American Idol: 15 Minutes or Forever?

By Andy Argyrakis | senior editor,
Posted: Tue, 03/29/2011 - 12:18

album promo image for American Idol: 15 Minutes or Forever?

Season 1 winner, Kelly Clarkson


Part four of a series chronicling the many angles of “American Idol.” To read part 1: "Why We Love American Idol," click here. To read part 2: "The American Idol Makeover," click here. For part 3: "Faith, Fame and 'American Idol,'" click here.

From its cultural influence, to the ratings surge it frequently inspires, to winners’ conquest of the charts, there’s no denying American Idol’s ongoing popularity and the growing list of stars its birthed. Yet one has to wonder what type of lasting impact the reality show is having on pop music in general. Now that the show has a 10-year history, where have these contest competitors turned solo artists ended up? What are the positive and negative impacts of the show at large on modern-day music? Read on to find out.

Singing sensations
When the majority of music fans think back on the past decade of “Idol” champions, chances are two main singers land on the tip of their tongue. For starters, Kelly Clarkson comes to mind, not only because she was the very first victor, but also thanks to a consistently charting pop/rock career that’s since sold over 23 million albums worldwide. And running up close to her coattails is country sensation Carrie Underwood, a 16 million album seller who’s a member of the Grand Ole Opry and a worldwide concert attraction.

Ironically, many of the other winners haven’t found similar footing. While Fantasia Barrino and Jordin Sparks have both scored several R&B and dance hits, their mainstream popularity has steadily faded since the program and each is generally considered part of the second alumni tier when compared to the top two.

Outside of a few hits, more recent winners like David Cook and Kris Allen never exactly blew up to the point of becoming superstars, while Ruben Studdard and Taylor Hicks have struggled to maintain a major label recording contract. While it’s too early to tell how last season’s winner Lee DeWyze will fair in the long run, his debut disc was thus far the lowest selling in the history of “Idol” winners, debuting at a mere #19 on the Billboard 200.

Homogenized hits
Perhaps part of the problem for the less visible performers (and the slew of forgotten faces who’ve placed much higher up on the totem pole), isn’t so much their actual talent, but the type of material they’re recording. A common thread amongst “Idol” singers who score record deals is limited involvement in the material they’re recording. For instance, many of the songs are provided by historical hit-makers or staff writers rather than being original compositions, though some are occasionally involved in co-writes. From a production perspective, many major labels find a slick superstar with a multi-platinum track record eyeing a single as a top priority, sometimes forsaking artistic ingenuity in the process.

Though it would be unfair to suggest all post “American Idol” artists sound the same, many coincidentally adapt a homogenized approach that seems tailor made for the radio. In fact, this factory-styled mentality may be the reason why many albums haven’t earned glowing critical acclaim, while countless fans have no doubt stopped listening to a particular act once the hit parade dies down.

Short-term success and attention spans
When the excitement of an “Idol” finale dies down, many graduates of the program experience short-term success simply because audience attention spans are so limited. This problem particularly applies due to the reality show format, a genre that generally seeks to foster the “15 minutes of fame” mentality.

Another possible reason some winners and finalists fizzle out just as fast as they rose to recognition is the fact that they’re perceived as never having paid their dues. Though that certainly is an unfair statement as a whole (especially considering some have slogged it out independently prior to competing), several singers find the show to be their first national platform and only source of a fan base. In other words, a singer’s dreams may come true overnight, but they can also disappear just as quickly once interest is lost.

Keys to lasting the long haul
To “American Idol’s” credit, the show has been incredibly accurate as a barometer to what the general mainstream music audience is interested in at any given moment. In order for those who key that formula to last for the long haul, they also have to cultivate a faithful fan base on their own. Basically, that means lots of touring after the television circuit, taking time to meet and greet fans after every show and conducting as many press interviews as possible.

Once they’re able to obtain a captive audience, it’s important for them to evolve artistically, making sure they contribute to writing their own songs, or at the very least, being able to interpret something another writer penned with passion and precision. In the case of say Clarkson or Underwood, “Idol” has clearly laid the groundwork for a fruitful career and played a significant part in shaping an artist for the ages.

Perhaps the biggest asset of “American Idol” throughout the past ten years is its ability to re-ignite the general public’s interest in music as a whole. Considering the industry’s ongoing sales slump, even the short-term artists the show produces are still contributing significantly to the economy and giving major labels a lifeline.  

The amount of time “American Idol” will stay red hot remains to be seen, but regardless of its duration, the show will certainly go down in the history books as a trend setter. While it’s easy to criticize its commercialism of artistry, even the harshest skeptics are sure to applaud its ability to stir an international interest in music at large, which is arguably its most lasting impact. 

Copyright 2011, For permission to repost or reprint, click here.


About the Writer

Andy Argyrakis is a Chicago-based entertainment writer/photographer who appears in the Chicago Tribune, IllinoisEntertainer, Daily Journal, Concert Livewire, Hear/Say Magazine and Image Chicago (to name few). His record label writing credits include Warner Brothers, Atlantic, Curb, EMI and Universal, with additional photo credits for Fuse TV, Live Nation, Nikon, Pollstar, Celebrity Access, Paste Magazine, and He’s also the author/narrator of "Access Matthews" (an audio CD tracing the career of Dave Matthews Band) and spends considerable time on tour, including outings with Arlo Guthrie, The Guess Who, Madina Lake (on Linkin Park’s Projekt Revolution) and Gospel Music Channel’s very own "Gospel Dream" (where he served as season one judge).

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