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In a still-nascent Internet fandom era, the idea that you could be plucked from obscurity and made famous by a reality show made those shows feel somehow genuine.
To this day, nearly a decade later, my mother holds a grudge against me and the fourth season of American Idol. It was the penultimate episode of the season, the last performance show before the winner would be crowned the following night. I voted—by dialing the phone number stripped across the screen and repeated by the eternally boyish, unwaveringly chipper Ryan Seacrest at least three times—for Carrie Underwood, the blonde with the warm voice obviously destined for a country music career but charading as a pop singer just fine. She sang a killer Heart cover one week while sick.
My mother had been clear since the beginning of the season: She wanted Bo Bice, he of the throaty rocker growl and the well-groomed locks of a romance novel cover, to win. My entire family (my parents, my three brothers, and I) gathered in the living room the next night for the finale. When Seacrest announced at the end of the star-studded finale show (which included Rascal Flatts, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Babyface, Kenny G, and curiously, David Hasselhoff) that Underwood was the winner, our new American Idol, my mother turned to me and said, unequivocally, “This is your fault.”
What made American Idol the massive success that it was (and still feebly is, on paper), what made people like my family and especially my mother care so much, was that the stakes felt real. In a pre-YouTube, pre-Tumblr, still-nascent Internet fandom era, the idea that you could be plucked from obscurity and made legitimately famous by a reality show (in America, where the people chose you) made those shows feel genuine in their oversized spectacle. But singing shows’ and other competition reality shows’ influence, their ability to turn a relative nobody into absolutely somebody, has wavered in the age of the Internet.
And yet, these competitions continue, with new judges, new prizes, new contestants, with zombified persistence. ABC, which never found a singing show that managed to click but did find success with Dancing With the Stars, is trying again: The network announced that Ke$ha and Ludacris would be “experts” on their summer singing show Rising Star.
Part of what keeps these shows alive is that they still garner respectable ratings (even in Idol’s seriously diminished numbers, it’s still a top 40 Nielsen program), they’re cheaper to produce than scripted shows, and they have the potential for multiple revenue streams in iTunes sales and tours and merchandising. But the way in which these shows have lost their relevance and importance to the Internet is emblematic of how the Web has harvested one of TV’s greatest powers: to make you famous.
There are innumerable accounts of people finding real-life fame by breaking out of their little portals on the Web: on their blogs, on Tumblr, on Instagram, on Twitter, on YouTube, on Reddit; there is seemingly no space on the Internet, no site too small or too hidden, that does not hold some latent potential to turn its users into someone whom thousands of people follow, whom millions of people are aware of. An even younger Justin Bieber put videos of himself singing and performing on YouTube—you know who he is now. YouTube’s latest aggressive ad campaign for its high-profile creators is built upon the central conceit that a network of strangers clicking and viewing their videos have made them Web famous and modestly profitable. But also that you, too, can forge your own semblance of microfame. Just talk into your webcam and be yourself.
Or the version of yourself you find most appealing. An insidious part of Web-enabled fame’s appeal has always been the almost granular-level narrative control it allows and the faux veneer of scabrous transparency that creates. The ways in which you can control your image online are beginning to rival what would normally take a team of professionals—hair, makeup, PR, business, law—to build out for you. True, traditional pathways to fame like TV are still huge, but the Internet is proving just as loud. The potentially infinite points of entry and levels of fame promised by the Web and the ways in which mainstream media have embraced covering them (hello, Daily Dot readers!) offer a tempting corrective to the old models of becoming suddenly and explosively famous. For the aspiring singer, what American Idol could maybe, possibly do for them, the Internet could do just as well, offering more control, more interaction, and virtually zero barriers to entry.
The Web strips away much of the red tape and bureaucracy incumbent with network television, but it is also ensnared by an unbreakable feedback loop; all behavior is quantified, collated, commented on, and retweeted. When it comes to fame-seeking, television offers insulation and clearly delineated modes of conduct: You sing, they judge, America votes, you win. But the Web is at once tightly controlled and so large as to be unwieldy; it’s truly a matter of a single click between fame and infamy.
What’s most interesting about a large swath of the Internet’s celebrities, especially on YouTube, is how uninteresting so many of them are. What are teens watching on their phones all day? People just… living their everyday lives and telling people about them. And what stands out in New York Magazine’s recent cover story package about people made famous by the Internet is that, for almost all of them, it happened by accident. The right person shared their video or saw their tweet or happened to look at their Instagram photo. They all just decided to make the proverbial lemonade out of all the attention they were suddenly receiving.
As recently as five years ago, American Idol was biggest show on television, steamrolling the competition and making Fox the No. 1 network in the U.S. Carrie Underwood’s coronation was watched by more than 30 million people in 2005. Last month, the show posted its lowest ratings ever with the final performance show of its 13th season with just 6.6 million viewers. That’s fewer than reruns of some CBS sitcoms.
