A Requiem for the 'American Idol' Dream: 20 Years of Power Ballads and Pitchy Despair

Where have you gone, American Idol? A nation turns its lonely eyes to … wait, seriously? You’re still on?

Believe it or not, it’s true. Idol has survived long enough to see its 20th birthday. When it debuted on June 11, 2002, the TV singing contest was the blockbuster that promised to define the new pop-culture era. Like the country it’s named after, American Idol is still technically on the map, but it’s staggering in a punch-drunk haze of crushed dreams and betrayed hopes, and the nagging sense that this mission’s failure is the kind of defeat that calls for a tragic piano ballad.

So strike up “All by Myself,” maestro. Raise a glass to 20 years of pitchiness and its discontents. Like America itself, Idol has survived long enough to have totally forgotten why it’s still around. Nobody noticed when it got axed in 2016, or when it came back two years later. Back in the day, Idol had a moment when it ruled the music world, when makin’ love was just for fun. But [mournful piano notes] those days are gone.

American Idol was a sensation as soon as it debuted in 2002, with Kelly Clarkson going supernova the very first season. This show turned nobodies into stars: Jennifer Hudson, Carrie Underwood, Chris Daughtry, Clay Aiken, Jordin Sparks, Katherine McPhee. It also gave us a buttload of Justin Guarinis; Bo Bice, who briefly took over as lead singer for Blood, Sweat, and Tears; and Adam Lambert, now lead singer for Queen. Just this past weekend, the Glambert edition of Queen kicked off the Platinum Jubilee festivities for Elizabeth II, outside Buckingham Palace. Adam got his Freddie Mercury on to “Don’t Stop Me Now” — and out-killer-queened Her Majesty at her own party. No time for losers!

But it wasn’t just about selling these kids as stars. In 2002, a rotten time for mainstream pop, Idol sold the idea that music was still the whole point of American culture — hell, the whole point of life. The radio had given up. MTV had given up. But Idol still believed. It brought a little romance and madness back to pop, at a time when the post-Napster industry had lost all its star-making magic overnight.

If there was a moment where Idol really became Idol, it has to be the Season Two night when Ruben Studdard, the Velvet Teddy Bear, sang “Sweet Home Alabama,” his tribute to his home state. Ruben took the Lynyrd Skynyrd rock anthem to church, gave it an R&B gospel baptism, kept the lines about George Wallace (!) and Watergate, then tweaked every half-assed cliché about what this song was supposed to mean. It was desecration, it was celebration, it was sacrilege, it was sin, it was rock & roll. Idol made weird shit like this happen all the time. If you happened to be a hard-working music critic, it was mind-blowing to realize that Idol was out here encouraging these singers to think like critics, which is why we loved this nutty spectacle even more than the rest of America did.

That’s why Idol had the power to give us stars, even randos like the “Pants on the Ground” guy. Hell, even Sanjaya probably still squeezes a few free sandwiches a year out of it.

So much of the magic came down to the judges. Simon Cowell, so bitchy. Randy Jackson, so joyless, dawg. Paula Abdul, so Paula. Not always the most coherent, our Paula, but her tireless enthusiasm was a key part of the three-way chemistry. You could always count on her to jump up, dance, clap, cry, and uncork the mind-hydrants wherefrom her praise gushed. She was the don’t-stop-believer this franchise needed. The Idol golden age lasted as long as this trio did — after Paula left in 2010, it was a totally different show. Idol just couldn’t create stars anymore, which meant no stakes.

But it all peaked in the spring of 2009, Season Eight, when Adam Lambert dropped on this show like a Molotov mascara cocktail. He was easily the starriest star this show ever had — not just his vocal chops or flam-bam-thank you-ma’am personality, but his brazen sense of pop history and his place in it. Week by week, you couldn’t wait to see what Adam would get away with next. He could hijack any tune and transmogrify it in his own glam image, whether that meant “Mad World” or “Feelin’ Good” or “School’s Out.”

On Country Week, Adam turned Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” into a goth-queer pyro-tantric pagan sex ritual, scaring the bejeezus out of guest coach Randy Travis. And as a true team player, he made everyone around him braver, louder, funnier, gayer, whether that meant his honorary little sister Allison Iraheta, Bible-thumping nemesis Danny Gokey, or sweet-and-shy winner Kris Allen. What a fucking great season of TV, and every episode meant an hour on the phone with my mom arguing about who loved Adam more. She was a teen girl screaming for Elvis in the 1950s; five decades later she got to scream for Glambert. Idol honored that kind of excitement, in times when the radio and MTV didn’t wanna know.

After Paula, the personality was gone — it was now just another singing competition, not as kicky as The Voice or The X Factor. Steven Tyler was the closest they got to another Paula, motor-mouthing from the get-go with the motto, “Will hellfire save matches? Fuck a duck and see what hatches!” He got less coherent from there. Idol gave Jennifer Lopez a second shot at her snafu’d career, and she hustled that gig for all it was worth, kicking off her “I Luh Ya Papi” era.

