I have a confession to make.
I used to be an American Idol devotee.
Like hard-core, intense, watched every performance and results show, voted. Devoted. But like a lot of people who watched American Idol, I had my moment of disillusionment. I could no longer watch the show that was supposed to democratize the music industry but that instead just ended up churning out the same old, same old.
For me, American Idol, which begins its 15th and final season at 8 p.m. Wednesday on Fox, lost its charm when Crystal Bowersox fell to Lee DeWyze in the ninth season. Bowersox sounded like Janis Joplin reincarnated and looked more like a subway busker than a pop star. Lee DeWyze looked like a guy who thought a soul patch was a beneficial fashion choice.
Bowersox may not be as good as I remember (my cowriter of an American Idol blog and I - yes, I had an American Idol blog, it was fantastic, thankyouverymuch - used to call her Powersox). But she represented what American Idol was supposed to embody: finding truly talented standouts among the unwashed masses. That was really the promise of reality television to begin with. It was supposed to give real people a way to bypass cultural gatekeepers to achieve otherwise elusive fame.
And there were moments of greatness. Remember Jennifer Hudson's "Circle of Life"? Or Fantasia Barrino's "Summertime"? Melinda Doolittle's "My Funny Valentine"? Adam Lambert's "Mad World"? These were performers who never would have been given a chance without the boost of reality TV.
But the promise of American Idol - and of competitive reality TV shows in general - was never fulfilled. And that's one of the reasons it's time for American Idol, the former ratings juggernaut, to shuffle off this mortal coil.
The primary problem was that reality TV decided it still had to be TV. The initial goal stopped being, "Let's bestow success on diamonds in the rough" and became, "Let's entertain the rough." And give the audience lots of rough. Sob stories became so regular on Idol it seemed the background of every contestant was mined and stretched for as much hardship - and extra screen time - as possible.
Televised auditions - this year includes a Philadelphia stop, by the way - always varied in quality. But eventually, they veered between incredible and atrocious (call it the William Hung Effect). Judges went from celebrities qualified to give contestants real advice to just-plain-celebs who could attract a fan base (remember when Ellen DeGeneres sat at the judges' table and managed to be charming and yet say nothing at all?).
Such failings, shared by a lot of reality shows, are why the reality-competition genre is largely in decline. I miss the halcyon days when Project Runway focused on design, not crazy characters and wild histrionics.
After the novelty of the fame-by-reality idea wore off, it became apparent that famous people were famous for a reason. Charisma is hard to define; you either have it or you don't. Those cultural gatekeepers? Turns out they weren't so much ignoring this huge untapped pool of talent as they were picking and choosing the type of people who could be viable celebrities. There's a reason that, out of all Idol contestants, history will remember Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson, and Carrie Underwood the longest. They had that undefinable It. Would Madonna have won American Idol? Prince? Bowie? Springsteen? Probably not . . . well, maybe Prince; he can do anything. But such people are not good at being just artists; they're good at being famous.
Take a look at NBC's The Voice, heir-apparent to American Idol. Winners of The Voice have tended more toward Ruben Studdard's route (pop-culture footnote) than to Hudson's (Oscar winner). The Voice tells us the only thing that matters is a person's natural talent. Image and personality are supposed to be inconsequential. The problem is they're not. Celebrities are famous because, granted their talents, they're also smart and calculating, or at least have hired people to be smart and calculating on their behalf.
Nor can we blame Idol winners for failing, on the whole, to become stars. They have to sign draconian contracts, forcing them into careers they aren't suited to. No amount of charisma can override being forced to play on the American Idol Live concert tour. And even a true star like Clarkson had her biggest success only after breaking away from American Idol benefactor Clive Davis.
In many ways, reality talent shows have been shown up by the Internet - in at least two ways. American Idol began in 2002. YouTube launched in 2005. Soon, reality TV competition, once the most democratic game in town, wasn't democratic enough.
And the Internet offered fame-seekers something reality TV did not: a completely ungated way to put their talents out there on the world stage. No judges, no producers, no contracts (unless you wanted one). You don't even need to compete.
Take Tori Kelly. She auditioned for Season 10 of American Idol and was eliminated during Hollywood Week. She kept posting videos to YouTube, building her own fan base. She came under the tutelage of Scooter Braun - who also ferries the careers of Justin Bieber (who also began his ascent on YouTube) and Canadian Idol refugee Carly Rae Jepsen. This year, Kelly's song "Nobody Love" landed atop the Billboard Hot 100. She's up for a best new artist Grammy come February.
Season 13 American Idol winner Caleb Johnson had the lowest first-week sales of any Idol victor. Season 14 winner Nick Fradiani has yet to release his first solo album.
Who needs Simon Cowell, anyway?
Will I tune in to this, the final, season of Idol, a show I watched religiously for years before disillusionment (and better options) crept up on me? Probably not. But I'll always appreciate the promise it once held, that the most deserving would one day get their due.
The final season premieres at 8 p.m. Wednesday on Fox.