It’s like a grand experiment, this “American Idol”. It starts with a thesis: “There is an identifiable “X” factor that contributes to super-stardom”. Then, the experiment, in two phases: First, a small group of industry insiders winnow through a diverse group using their experience to discern “American Idol” possibilities, then over several weeks the audiences of “American Idol” choose who think would make a good star. This seems to have the making of solid science, allowing some margin for cranks on the internet boosting the voting process, but in the five years since “American Idol” has debuted, has it succeeded in producing a star capable of unassisted flight. And what of the secondary purported effect of an “American Idol” appearance, which states that just making it into the bottom five assures you success? Let’s review.
Season One’s “American Idol” winner, Kelly Clarkson, may provide some of the most interesting data on the “American Idol” experiment. The success of her “Idol” sponsored recording contract, which every winner gets, was awesome at first with a number one debut on the Billboard charts. In terms of critical reviews, Kelly was often treated as a candy coated TV exec’s vision of a want to-be star, not in contempt of her phenomenal vocal abilities though. Despite her obvious talents, the music industry, particularly the press, was not ready to accept Kelly as one of their own, instead she was branded a creation of television, the medium of “American Idol”, a cross-over star.
In an effort to be taken “seriously” Kelly walked away from her “American Idol” contract and went on to produce the album symbolically titled “Break Away”. While not having the advantage of the “American Idol” hype machine behind it, the more independent “Break Away” still managed to land within the top-ten and better yet received Grammy nominations and awards symbolizing the industries final acceptance, four years later, of the “American Idol” refugee as one of their own.
Runner up Justin Guarini, on the other hand did not have as much success. At first, after losing to Clarkson in the “American Idol” finale, Justin seemed to be nearly as big a part of the post-“American Idol” marketing wave. The producers seemed determined to prove as many successes as possible and Guarini would have made a logical choice to come out of the “American Idol” halo with star potential intact. His first album, also on the “American Idol” label, opened at a disappointing number twenty and quickly fell off the charts with little critical or listener praise. Unlike Kelly’s autonomous departure from the “American Idol” contract, Justin Guarini quickly found himself abandoned by the Idol producers. He has continued to make music through independent labels, but his success is hardly notable.
Of the rest of the season one alum some (Nikki McKibbin, Tamyra Grey, and Ryan Starr, most notably) have enjoyed above struggling-musician-par success while failing to obtain any stick in the mainstream; while others have since languished in relative obscurity. (The RJ Helton fan-club forums boasts a whopping 269 members.)
So the results, based on season one of “American Idol”, would seem to indicate that “American Idol” is incapable of producing a music-star as much as a tv-star. The other four seasons, however, have proven that the definition of “American Idol” success is a moving target.
Season two of “American Idol” was an inversion of the previous season’s track-record. This time around it was the runner up, Clay Aiken, who would turn out to be the most successful season two contestant despite the almost universal loathing of his seeming awkwardness. Ruben Studdard, who was truly an underdog, won the contest but his career quickly sputtered. Ruben’s debut album was released several weeks after Clay’s, both on the “American Idol” label, and despite hitting #1 sold about 200,000 less than the runner ups disk in its first week. Critics have criticized Studdard for not having the stamina to carry a full set concert.
Season three of “American Idol” marked another milestone for the show: the first time a non-contestant achieved fame from a failed audition. Billed as the worst audition of the season, William Hung’s oddly spastic dancing and atonal singing became a viral sensation on the internet and Hung went on to establish a notable career as a parody of himself. Season three winner Fantasia Barrino, amongst some of the other contestants, finally brought legitimacy to the idea that “American Idol” brought in contestants with true musical talent. Despite universal praise, Barrino has yet to nail pop-star status but the story of her life and early challenges has become an inspiration to many.
Season four and five of “American Idol” seemed to see a redefinition of the “X” factor. Gradually, as the show transitioned from season to season, the criticism of “American Idol” scooping out the Barbie’s and Ken’s of the world began to recede as it became clear the voting populace was more open minded about issues like weight, age, and looks. If you were to favor the contestants on aesthetics alone, you’d often end up backing a short term contestant. It seemed the “X” factor was indeed as elusive as its namesake would imply.
“American Idol” has yet to present a success which has not struggled with the halo of their made-for-tv roots, and the numbers show that for all those votes a small percentage of supporters are actually going out to buy albums. ‘Can you capture the “X” factor’ seems to blend with the question of ‘can you create the “X” factor’. Despite seemingly marginal success in its intended purpose, however, “American Idol” remains the #1 fascination with television fans every season it airs. One can only wonder if that was the goal all along.