I owe a few things to American Idol, and so do you

Ryan Seacrest is one of the few constants of American Idol - at least on-screen. Off-screen, of course, there were lots. Like that Kieran guy.

Remember when American Idol was such a big thing here?

And I don’t just mean those seasons when there is someone of Filipino descent among the finalists – although, honestly, we overdid the excitement when that was the case. It was amusing seeing all of the major television channels analyze the chances of Jessica Sanchez winning over Phillip Phillips like it was a Manny Pacquiao match.

Sure, that was a moment of so-called “Pinoy pride”, but our love for American Idol went beyond that. Perhaps it’s a given, considering how we Filipinos liked singing – and singing contests, whether it be in the neighborhood or on television. In a country raised on its belters like Regine Velasquez, nothing beats the thrill of hitting that high note flawlessly, and getting applause in the end.

And so, for the good part of the past fifteen years, American Idol – an American franchise of the originally British singing competition – became as much a part of our zeitgeist as it was theirs. Every week radio stations picked apart every performance, every attempt to make the song “your own”, every snarky comment from the judges. Every week you talked to your friends and colleagues, taking notes and sides. Are you for Katherine McPhee or Taylor Hicks? Are you for David Cook or David Archuleta? Are you for Adam Lambert or Danny Gokey? Or were you the guy silently rooting for Kris Allen?

And then, suddenly, nothing. Idol fever, at least in the Philippines, died down after Phillip Phillips won over Jessica Sanchez in 2012. It’s not just that we were looking for a Filipino to latch our misplaced nationalism to: we just stopped talking about it. So did, it seems, most Americans. With ratings going down and attempts to revitalize the show not exactly working, Fox decided to go for one last season – which concludes tonight (if you’re reading this in the United States) or tomorrow morning (if you’re reading this from the Philippines) – calling in past winners and other familiar faces over its fifteen years.

David Cook won American Idol in 2008. His victory was a shift in the Idol landscape: he led a season filled with contestants who dared to put a different spin on their performances - but inadvertently ushered in the "white guy with guitars" phenomenon that plagued succeeding seasons.
David Cook won American Idol in 2008. His victory was a shift in the Idol landscape: he led a season filled with contestants who dared to put a different spin on their performances – but inadvertently ushered in the “white guy with guitars” phenomenon that plagued succeeding seasons.

Is it because of singing competition fatigue? It’s easy to pin Idol‘s fall on Simon Cowell’s failed attempts to bring The X Factor – which saw phenomenal success in the United Kingdom – to the United States, and on the parallel rise of The Voice on NBC. After years of a familiar, comfortable format, you suddenly had flashy singing competitions whether the selling point is either the repartee among the judges or the swiveling chairs. Idol failed to adopt, or, even if it did, nobody wanted to see it anyway.

Is it because we had figured out the game? Idol certainly got very comfortable in its middle stretch. As with most reality shows that last the distance, watching it seemingly required knowledge of what came before. At some point, the fun came not from the performances but from spotting what happens next. You watch for the edits and the sob stories, not for the performances. You guess who the producers are throwing under the bus and who they give the “pimp slot” – the last performance in a show – to. The voting patterns became familiar, too, when the “white guy with guitar” epidemic took hold, favoring arguably bland singer-songwriter types over those with interesting, if not niche, approaches to music.

The Voice did not exactly revolutionize the genre as much as it stripped back the pretenses of chancing upon a talent while wrapping everything in shiny foil. The show made no secret of its active casting for contestants, getting names that have otherwise already had a presence on the music scene prior. (Dia Frampton and Cassadee Pope remain its best examples.) Idol, on the other hand, initially scrambled when its semi-finalists are revealed to have had a professional past, like with Joanna Pacitti in the show’s eighth season.

Yet, The Voice did not catapult its winners to the big stage. Dia and Cassadee may have seen success after their show – the former released a solo album of indie pop, while the latter successfully transitioned to country after fronting pop-punk band Hey Monday – but it was never going to make a Kelly Clarkson, a Carrie Underwood, or even an Adam Lambert.

American Idol inevitably had its share of contestants with Filipino descent we rooted heavily for, starting with Jasmine Trias from season 3. But it was Jessica Sanchez who would last the distance and battle in the season 11 finale, only to lose to Phillip Phillips.
American Idol inevitably had its share of contestants with Filipino descent we rooted heavily for, starting with Jasmine Trias from season 3. But it was Jessica Sanchez who would last the distance and battle in the season 11 finale, only to lose to Phillip Phillips.

