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The Future Belonged to Crowds
The rise of American Idol
In previous essays, I wrote about the nature of Empire and post-Empire in the United States, and the rise of George W. Bush. Today, I share some reflections on the great 2000s obsession: American Idol.
In the spring of 2001, three men named Simon came to the United States with an idea that would make any television network very rich—if only the networks would listen.
None would. It was, in some sense, a familiar story. The future is never quite clear, even for those who are paid large sums of money to divine it. Smart men and women have passed over all kinds of advancements in modern history and dismissed coming pop culture gods as curious fads. Decca Records rejected the Beatles, after all.
But Simon Cowell, Simon Fuller, and Simon Jones were sure they had a hit on their hands. They were not music industry bumpkins, nor were they proposing a grand revolution in entertainment. In Britain, they had produced a popular music competition series called Pop Idol and they were ready to take it to the United States, where hunger for such a spectacle was surely great. Americans loved pop stars, underdog stories, and—most crucially—television. The end of the twentieth century was arguably the zenith for the medium, with full color, high functioning sets in virtually every household, all stray hours reserved for whatever programming came from the screen. No serious competition for attention existed. If it was on television, it was real, and the Simons had a formula in place. An American version could be enormously successful, they insisted to TV executive after TV executive, and they knew of what they spoke. Fuller was the best known of the three, the manager of the internationally famous Spice Girls. Cowell was a well-regarded British music executive. Jones was an executive with Thames Television in Britain.
UPN was not interested. MTV was not interested. Neither was NBC nor CBS. It was all the stranger considering two British-conceived reality shows, Who Wants to be a Millionaire and Survivor, had already become runaway hits in the U.S. The networks, however, feared talent shows wouldn’t be terribly popular, nor would reality shows structured around music. An earlier show called Making the Band, about assembling a boy band group, had only built a small following among young girls. Executives believed music itself was to blame. Reality worked, they insisted, but divorced from singers and bands.
Finally, the Simons hit on Fox. Fox was skeptical, if desperate for another breakout hit to match their broadcast rivals. It was an era of hits—with television such a dominant medium, broadcasters battled among themselves for the era-defining sensations that would live on in the imaginations of tens of millions of people for years on end. In the future, such audience-building would be impossible, but it was, in every way, a prime conceit of Empire. American Idol was passed up not because it wouldn’t be popular, but simply because it would not be big enough. NBC and ABC believed it was too much of a threat to become a mere cult favorite. That alone, for the executives, was too great a risk to take.
Fox, having already exhausted its budget, told the Brits they could have American Idol for the summer if the show paid its way with sponsorships. They weren’t going to pay the license fee to get it on the air. Fox wasn’t especially interested until Elizabeth Murdoch, the daughter of Ruppert Murdoch, the founder and chief executive of the News Corporation, urged her father to buy the rights to the show. She was a fan of Pop Idol in Britain and understood where the wind was blowing. The elder Murdoch called up Peter Chernin, his second-in-command at the News Corporation and the top decision-maker on all important moves made at Fox. Chernin said they were still looking at the show. Murdoch shot back to go and buy it. The deal was closed.
Did Fox understand what they had on their hands? Probably not. An imitation of a popular British show that would sell in the United States and eat up some summer airtime sounded good enough, especially if the boss was on board. The show’s formula was simple. Aspiring singers performed for judges who decided whether they were good or not. After a number of rounds, an audience vote determined the overall winner of the contest. It was something of a meritocratic fever dream, playing into the fantasy, occasionally real, that superstars were lurking among us. All the undiscovered dreamer needed was one big break and Idol, in Britain and the United States, would be that break. Simon Cowell, in one of his failed pitches to television executives before Fox bit, said the show was really about the American Dream.
The American Dream was bound up with Empire. The concept dated back far longer, to a time before airplanes and electricity, but found its greatest purchase in the postwar boom. Out of the ravages of another World War, Americans—white Americans, at least—could dream. New fortunes were made and new mass cultures, almost overnight, blossomed. The physical and psychic infrastructure of the nation radically shifted. A neighborhood in the 1920s that was little more than farmland could be filled, end-to-end, with single-family homes and apartment buildings by the 1960s. Dirt roads were now covered in bright black asphalt, powerful automobiles roaring along to towns and cities that hardly existed a generation prior. Police officers were pulling over Chevy Bel Airs and Ford Thunderbirds in suburbs that didn’t even have police forces 30 years ago. And so came a new culture of enormity, of technicolor television and cinema and music and even the literary novel. A blockbuster culture. American Idol was the tail end, its final bow.
And what a bow it was. No television show ever dominated in such a manner; no television show, even the likes of Seinfeld and Friends and The Cosby Show, could claim such a cultural footprint. The irony of the executives’ dismissal of the show in its pitch stage was how music was viewed as a handicap, not an enabler of even greater cross-cultural success. At its peak, American Idol owned television and music. The three original judges—Simon Cowell himself, Randy Jackson, and Paula Abdul—would enjoy a level of fame that rivaled, for a time, the greatest pop stars the show manufactured. The networks that passed up American Idol would lament, for many years afterward, how overwhelming the behemoth became. No show could compete.
