American Idol: fab or flop?

I haven’t watched American Idol since the early seasons. But, like most non-watchers, every season I hear a little bit of what’s going on. This season, though, I think everyone, regardless of their watching status, is at least partly aware of the contestants.

Much of that is due to two in particular. Danny Gokey, who was eliminated last week in the No. 3 spot, was marked as a front-runner from the beginning and stood out because of his story . The 28-year-old is already a widower, having lost his wife just a few weeks before his Kansas City audition. As much as it seems the producers milked the story for more than it was worth, he seemed to have some emotions that resonated with the audience.

Likely more of an attention-draw, though, is Adam Lambert. One could argue that he’s already made it past Idol-only fame, given his spot on the cover of last week’s Entertainment Weekly. It’s no doubt he’s shaken up the contest; he seems to do something different each week while also staying in a style definitively his own. In short, he’s “dope,” he “makes it his own,” and he can sing, so he can keep all the judges happy. Plus, he’s got the ‘is he gay?’ question that can’t hurt his publicity.

But the thing about Idol is what happens afterward. As much as the show consistently posts top ratings week after week and as much as contestants are mini-celebrities once they make it to Top 12, Idol doesn’t have very good longevity. Yeah, Fantasia’s on Broadway and Ruben has some R&B following. And it’s true, Clay Aiken keeps himself in the spotlight for everything but his music. But really, after seven years of this show, Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood are the only winners who have gone on to real success. Until you’re winning awards, releasing hit singles and able to keep record sales up for more than one album, you haven’t made it beyond Idol. When you’ve succeeded, people forget you were on that show – and those two lovely ladies are the only finalists who can say that.

Which makes me wonder: what’s going to happen to Idol’s leading men this season (the final three also includes Kris Allen)? Are they really going to make it big, or will they be like most Idolers and just go away after a bi?. Given the record, it’s more likely they’ll sell one semi-successful album and then disappear, or go straight back to singing on cruise ships (see Diana DeGarmo and Taylor Hicks). It’s sad, but true.

And so I question what this show’s really about, and if it’s really succeeding. If the goal is to draw an audience and make money, it’s golden. But if the intent is to find talent, develop it and make music stars in the process, Idol’s not doing so well. Most of the winners flopped, and sometimes the show just got it wrong, as with Chris Daughtry and Jennifer Hudson (didn’t come close to winning but are now big successes). American Idol’s supposed to find the next big star (as in, that person wins) and send them on to a multiplatinum music career, but looking at the show’s path since Kelly, that’s not working so well. Still, it’s clear why it continues. Even though the contestants are supposed to stay true to themselves, the show’s a big sellout.

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