Adios, Idol! or: The End of an Era
Last night, Fox’s American Idol ended its fifteen-year run with an emotional finale that united many recognizable alumni for one last celebration of song. Past winners Ruben Studdard, Carrie Underwood, Taylor Hicks, Jordin Sparks, David Cook, Kris Allen, Scotty McCreery and Phillip Phillips were there (as were many of the show’s other, less famous victors like season nine’s Lee DeWyze, season twelve’s Candice Glover, season thirteen’s Caleb Johnson and last year’s winner Nick Fradiani). Kelly Clarkson, Fantasia and Jennifer Hudson performed in pre-taped pieces. The original judging panel of Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell reunited for a final time, as did Ryan Seacrest with his original co-host Brian Dunkleman, who left the show after the first season. And there were also taped appearances from former judges Steven Tyler, Nicki Minaj and Ellen DeGeneres (yes, Ellen was a judge once upon a time, though she was far from good at it). There was even a musical performance from Kara DioGuardi, who helped judge the eighth and ninth seasons. Only Mariah Carey was nowhere to be seen, though I suppose it’s not surprising, considering how much she hated her experience judging alongside Minaj a few years ago.
It was, in effect, a triumphant swan song. A swan song that was capped when 25-year-old Mississippi native Trent Harmon edged out fellow Mississippian and single mom La’Porsha Renae to take the Idol crown as the show’s final winner. Harmon, with his good looks, boyish Southern charm, and sturdy pipes, caught everyone’s attention when he crooned Sia’s “Chandelier” as a plaintive ballad a few weeks ago, and then again during the final performance show. And with successful performances of ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man,” Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” and Chris Stapleton’s “Tennessee Whiskey” also under his belt, he clearly deserved to be the bookend to Kelly Clarkson, Idol’s first and most famous winner. Renae put up a very good fight, though, with a bevy of exquisite vocal masterclasses to her name. Hit up YouTube and watch her stunning rendition of Rihanna’s “Diamonds” to see what I mean. Then go on to her rousing covers of The Beatles’ “Come Together,” Common & John Legend’s “Glory,” Mary J. Blige’s “No More Drama” and Sia’s “Elastic Heart” if you need more. This was truly a Final Two matchup made in music heaven.
As a regular Idol viewer since seasons six and seven, I’ve spent ten years with this silly and oftentimes frustrating show. In the early days I actually wept when my favorite contestants were sent home before their time. I particularly remember the time when season eight contestant Allison Iraheta was booted, despite stopping the show the night before when she duetted with Adam Lambert on Foghat’s “Slow Ride.” That was also the night eventual third-place finisher Danny Gokey utterly mangled Aerosmith’s “Dream On.” But in spite of that, Iraheta was the one to leave. As she powered through a reprise of Janis Joplin’s “Cry Baby,” I ended up being the crybaby as I bawled at my screen. What’s worse, I had a math test the very next day. Needless to say, my emotional state precluded me from getting a very good mark on it. I was simply too devastated at the injustice.
Fortunately for me, Iraheta has done well for herself since then (most contestants tend to disappear into thin air after their stint on the show). She put out a decent record of pop-rock tunes after her elimination, and then started fronting a band called Halo Circus when it was clear being a solo act wasn’t in the cards. This past season she was also a background vocalist for the show, and during the finale was able to strut her stuff while covering Meghan Trainor’s “No.” Needless to say, she practically outdid the original artist of that song, and seeing her shine like that reminded me of why I’ve been invested in American Idol for all these years. It’s not been a matter of who wins or doesn’t win for me. Heck, the “right” singer rarely wins a show like this. For me, it’s been about the diamonds in the rough. Those voices that are plucked from obscurity and given the opportunity to be heard. Cultivated. Fostered. For me, music is not just about genre, lyrics, or melody. It’s also about the voices that bring those things to life. And there is a certain excitement in discovering the voices of a new generation. Not only hearing them soar, but also having them in your back pocket so that, once they go their own way, they are never forgotten. Some do move on to bigger and better things, but most of the time, those voices remain contained in the Idol sphere. But at least they were heard. At least they were no longer hidden.
Now that Idol is over (“for now”), NBC’s The Voice will have to pick up the mantle of showcasing amateur talent. The problem with that show, however, is that it doesn’t do a good job of prioritizing its singers. They may have a fresher catalog to sing from, and the vocal stylings are always varied, but at the end of the day, it’s the judges (or “coaches” as they’re called) who matter more. Their bickering and strategizing has always taken precedent, and the singers are almost dehumanized by being reduced to mere pawns in a larger game. American Idol was never like that. Even when the unremitting animosity between Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj made the twelfth season a virtual trainwreck, there was still something to be said about the talent of the female crop of contestants that year. Nothing that Mariah or Nicki did could take that away from them.
Am I sad that Idol has ended? Of course I am. As someone who doesn’t regularly watch much TV, American Idol was one of those few shows I could look forward to at the start of every new year. It was a predictable formula to be sure (one which led to some stupid executive decisions in the last few seasons, particularly after the results show was axed), yet it was the joy of being introduced to new talent that really mattered to me. If I hadn’t watched this season, for instance, I would never have been aware of the existence of a young R&B singer named Avalon Young. I’m not an R&B diehard, but there was an irresistible quality to Avalon that greatly appealed to me. She had a down-to-earth look that made her stand out, and her voice grooved like few others on the Idol stage before her. Unfortunately, she was eliminated by the judges in joint eighth place with fellow finalist Lee Jean due to the season’s streamlined schedule, despite nailing a performance of The Weeknd’s “Earned It” a week earlier, yet at least I know she’s out there now so that I can keep tabs on her music. And that’s what I’m going to miss most. Not the judges, not the stage, not the songlists. Not even the ever-dependable Ryan Seacrest, whose hosting could never be faulted. No, I’ll miss the kids who no longer have this opportunity to change their lives, unless they swallow their pride and try their luck with The Voice. I’ll miss getting that sit-up-and-take-notice feeling whenever a special contestant enters a room and opens their mouth. I’ll miss the excitement of rooting for them. I’ll even miss the sorrow of seeing them leave too soon.
Yes, I’ll miss it all. And I don’t regret it. There’s nothing to regret.