American Idol, for its creators and the Fox executives, arrived at the ideal convergence of past and future. Modern technology could only enhance the show’s popularity, not detract from it. Broadcast television, Empire-style, was still a hegemon, with streaming a decade away. A well-crafted show on a major network was going to have an audience, and a very large one. The internet would be there to bolster the spectacle—to bring the audience into Idol’s embrace—rather than offer direct competition, as it would in another 15 years or so. The music industry itself was at its apex, riding the high of the 1990s CD boom. In 1999, recorded music revenues peaked at an inflation-adjusted $22.7 billion. By 2020, that number would crater to $12.2 billion, but almost no one within the industry imagined a decline could come. Vinyl to cassette to CD—each technical evolution only seemed to promise record executives more money. The distribution of music, by American Idol’s 2002 debut, was largely unchanged over the last three decades. Large record companies scouted for talent and promoted music through FM radio, record stores, and music magazines. Now, a television show would come along to unleash new pop stars, kicking them up to giddy record executives who would know what to do with them.
American Idol would play a surprising role in the explosive growth of post-Empire communication: text messaging. To vote for their favorite contestants, viewers could use their phones, casting votes via calls or texts. At the time, relatively few Americans regularly sent text messages, particularly those over the age of 30. AT&T Wireless reported that roughly a third of the people who took part in American Idol voting through text messages had never sent texts before. At the time, an AT&T spokesman boasted that their partnership with the show had done more to educate people about the nature of texting than any other marketing campaign.
Finally, what mattered most—at least when building popularity and selling advertisements in the most desirable time slots—was narrative. American Idol possessed what its reality show competitors mostly lacked. An especially charismatic or quirky person could develop a following through a show like Survivor, but none of the survivors would be as wealthy or famous from one season as Kelly Clarkson, the inaugural Idol victor. A native of Burleson, a suburb of Fort Worth, Clarkson embodied the hopes, dreams, and frustrations of millions. A talented 20-year-old singer, she had been trying and failing, for several years, to launch a career in the music business. In 2001, she had traveled to Los Angeles to entice record labels, working with the songwriter Gerry Goffin to put together demos. Every major label turned her down. The day she moved into a new apartment in Los Angeles, she went out to dinner with her roommate. They came back to see that the whole apartment was on fire. Clarkson lost almost all of her possessions and was forced to sleep in her car. That, along with the cold shoulders from record labels, forced her back to Burleson, where she figured she’d have to remain indefinitely. She took on odd jobs, working in a movie theater and promoting Red Bull energy drinks. Eventually, she settled on a gig as a cocktail waitress at a comedy club. She was still young enough to dream, but knew time wasn’t on her side: major pop stars typically had their breakthroughs around her age and there was no way, really, to make a career of music if the tastemakers and gatekeepers weren’t interested in her.
If American Idol embodied much of the Empire ethos, it also offered a glimpse of what was to come. It would be, at least partially, a celebration of the collapse of gatekeeping. In the twentieth century, direct-to-consumer appeals were inordinately difficult. A musician without a record label was not going to appear in record stores. A writer who couldn’t have their work accepted by a newspaper, magazine, or publishing house was not going to be read. A politician was not going to win many votes without the support of existing political clubs, party leaders, and so-called machines. News itself had to be determined by paid professionals, who created articles in newsprint and decided what should be excluded. Idol, of course, was still possessed of gatekeepers in the three judges, Cowell, Jackson, and Abdul. In the early stages of the show, they decided which singers and performers received the “golden ticket” to Hollywood. But the process, from there, would deviate dramatically from how pop stars were created in the twentieth century. Executives at record labels, through analysis and guesswork, used to decide among themselves whether an act was worth signing and then sell them to the public. Without the label, the musician did not really exist. The song was merely a suggestion, an idea. Labels decided what music joined history and what was utterly forgotten.
In 2002, this would change. The public was invited in. The public was going to decide, before the executives, who was good and not good.
Friends encouraged Clarkson to audition for the new show. What did she really have to lose? It was a chance to be on television and maybe, somehow, entice a record executive. The original full title of the show was American Idol: The Search for a Superstar and Clarkson was going to be one of 10,000 trying to make it. Like most others showing up at the auditions in seven different cities—New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Atlanta, Dallas, and Miami—she couldn’t really understand what was to come. Clarkson found the atmosphere of the show, in the early rounds, haphazard and chaotic. There were no hair stylists or makeup artists. Producers didn’t offer much advice on what to wear, other than something appropriate for “national television.” Floor monitors were covered up under the stage because they were deemed aesthetically unpleasing; when she sang, Clarkson could barely hear herself. Soon, though, she would.
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