How Pop Stars Killed ‘American Idol’
It’s tempting to say that American Idol, which closes out its final season tonight, went downhill after the 2010 departure of tart-tongued Brit Simon Cowell — the music-business lifer who transformed “cruise ship” from a benign vacation locale into a contempt-dripping insult, and who exhibited his tireless commitment to the deep v-neck on primetime television. But Cowell’s exit was predated by the real cause of Idol‘s decline: the decision to offer judgeships to the incredibly famous, who took the focus off the singers and confused its overall mission.
When Idol began, it had a certain amount of just-above-public-access charm — the feeling was very “let’s put on a show,” one where some singers would ham it up and others would knock it out of the park. Over the course of its first nine years, it grew bigger, with higher ratings, flashier production values, and — most crucially — singers who transformed into pop stars while America watched. (There was even one whose spellbinding run merited a Rolling Stone cover.) The 2009 hiring of Ellen DeGeneres — the self-professed Idol fanatic and hugely popular comedian and TV personality — was a move that asserted Idol‘s place not just in the star-making firmament, but in the star-celebrating firmament.
“Ellen [DeGeneres] has been a fan of the show for many years, and her love of music and understanding of the American public will bring a unique human touch to our judging panel,” Idol mastermind Simon Fuller said when her hiring was announced. Not only would she bring what she called “the people’s point of view,” she would bring an undeniable amount of Q factor to the judges’ panel, which up to that point had been staffed by people on the fringes of celebrity: Cowell, session lifer Randy Jackson, song whisperer Kara DioGuardi and choreographer-singer Paula Abdul, who’d had a run of chart-topping singles and MTV ubiquity during the Eighties and Nineties, and who exited that summer because of a squabble over salary.
The departure of Abdul, and the arrival of DeGeneres, marked a turn to self-seriousness for the show, which had climbed to the top of the Nielsen ratings and minted some bona fide pop stars during its first eight years on television. Now, it was ready to flatter itself by placing Cowell on the same celebrity level as the beloved daytime-TV staple.
It didn’t work. Ellen showed herself to be too nice of a judge during the live shows, offering up mealy-mouthed critiques that didn’t help the singers. Meanwhile, DioGuardi, amped up the insecurity that she’d displayed in snatches during her first season. Cowell had announced his impending departure in January 2010, and he clearly treated the year as a victory lap. Lee DeWyze, a likeable if pitch-challenged member of Idol‘s “White Guys With Guitars” fraternity, came out as the Season 9 winner, although it was Cowell’s long goodbye that served as the real story — a sign of what was to come in the following years.