American Idol is back for its thirteenth season, and many critics are unsure if the series is still deserving of the golden ticket to Hollywood.
Country singer Keith Urban returns this season as one-third of the judging panel, along with returning season twelve judge and pop singer Jennifer Lopez and jazz singer and actor Harry Connick, Jr. For the first time since season eleven, there is a harmony amongst the judges, as they all seem to believe in the dream that is American Idol — or at least, the dream hey are paid to believe. Since the original trio of judges went their separate ways — Paula Abdul in 2009, Simon Cowell in 2010, Randy Jackson in 2013 – the series has struggled to find the right “fit” when it comes to the predictable sweet and sour panel. It has been said that the continuous drama in season twelve between millionaire diva Mariah Carey and curvaceous rapper Nicki Minaj contributed to the 33 percent decrease in finale ratings – a shocking dip when compared to that of previous seasons.
American Idol is often the place where once A-List singers, celebrities and media personalities go to watch their careers die. In an effort to remain relevant, producers have been grasping at straws to create a panel that appeals to Australians, fans of J.Lo circa 2001, and middle-aged women. Like seasons past, the judges are forced into the stereotypical personas that have come to be expected by Idol viewers: Keith plays the role of the understanding and encouraging judge, Jennifer is sugary-sweet to the point of cavities, and Harry takes on the rough and honest role. While Urban and Lopez spend most of the two-hour episode time spewing “Yeses,” Connick takes a more constructively critical route when it comes to the contestants – even though none of them know who he is. He created a rather awkward moment in the audition room by saying that unlike “some people” (referring to his two partners), having a contestant run up and down the vocal register does not impress him to the point of handing over a golden ticket. In a refreshing change of pace, Connick looks past the physical appearance and vocal “fluff” of contestants, instead looking to find someone who has undeniable, raw talent, as well as a dream.
Unfortunately for Idol, the chemistry between the judges could be seen as one of the only positives for a series that is struggling to remain on relevancy life-support with the recent onslaught of new reality singing competitions. In February, American Idol’s reality show nemesis The Voice returns for its sixth season after proving to be a success with audiences. The popularity of The Voice could be attributed to the bromance between judges Adam Levine and Blake Shelton, but also because the series literally searches for the voice, as the panel is unable to see the physical appearance of the contestants. In a society that relies so heavily on personal physical appearances for success, The Voice has proven something that American Idol has not: talent comes in all shapes and sizes.
One thing that has been a constant theme on Idol since it first debuted in 2002 is that the contestants who are given tickets to Hollywood and potentially win are often the cookie-cutter image of what society would deem as “celebrity material.” It cannot be denied that the series often seems like a competition to determine which Idol hopeful will have their dreams of becoming rich and famous dashed in the harshest manner. New episodes of the auditions this season showed all three judges turning away a curvier, African American woman who, ironically, had a voice similar to Jennifer Hudson’s. Urban, Lopez and Connick seemed to critique this young woman’s voice more than they had for any other contestant, leaving one to question whether it was her vocal talent or looks that placed a barricade in front of her dream. In a society where more clothing companies, marketing agencies and reality shows like The Voice are embracing positive body image, it is high time that American Idol leave the dark ages where physical appearance determines worth and ability. It might just be the breath of life the series needs.
In one last-ditch effort to regain popularity and relevancy with viewers, American Idol has turned to the use of social media – something The Voice has been doing since its first season. Host Ryan Seacrest encourages viewers to Tweet whether or not they think a specific auditioning contestant will make it through to Hollywood. Idol has also made almost every spoken word hashtaggable on Twitter, which is a clear demonstration of their #desperation for #attention from #realityshowjunkies who have continued watching the series. Not even the typical and predictable sob story introduction about a contestant dedicating their audition to their blind, three-legged cat – which had been a reliable crutch in the past — has the same effect on viewers as it did twelve seasons ago.
American Idol, one of the original reality series on television, refuses to believe that its success, popularity, talent, winners and judges peaked years ago. While those who have stuck by the series will surely continue to watch the train wreck that is Seacrest’s hosting abilities, it is highly unlikely that the next music superstar will be discovered there – after all, it hasn’t happened since 2005 with Carrie Underwood. Unless you count appearing as a contestant on The Biggest Loser as an American Dream realized (we’re looking at you, Ruben Studdard), only two Idol winners have reached success that goes far beyond singing in front of a panel of “judges”. One can only hope that this veteran reality series respectfully bows out of the competition, sooner rather than later. “Seacrest out.”