american idol (iconic judges)

*Ruben Studdard certainly would have been heard. Some record company A&R executive—the person charged with signing and developing new talent for a label—would have listened to Studdard’s demo tape, been impressed and scheduled an appointment.

However, after meeting in person, despite Studdard’s impressive musical abilities, chances are good the executive and his bosses would have  decided his  ample physical proportions were not those of a “star” (Luther Vandross, portly edition be damned). And that would have been the end of that.

Likewise, record execs would have appreciated the vocal prowess of Jennifer Hudson, but might have determined that the home girl version—not the glamour goddess we know today–lacked the “look”–whatever that means. Ditto with singers Fantasia Barrino and Clay Aiken.

Carrie Underwood? Well, beyond the odd hometown wedding or church performance, she easily could have never been heard from at all. At 14, the Muskogee, Oklahoma native was in fact offered a recording contract by Capitol Records’ Nashville arm, but the deal fell through. By high school graduation, she’d given up on a music career, went to college and earned a bachelor’s degree in mass communication.

I could go on, but you get the picture. Without “American Idol,” these people might have remained unknown to the world.

This week, Fox Television announced that it is finally–mercifully–taking the body off life support: “Idol,” after 14 seasons, the last few of which have seen both ratings and content decline, is being cancelled. The coming season in January will be its last.

The music “reality” show helped create some of the biggest stars in popular music.   In the process, it unwittingly cast a discomfiting light on the self-defeating orientation of a conventional pop music industry that continues to be its own worst enemy. Unlike a major record label—where legitimate musical skill often takes a backseat to  finesse at striking a convincing pose—on “Idol,” usually the ultimate factor was talent.

Many of the record executives I knew in the business during “Idol”’s heyday would never have signed most of the aforementioned singers. Frankly, Underwood would have had the best shot at a deal, but the business would have tried to inveigle her into pop/rock as opposed to the country genre in which she’s become a superstar.

Detractors of “Idol”– those in the music business and the general public; often people who have never seen it–love to refer to the show’s winners and runners-up as fake or prefab.  They felt as I did maybe  ten seasons ago, before I began rushing home to catch the show.  They considered  it corny.  I can dig it.  But whether or not you like what they sing, “Idol” alumni such as Kelly Clarkson, Adam Lambert and Scotty McCreery are the truth.

During its unprecedented reign—at some point averaging more than 20 million viewers a show–“Idol” reflected, among other things, black music’s ineradicable influence on popular culture: many of the show’s female singers emulated the vocal style of either Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan and especially (the ultimately country Underwood included) Whitney Houston.

No question, “Idol” could be unforgivably hokey. The manufactured “dramatic” story lines became annoyingly transparent. The idea that choreographer Paula Abdul–originally hired to judge a contestant’s stage presence–actually offered her opinion on singing, is a storyline even “Twilight Zone” creator Rod Serling would have passed on.

My dawg  Randy Jackson introduced to an unsuspecting mass  the imprecise term “pitchy,” while the brusque Simon Cowell, whose spirit-breaking honesty was as much shtick as it  was on the money, devolved into self parody.   Meanwhile, the “Idol” stage served as classroom for the omnipresent Ryan Seacrest in his  quest to be America’s quintessential  TV  host.

Otherwise, “Idol” was something television hadn’t truly seen since the ‘60s/’70s age of variety shows bearing the names of various impresarios and mainstream stars (Ed Sullivan, Red Skelton, Carol Burnett, Sonny & Cher, Donny & Marie, etc.): family viewing. Everybody could watch it.

And “Idol,” whose hallmark is live singing with live accompaniment, served as antiserum to the lip-sync movement many acts shamelessly perpetuate through music video, TV appearances and even “live” concert performances.

Indeed, it was delightfully embarrassing  to witness established “artists” guest on “Idol”—huge, platinum acts–limping  through their performance in the presence of the “Idol” contestants, some of whom could sing rings around their heroes and heroines.

What “Idol” used to be was simply amazing: TV’s 400 pound gorilla, a sheer force of nature that no network dare put even their best shows up against. It was exciting, especially toward the close of a season, to see ambitious, often tremendously talented young men and women literally singing for their lives.

And everybody—well,  not everybody–got rich or richer (or laid): the creators/ producers, the directors, the judges. Forbes estimates that Underwood, the country girl from Muskogee, is now worth upwards of $100 million.  But even the contestants who left the show before they became stars can play  a county fair here or an insurance convention there.

If I didn’t already know the power of the show at the time,  it was  illustrated to me personally several years ago when I met Randy Jackson for lunch at the Daily Grill. Situated in an upscale strip mall on the corner of Ventura and Laurel Canyon Boulevards in the L.A. suburb of Studio City, the restaurant, because of its proximity to film and TV studios and assorted Industry businesses, is accustomed to a sprinkling of TV and film execs, the random actor or musician.

Before lunch,  the last time  I saw Jackson not on TV or a magazine cover or the Tonight Show, he was working as one of those A&R men at either Sony  or MCA –I forget—when “Idol” came calling.

At the Grill, Jackson showed that he’d  already learned how a star enters a bustling room—as if they are totally oblivious to people nudging one another and whispering, There’s that guy from that show….

As Jackson, entertainment entrepreneur Herb Trawick and I shot the shit over pasta and grilled chicken and salad, I couldn’t help but notice the attention our table got the whole time we were there.

Outside, the three of us lingered  in the parking lot gabbing the way people do when they’re not finished visiting. It was difficult—every other minute,  somebody–guy, a woman, somebody’s grandfather or somebody’s chick,  was on Randy.

He wasn’t just a TV star—a sentence which, if you knew the low key Randy, is tough enough to construct–but a TV star on the biggest fucking show on television. Jackson handled it all as if he was used to it.  By then, he was.

“Idol” is the mother of all talent programs, including the imitators that ultimately began nibbling at its once Biblical ratings. But quick—name me a winner of “The Voice” who has gone on to stardom. Yeah, that’s what I thought.

None of this pontificating means I watch “Idol” anymore. I gave up several seasons back, when the producers decided the show should be more about celebrities as judges than musical performances.

Like everything else in popular culture that at some point becomes a three-alarm fire before trundling to a melancholy end, “American Idol” has seen its run.

But my god,  what a run.

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Steven Ivory

Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]