One of the themes of this year’s spate of “American Idol” coverage has been the relative disappointment of the sixth season and its aftermath (finale ratings down, a disappointing tour, and a relatively soft opening week for Jordin Sparks) as well as the major label deaccession of earlier winners and contestants (Hicks, Studdard, and McPhee all gone).
A lot of that loses some of its potency in context. Season six was off slightly from a heavily boosted season five. Sparks album sold less in an environment where all albums were selling less. And ever since Justin Guarini, it had been pretty well established that not everybody touched by “Idol” was going to have hit records.
But even if the “Idol” machine had ground to a halt – and with Jordin Sparks’ second single and Daughtry’s fourth now in play – it clearly hasn’t, — the impact of “American Idol” at radio – and not just Top 40 radio – can’t be denied.
- “Idol” helped reopen pure pop as a category for Mainstream Top 40, to the point where it is perhaps the second core sound (after rhythmic pop). It made possible Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” probably the most imitated record of the last five years. Less obviously, the success of “Since U Been Gone” helped spur existing artists like Avril Lavigne and Nelly Furtado to make pure pop records.
- “Idol” helped further cement TV’s reputation as the magic bullet that can save a new record or artist six months of slow going at radio. In doing so, the show spread its tentacles far beyond the contestants. When you see the Alvin & the Chipmunks version of “Bad Day” on the downloads chart, remember “Idol”‘s role in propelling the Daniel Powter original beyond its likely American resting place at Mainstream AC .
- In the same way that “Idol” had enough juice to bring pop music back at Top 40, it also had the ability to put an artist like Bucky Covington or Kellie Pickler on Country radio’s docket without the 3-6 months of set-up that have become de rigueur there (even before the 3-6 months that it takes to break a record by a new artist).
- “Idol” propelled Carrie Underwood into image artist status at Country within months and allowed Underwood to cross to Top 40 with the purest Country crossover since “Achy Breaky Heart.”
- “Idol” has, in fact, contributed artists to every major contemporary format. And it’s not an accident that the one genre that most needs a new superstar – Hip-Hop – is the exception.
- “Idol” has shown the ability to boost multiple artists at a time, including those like Elliot Yamin, whose albums come out outside the scope of the Sony/BMG labels.
What’s clear now after six seasons is that “Idol” isn’t omnipotent – even if it’s been pretty close at times. Not everything touched by the show has been a hit. Then again, not every superstar artist hits with every record these days. And as Clarkson found out, there are both enough Idols in circulation, and enough people making pure pop records, that no act can count on being alone in the category.
“Idol” also has limitations for those winners and contestants who aren’t obvious vehicles for mainstream or rhythmic pop, as Taylor Hicks and Clay Aiken ultimately proved not to be. As anybody who has done A&R will tell you, it’s very hard to turn around an album in six months, much less dwell at length on just who an artist is. Jordin Sparks relied heavily on material from mainstream songwriters; Blake Lewis co-wrote much of his own. Neither of them made exactly the album one might have expected from them or (beatboxing aside) an album that no other artist could have recorded.
That said, the debate about whether “Idol” produces serious artists is almost beside the point now, particularly in a world where Gwen, Avril, and Nelly would rather make pure pop records themselves. Kelly Clarkson put two successful projects together – always a challenge – and only her quest for serious artistry derailed the third one.
So even if it’s at 80% of its previous influence — and that would be a precipitous decline – “Idol” is likely to continue to spread its tentacles at radio this year. Tastemaker stations like WHTZ (Z100) remain very conscious of pop culture and, until something else comes along, “Idol” remains a tent pole of pop culture. The artists who come from the show have enough name recognition to get their records listened to by other programmers who don’t have as much time to spend hunting out new music.
That doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t be nice to see the finale songs get better, the albums turned around even quicker to capitalize on the excitement, or some of the material be a little more distinctive. Radio could also freshen the way it treats “Idol.” Hearing the theme music start and the previous night’s show recapped with a few of Simon Cowell’s nastiest actualities thrown in there is as much of a cliche now as the celebrity report that starts with the “Entertainment Tonight” theme music.
More globally, it would also be nice to see radio reclaim its agenda-setting capabilities from TV, or to see the next wave of music emerge. In the 15 years between the Beatles and MTV, radio had the ability to create the next big music without TV; that now seems like a distant memory. If “Idol” really tapers off, it will leave an excitement void and a need for another shared experience, and radio might give some thought to what that would be.