But then again, Kelly won American Idol at a completely different time for the music industry. It was 2001. The Internet had yet to fully take the music industry hostage. It was still possible for many people to discover the same talent through fewer avenues. Halfway through the show’s run, chances were the finalist you were rooting for was already a known entity on YouTube, or had gotten some publicity after doing gigs in small towns – and, knowing the Internet, local is no longer what it used to mean. Idol may have just ceased to become relevant as the music industry changed, in the face of streaming services and self-proclaimed curators online (like, er, me), in the face of the shift from mass popularity to niche acceptance and varying degrees of cool. Suddenly, watching American Idol was a pastime for those without taste.

But that’s dismissing the things American Idol actually brought. The mere idea of a glossy singing contest on American primetime television – a contest which was as much about the drama as it was about the singing, to fit with the then emerging favor towards reality programming – could be called revolutionary. It’s a format that fell out of style, and suddenly it’s raking in numbers with its sense of event. Doing that in the heartland of Western pop culture, the filter that homogenizes everything – that’s something.

While a season of the show often ends with a relatively boring, homogenous winner, there is a surprising diversity to the contestants Idol lets through to its final stages. For every WGWG you have rockers with interesting approaches, R&B crooners with a keen sense of musical style, and the occasional “that’s weird; how did that go through?” contestant that actually showed promise. It may have made for depressing watching, knowing that the more interesting singers will get eliminated, but the fact that they’re on stage, on primetime, doing their thing, more or less – that exposes people to those styles, who then seek them out.

Finally, Idol arguably helped bring fan culture to a much wider audience. The show is one of the last shared musical experiences to take hold on our imagination, allowing for people rooting for one contestant or the other to come together and deliver their support. Again, the Internet made that easy – the Internet made everything easy – but before it could completely take over, a television show was the best thing to a common meeting place. It brought people together in such a public way.

And I haven’t mentioned the more obvious musical moments Idol produced, like Fantasia Barrino’s mystical “Summertime”, or, er, Danny Gokey committing murder with “Dream On”.

My first moment of Idol-related fanboying: I skipped half a day of work to watch Allison Iraheta (who finished fourth on season 8 back in 2009) as she promoted her album Just Like You in Manila. I did cherish this photograph. Felt hugely accomplished at the end.
My first moment of Idol-related fanboying: I skipped half a day of work to watch Allison Iraheta (who finished fourth on season 8 back in 2009) as she promoted her album Just Like You in Manila. I did cherish this photograph. Felt hugely accomplished at the end.

My experience with American Idol has been more immersive than most. The only reason I felt confident about every writing about music was because I used to cover Idol, for BuddyTV, from 2008 to 2012. I covered three seasons (and a bit of a fourth) and, along the way, made favorites, fiercely defended them, and had fun just joshing around with fans from around the world.

It was through that show when I had my first experiences with being a fan, when I took time off from work to watch Allison Iraheta when she went to Manila to promote her debut solo, Just Like You. I had my bets for each of the season I fully covered. I rooted for Siobhan Magnus in 2009, going from frustrated “you don’t always have to scream” viewer to flag-waving fan in just a few weeks. The next year, of course, I rooted for Haley Reinhart, a love that’s well documented on this blog’s early days.

I made acquaintances and friends along the way, too – mostly fans of David Cook, for some weird reason. I would often bump into the same people when I indulged my inner fan, from Allison’s concert in 2010, to the Idol meet and greet in 2011 – the one instance when the show’s post-season tour went to a different country, with all the finalists from its tenth season (including Filipino contestant Thia Megia) flying to Manila to perform. While I was obviously starstruck at seeing Haley, I will forever remember seeing the throngs of mothers that surrounded me, adoring Scotty McCreery while accompanying their daughters who also rooted for him. And this country isn’t one for country music. It’s a camaraderie that led me to impulsively making a hole on my otherwise busy week in Singapore to watch David Cook.

I also have fond memories of when I helped with BuddyTV’s coverage of Idol season finales. We were a bunch of snarky people – us, the writers, and them, the fans commenting on our live blog – and whenever the finale rolls by, just before the winner is announced (and we are inevitably disappointed), all of us would thank each other for the fun, for the conversations about Haley’s legs, or Scotty turning everything into a country song, or how cats tend to freak out whenever Danny sings. I don’t know why, but they remain fond memories. Perhaps it’s because now, these kinds of groups tend to be exclusive, inward-looking, completely unwelcoming to the outsider. Or maybe that’s just me.

It wasn’t all happy days on that front. I’ll also always remember people calling me a homophobe for arguing that Adam Lambert should not win American Idol – and calling predicting that Kris Allen will win. Correctly, as it turns out. So that’s a silver lining. Bottom line is, I owe a lot, turns out, to American Idol, and so do the rest of us. [NB]

[Many thanks to Vicki and Immie for helping out with that one elusive David Cook photo.]

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