Why American Idol Keeps Soaring

Why American Idol Keeps Soaring

Theoretically, American Idol should not exist. It’s a broad-based mainstream hit when series like that are no longer

supposed to be. It has gained viewers in its sixth season, a TV near impossibility. It sells albums, at a time when very

little else does. And by awarding a record contract by nationwide vote, it is dedicated to a heretical idea in the

niche-media age: that you can please most of the people most of the time.

But weirdest of all — and I’m betraying my professional bias here — it celebrates critics. It’s not just that more than 30

million people watch judges Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson dispense music criticism . The show also turns even nonvoting viewers into critics, arguing who deserves success

and what makes a “good” performance. Week after week, a society that is not terribly self-reflective asks itself, through

Idol, what it likes and why.

The process works: Idol is the most reliable hit-launching platform in show biz. It dominates TV; rival networks refer

to it as a “tsunami.” Idol Season 1 champ Kelly Clarkson has sold more than 8 million albums; Season 4 winner Carrie

Underwood, 5 million; and even Season 2 runner-up Clay Aiken, more than 4 million. Its alumni have won Grammys ,

Country Music Awards and even an Academy Award . To paraphrase Hudson’s Oscar-winning lyric,

Idol is telling you it is not going. And anyone in the hitmaking business should be listening to what it says about

our national tastes. America does not yet know who will win American Idol. But we know — as tested, argued and

ratified over five-plus seasons — what we like.

We Like to Hear a Story

American Idol, its judges are fond of repeating, is a singing competition. Anyone who wants to win it needs to learn

quickly that that is a huge lie. Yes, singing is the price of admission — ask Kevin Covais how far you can

get on cuteness. But calling the show a singing contest implies that you can run any given performance through the Divatron

3000 and get an objective score, from 0 to 100 — nothing personal.

The fact is, performance is nothing but personal. You get on Idol by singing; you win Idol by telling a story.

Some do it through the songs: last year’s winner, Taylor Hicks, was a master of that forlorn genre, the cornball story-song

. Some make a story arc of their performances, like Clarkson, who grew over Season 1 from wallflower to

leather-lunged sensation. Others make themselves the narrative. Season 3 winner Fantasia Barrino, for instance, had the story

of teen baby-mamma who made good and subtly underscored it with performances like the soulful lullaby Summertime. “The

stories are really key in connecting to the people they were before Idol,” says host Ryan Seacrest. “You say, ‘Hey,

she used to work in a bank! I work in a bank. I can relate to that.'”

In a way, Idol is a makeover show. The audience likes to see nerds turned cool, frumps turned glam and awkward kids

finding their legs onstage. And it likes to see itself as the invisible hand guiding the changes. A narrative makes the

audience feel invested, the same way movie fans do in Brad and Angelina. “The journey of seeing the same people coming back

week on week—you have a relationship with them,” says creator Simon Fuller. “You don’t know what’s going to happen.

Sanjaya walks out with his crazy hairdo. It’s a living soap opera.” Season 6 contestant Chris Sligh called the job of getting

the audience to identify with you “mak[ing] David Hasselhoff cry,” referring to the Baywatch star tearing up when

Hicks won last year’s crown. Which brings us to point No. 2 …

We Like to See the Good Guys Win — Up to a Point

America is a country caught between meritocracy and morality. We are raised on fairy tales and movies that tell us nice guys

finish first. Then we grow up and go into a job market that tells us it is not just O.K. but also necessary to richly reward

the best and cut the laggards, however kind or hardworking they are.

Idol voting plays out this tension. The show is both sadistic — see the hugely popular audition rounds, in which

Cowell mocks the worst singers — and sentimental. Voters have proved to be surprisingly ruthless bosses, firing the likes of

cherub John Stevens, good kids who end up outmatched. But the voters are also willing to put a thumb on the scales for

contestants who’ve paid their dues or have affecting personal stories. Ideally, Idol indulges the idea that the nicest

people are the most talented, promising karmic justice in a pop world of Ashlee Simpsons and Paris Hiltons. “There are a lot

of people who are not great singers who are selling a lot of records,” Jackson puts it diplomatically. And voters will take

points off for arrogance. Justin Guarini was Season 1’s early favorite but lost steam when he started to seem as if he

believed he was as good as everyone else said he was.