I wish I could say that I was with American Idol from the beginning, but I really started watching Season 4. I was ten years old and watching real network TV for the first time, a big step up from my decade of PBS Kids. I watched every episode that season, from the first auditions to Carrie Underwood’s finale victory. The first album that I ever owned myself was from American Idol, an album of the top ten each singing a song they had performed on the show (I don’t think they even make those anymore, since individual songs are more easily released on iTunes). The finale aired the week before my eleventh birthday and that album was the present I was most excited about.
In early middle school our bus driver listened to morning radio talk shows on the way to school and on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday mornings we all listened to the American Idol predictions and recaps, yelling at each other to be quiet so we could hear the WXLO discussion over the sound of the bus motor. We compared how many times we were allowed to vote over the phone before our parents sent us to bed, whether we were allowed to stay up until ten o’clock to watch the entire finale. Was our hatred of Katharine McPhee was reason enough to let the mediocre Taylor Hicks win? Was Elliott Yamin going to have a career? I don’t even remember those kids’ names, but I do know what they were doing every Tuesday and Wednesday at 8 o’clock.
I was a fanatic voter. The toll-free number is still imprinted in my brain; I can hear Ryan Seacrest’s sing-song voice repeating it a thousand times over. 1-866-436-57__. I had the precorded message memorized and was always terrified that I had misheard the contestant number and might be contributing to Sanjaya Malakar’s continued fame. I loved when towards the end of the seasons, with three or four contestants left, the precorded message would be the voice of the singer you were voting for. Remember when AT&T bought Cingular Wireless? I do, only because of the change in the “sponsored in part by” part of the message. I always had to go to bed right after the show ended, but I would write down the list of phone numbers for the singers I liked and make my parents promise that they would keep calling until they got through for each one of them. The voting process gave viewers a sense of ownership and pride in the contestants. We were part of their journey, we helped them become what they are today. They’re ours.
In a Netflix age where TV watching is more fragmented, with everyone watching shows at different times, it’s easy to forget how many people watched this one show all at the same time. Once I started drifting away in high school, I was always somehow surprised when I would come across the show in my channel-flipping or hear about the new winner. This show is still on? People still care? Idol survived an enormous transition. Television is a very different place now than it was in 2002.
Last night there was a prime-time special looking back at fifteen years of the show. It’s strange now to think about how much this show changed television. Producers talked about going to shopping malls before the first season, desperately trying to get people to come audition, and when they knew that they were part of something big. I forgot that Beyonce (!) had done guest performances on American Idol, as had Rihanna and Lady Gaga. This was the largest platform available by far. They talked about how at Idol’s peak, the next biggest show on television had 25% of the viewership. I don’t know if we’ll ever see something like that again.
After many seasons away, I watched a lot of American Idol this year. I haven’t been a faithful viewer, but there’s nothing else on on Thursday nights so it’s easy to get sucked in (sorry, Shonda). The format of the show has changed a little bit since I was a pre-teen fanatic. The audition process was much kinder – there weren’t as many people put on TV just for laughs, especially without Simon’s cruel commentary. Now there’s only one show a week, and the judges are still making the decisions much later in the season. I still don’t know at what point during the week voting happens or when those people get eliminated. There are three people going into this week’s finale instead of two. You can vote online and by text! The newest edition of the judging panel has been solid (though Keith Urban is a little extraneous) and Ryan Seacrest has kept this ship together for a decade and a half.
A large part of me is watching for sentimental reasons, but man has this been some good TV. We’ve had the chance to watch some fifteen year olds really grow as performers and La’Porsha is absolutely killing it (she’s who should win, but probably won’t). It’s easy to joke about “how is that show still on” but it’s still on for a reason. American Idol found a formula that works. And it works really well. Yeah, there’s been the bust season or two, but can anyone imagine modern country music without Carrie Underwood? In the age of self-promotion and Youtube stardom, Idol is still launching enormous careers by providing a training ground with that pushes its performers to their potential with high quality feedback and, most importantly, the largest audience available.
I’m a big fan of sappy look-backs and I’m excited to be doing just that this week. This juggernaut is coming to an end and it’s time to say thank you. Thank you for Kelly and Katharine, Jordin and Scotty, Phillip and Fantasia. Thank you for Jennifer Hudson and Chris Daughtry, the contestants who out-earned the winners. Thank you for Sanjaya Malakar and William Hung. Thank you for my trips to Borders to buy Carrie Underwood CDs. Thank you for Clay’s failed political campaign. Thank you for Simon, Paula, and Randy, and for trying so hard to find another good set of judges. Thank you for those mid-week nights in front of the TV and those early morning bus-ride debates. Thank you for the times I dropped the landline phone in the sink as I was trying to simultaneously vote and brush my teeth. Thank you for this finale week, where we get to see our old favorites reunited on stage, towering over Ryan Seacrest one last time. Thank you for our Idols. Thank you, American Idol.