well, who seemed to have whatever you would call the opposite problem from not knowing your own strength.

But had it just been a chance to gang up on moderately talented dreamers, it would have been rapidly supplanted by YouTube commenting. It has always been my theory that the key to Idol's success lay in the notoriously dastardly practice known in psychology as intermittent reinforcement. I think of it informally as "the way to make rats go mad," but that's not really right: In this case, what it means is that you usually didn't hear particularly great performances, but every now and then, something really special would happen. And that's how they got you. At least that's how they got me.

So much of it was so bad — more precisely, so forgettable — but then creativity or talent or both would peek out through the clouds, and you'd think, "I'd buy that record." Or, just as often if not more often, you'd think, "You are probably too good for this." Perhaps you have your favorite contestants if you were a viewer; I certainly have mine. But if we start arguing about that, we'll be here all day, because unlike American Idol, fighting with strangers about the quality of the work of third parties you've never met will always be in fashion.

The more it came to light that winning wasn't all that important (other finishers often went on to bigger careers than winners), the less essential the results shows felt, and the less essential the entire competitive element felt. It seemed more and more like a straight-up talent show, and as a straight-up talent show, again, it was competing with every Vine, every YouTube video, and eventually every other talent show.

It was a hit, then a phenomenon, then a veteran, and then a bit of a cultural afterthought, even as it hung in with numbers of live viewers that any network would be happy to have. And then, inevitably, it came time for it to cough its final melismatic cough and begin its final, overwrought, remembrance-ridden farewell season.

As with people, some shows deserve obituaries that say, in effect, "Lived well, lived long, died of natural causes." And, in this case — though this is rarely true in people — "Is survived by, among others, Little Big Shots with Steve Harvey."

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(SOUNDBITE OF CATHY DENNIS SONG, "POP IDOL THEME")

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

"American Idol."

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

After 15 years, the show ends tonight.

SHAPIRO: Fifteen years of bad tryouts...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN IDOL")

JAMES LEWIS: (Singing) When Israel was in Egypt's land - let my people go.

CORNISH: ...Catty judges...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN IDOL")

SIMON COWELL: You are where you are now for one reason and one reason only. You are a loser.

SHAPIRO: ...And lots of over-the-top performances.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN IDOL")

KELLY CLARKSON: (Singing) You make me feel like...

CORNISH: NPR's pop culture blogger Linda Holmes has watched countless hours of American Idol and is with us now to bid it farewell (laughter).

LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: That's right.

SHAPIRO: Hi, Linda.

HOLMES: Hi, Ari. This is where it all pays off.

CORNISH: Really, really.

HOLMES: This is where it all pays off (laughter).

CORNISH: But it's ending now. How are you feeling?

HOLMES: You know, I have been mostly checked out for the next couple seasons, so I don't have, like, immediate sadness. But you know, American Idol was the topic of the first post on the blog ever.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

HOLMES: So it's one of those things. I have a long history with it. I have, as you said, watched many, many hours.

SHAPIRO: This your pop culture blog Monkey See. And early in its 15 years, it was among the most-watched shows on television.

HOLMES: Oh, it was gargantuan. It was at a level where other networks would not put anything opposite it that they didn't want to die. It was just kind of this world-stomping hit.

SHAPIRO: I went to watching parties.

CORNISH: It's interesting because it grew alongside reality television - right? - and created its own set of stars. Did it actually create any music artists - like, bankable stars?

HOLMES: Yeah. I mean, there are a couple ways to look at it, but the answer is yes sort of either way. I think in terms of big headline-making pop stars, there are a couple who are talked about the most - Kelly Clarkson, who won the first season, Carrie Underwood, who's a country singer.

But even aside from those two, there are - particularly in the areas of country and gospel, there are a bunch of singers. There's a gospel singer named Mandisa, and there's a country singer - Kellie Pickler. And there are a few others who have slightly more nichcy careers. But they do very well, and they're still working.

SHAPIRO: Seems like the biggest star to have come out of this was a guy who, 15 years ago, was maybe relatively unknown, certainly lesser-known than he is now, Ryan Seacrest.

HOLMES: Who knew, right? If you looked at that first season and said they guy who's going to be a media mogul at the end of all of this is one of the two dudes who hosted...

SHAPIRO: Clay Aiken.

HOLMES: ...The first season.

SHAPIRO: No.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: Runner-up for season two in case people don't get the reference.

HOLMES: Exactly. But Ryan - yeah, Ryan Seacrest is now this gigantic producer. And I mean, it's crazy. It's crazy. He's a superstar.

CORNISH: Another interesting thing - the judging - right? - embodied in Simon Cowell was a little bit about meanness...

HOLMES: Oh, yeah.

CORNISH: ...Which is not so much what you see on the shows today.

HOLMES: Right, and I think that the judging now is nicer. I actually really like their panel now. Their panel is Keith Urban and Harry Connick Jr. and Jennifer Lopez. And they're actually a lot more constructive in the way they talk to people.

CORNISH: Right, and a show like "The Voice" built on that.

HOLMES: Right. And Simon Cowell was part of a more kind of mean British people fad that we were in for a while...

CORNISH: (Laughter).

HOLMES: ...With Gordon Ramsay, who still works, but you know, there aren't as many people trying to do - that woman who was on - you are the weakest link - that woman, you know?

SHAPIRO: Oh, yeah.

CORNISH: Oh, yeah.

HOLMES: All kind of part of the same thing. We were into getting yelled at by mean British people for a while.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: And German ones for a little while, too.

HOLMES: Yes.

SHAPIRO: Auf Wiedersehen.

CORNISH: In the end, what do you consider its legacy or, you know, the impact to that we're still going to be talking about?

HOLMES: I think it's one of the last shows that really was massively popular on broadcast television. You don't really get these big event shows.

CORNISH: Watercooler TV.

HOLMES: Absolutely, and whether they'll ever find another one, I don't know.

SHAPIRO: That's Linda Holmes, the host of our Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, on the end of American Idol. Thanks, Linda.

HOLMES: Thanks, you guys.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A MOMENT LIKE THIS")

CLARKSON: (Singing) When I tell you love has come here and now, a moment like this. Some people wait a lifetime for a moment like this. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.