In the lead-up to the broadcast networks’ presentation of their new shows and schedules to advertisers, called the upfronts, speculation abounded that Fox would cut Idol down to one night a week; some even thought Fox would make its 2015 cycle the show’s last. The former proved more likely, and come upfronts, true: Fox president Kevin Reilly announced that the network would be trimming the number of hours Idol would air from more than 50 a season to 37, still a significant portion of Fox’s programming hours, but an acknowledgement nonetheless of the show’s (and genre’s) waning powers. Last year, the network cancelled its other singing competition, an American version of British hit The X Factor, with original Idol judge Simon Cowell, after three lackluster seasons.
Other networks have also tried, and continue to try, to replicate and surpass the gangbusters success of American Idol, mostly in vain. NBC’s The Voice, with its swinging chairs of even more famous judges and mentors, is the only one that’s come anywhere even close to matching Idol’s place in the ratings, its ubiquity in the zeitgeist. (For comparison’s sake, its season finale notched 11.6 million viewers last month.) But The Voice has yet to produce a winner or contestant to break out in the same way Kelly Clarkson became a legitimate, chart-topping pop star. Ditto for any of The Voice’s also-rans or favorites eliminated too soon, like Idol’s Chris Daughtry and Clay Aiken, who despite not winning their seasons, have enjoyed their own visible success. This is to say nothing of Jennifer Hudson, whose post-Idol ascendance speaks profoundly to the show’s almost magical sense of irony—two weeks before she was eliminated, placing seventh in the show’s third season, she sang “The Circle of Life” from the Lion King soundtrack. Three years later, she won an Oscar for her first ever acting job, in Dreamgirls. And when Kelly Clarkson won, the lyrics to her thrust-upon winner’s song were on-point: “Some people wait a lifetime for a moment like this.”
Idol’s importance and influence should not be understated, even if you hated it or never watched it. It is the antecedent and forebear to the modern reality competition series, shaping the archetypes of the genre for good. Survivor, whose American incarnation debuted on CBS in 2000, may have cemented the concept of being “voted off,” but Idol synthesized the showmanship of game shows, the voyeurism of the Real World, and Survivor’s elimination process into a crudely alluring pop package. Most importantly, it professed to be about craft and about talent, allowing Idol to usher in other competition series like America’s Next Top Model, Project Runway, and Top Chef.
Idol is the kind of genre-breaking show that not only taught you how to watch other shows but also what you expected of them. This is perhaps best exemplified by the exploitative carnival ride that is audition rounds, where viewers are asked to work in psychic overtime: to mock the tone-deaf saps singing for all of America to see and then to sympathize with those same saps for having been goaded and cheered on by the show’s producers, who prey on their enthusiasm and invite them through reality TV’s backdoor so that they may be publicly humiliated. That audition rounds also veered into crass depictions of institutionalized American racism and homophobia speaks to how the format, even in its ugliness, was a four-quadrant hit (e.g. William Hung singing Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs” for our collective sneering, pity, and encouragement).
We framed our viewing of the especially critical or harsh judges of other shows as “the Simons” of their shows. Indeed, the glamorization of the reality show judge has almost became a genre and industry all in its own. Part of it, at least at first, felt legitimate: Who better to help decide who America’s next singing sensation than actual singing sensations themselves? In practice, this proved mostly impractical: Paula Abdul may have enjoyed her share of ’80s pop hits, but that didn’t make her a helpful judge, especially given how resistant she was to being critical. Same goes for Randy Jackson, who, despite helming hits for Mariah Carey (herself briefly a judge on the show), was never really able to articulate any kind of meaningful evaluation—most everything was “a’ight.” For his part, Cowell, a record label guru, was a blunt-force object; he actually offered critiques, often so overwrought as to bludgeon you.
The Voice has turned into its own little cottage industry for celebrity judges, upping Idol’s ante by courting artists currently on the charts or ones that are just more famous than Idol’s: Adam Levine, Blake Shelton, CeeLo Green, Christina Aguilera. NBC just announced that Gwen Stefani and Pharrell would be joining, subbing in for Aguilera during her pregnancy and replacing Green. The contract and payday negotiations for singers looking to moonlight as judges for a singing competition show have made larger and louder headlines than any of contestants from their respective shows—Jennifer Lopez reportedly commands around $15 million a season for Idol.
Neither my mother nor I have watched a season of American Idol or Project Runway or Top Chef in ages. Instead, when I’m home visiting during holidays and vacations, it’s The Real Housewives franchise or the adventures of various, gruff men behaving either as boorish caricatures of Southerners or as exactly you wish them to. Where Web celebrities’ star power is entwined with their quotidian qualities, reality TV’s fourth wave of stars are beholden to our feelings of superiority and judgment of them.
Call it the Kim Kardashian effect. The new Mrs. Kanye West is certainly pop culture’s savviest wielder of ephemeral Internet fame (may we all continue to look on in awestruck wonder at the woman who turned having appeared in a sex tape with Brandy’s brother into media empire all her own). But she also represents the bridge between Idol-esque fame to the Internet-rooted kind: The original idea for Keeping Up with the Kardashians came from Ryan Seacrest.