In 2022, American Idol exists in a weird kind of zombie limbo, forgotten even as it happens. It’s hosted by huge stars — Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, Luke Bryan. It just racked up its 20th season — the big finale was just a few weeks ago, on May 22, yet it didn’t make any kind of pop-culture splash at all. The new champ: Noah Thompson, a Kentucky kid born a couple months before Idol debuted. His big songs: Harry Styles’ “Falling,” Jason Isbell’s “Cover Me Up,” and Stevie Nicks’ “Landslide,” from the Mother’s Day episode — he got Covid, so he sang it to America’s moms from his hotel room. The finale was a full-on 20th anniversary bash, with guests like Paula, Randy, and William Hung, who busted out “She Bangs” yet again. Sounds like it should’ve been an event, right? Some kind of big deal? Nobody noticed.

You probably don’t remember, but Idol got canceled a few years ago. Nobody noticed its demise, much less mourned. If you’re into bleak metaphors, President Obama showed up on the April 2016 series finale to praise Idol as an example of the democratic process, telling viewers how much our votes matter. As the president said, “This show reached historic heights, not only because Americans watched it, but because you participated in its success. And the same is true of America!” A few months later, America had an election … but really, why go on?

A moment from that Idol finale still haunts me, one of the most depressing scenes in all of 21st-century TV. A sing-along reunion turns into a solo spot for Pia Toscano, who belts the Idol evergreen “All by Myself,” shrieking hideously into the void, with a rictus grin of toothy Schopenhauer-level despair frozen on her face. She weeps for her lost youth, her “makin’ love was just for fun” era. Those days are gone for our Pia, still only 28 at the time. “Don’t wanna be! All byyyy myself! Any-moooore!” She ululates in her solipsism, despite the fact that there are six other Idol contestants onstage, as invisible to her as she is to them. “Anymore! Anymore! Any-moooore!

And then a forlorn shot of the audience, where a fan rises to his feet to give Pia a standing ovation. His name? Sanjaya, rocking a Mohawk for the occasion. This moment still plays in my brain when I’m trying to focus on cheerier topics, like the ever-widening maw of mortality. Quoth the Raven, “Anymore!”

The Idol universe is shattered into fragments, showing up in the weirdest places. You might be surprised to learn that the show’s longtime music director has a new gig: He’s the guitarist in the MC5. Brother Wayne Kramer has rebooted the revolutionary Detroit punk band for a 2022 tour; in the Fred “Sonic” Smith role is Stevie Salas, who led the house band in the 2006–2010 Carrie Underwood/Adam Lambert glory days. From American Idol to “American Ruse,” from Sanyaja to “Starship”: now that’s some brilliant high-concept rock typology, right? Kick out the jams!

The show’s star-making days might be long gone, but then, so is the Idol way of thinking about pop music. The cynical premise was that content didn’t matter; distribution was all. They gave the winners coronation theme songs that were lousy on purpose, as if to flaunt how interchangeable they were. Idol saw the pop star as a passive receptacle for hit songs — a model that couldn’t be more outdated in the fandom-driven pop world of 2022, where even the cheesiest new hitmaker needs to come with a message, a mission, a backstory, a raison d’etre.

The 2022 pop audience is impossible to bullshit, impossible to con. These girls eat phonies for breakfast. You can’t fool them — not twice, not once. If you try picking their pockets, you’re going to lose a few fingers. The fans are extremely aware that they run the industry, and they like it this way. If you can’t fire up these girls — if you have nothing real to say — you not only fail as art, you fail as pop. The Idol model — give the kids the latest version of what they liked last year — doesn’t mean shit to them. In 2002, Idol came on like the blueprint for the new century, for both TV and music, yet it turned out to be the last gasp of 20th-century thinking for both.

In Chuck Klosterman’s brilliant new book The Nineties, he devotes the most fascinating chapter to TV, and the strangely distant phenomenon of pre-Sopranos, pre–Peak TV, when people watched because it was on. “The quality of the content was irrelevant,” Klosterman writes. “You turned it on and watched whatever it gave you. The level of exposure was very high and the expectations were very low.”

His example of the ultimate Nineties TV show: Veronica’s Closet, a hit sitcom starring Kirstie Alley as a fancy lingerie designer. This show was watched every week by 24 million people, a ratings bonanza, simply because it was on Thursday nights beside Friends and Seinfeld, until it moved to Monday and disappeared. This (terrible) show really happened, in the most public way possible. (I watched it more than once). But nobody remembers Veronica’s Closet; nobody even remembered while it was on. It epitomized the art form, right before it didn’t. Now it’s a forgotten rune in a dead language, like the complex compositions Frank Zappa spent the final years of his life working on, music nobody can perform because he composed it for the Synclavier, then considered a high-end digital synth, maybe even the future; the few remaining museum Synclaviers can no longer be switched on, much less used to play music.

At the time, Idol was hailed as the first blockbuster of the future, the shape of hits to come. But it wound up trapped in its own Veronica’s Closet, built for 20th-century rules. American Idol had a heyday, like few shows ever do, and that’s an incontrovertible fact. But there’s something poignant about the fact that it lives on as a ghost, in public but invisible. It’s a quintessentially American fate for this quintessentially American show, and it really does conjure up those “All by Myself” piano notes. As Pia Toscano could tell you, those days are gone.

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