The Week In Pop

The Week In Pop: American Idol Changed TV, But Music? Not So Much

Last year, during this column’s infancy, I expressed what by then had become conventional wisdom: American Idol is washed up. My primary evidence was subjective — season 13 winner Candice Glover was releasing her debut album, and up until then I had never heard of her, a failure of cultural saturation that never would have happened during the show’s heyday — but there is plenty of objective support for Idol’s decline, including The Voice surpassing it in the ratings, Coca-Cola withdrawing its longstanding sponsorship, and the current panel of judges being far inferior to the original three. OK, that’s subjective too. So is the late-period reign of wimpy white dudes with guitars, but come on, those guys suck. Even the horrendous auditions everyone loves to point and laugh at don’t really go viral anymore. A former pop cultural phenomenon reduced to bloating and coasting, this thing has long been ready to die. And now it has — or at least its execution has been scheduled.

Idol won’t actually sign off until a year from now, though for those outside its shrinking bubble it already feels gone. The show crowned its season 14 champion last night, with Nick Fradiani defeating Clark Beckham. Whereas you couldn’t avoid the names of previous finalists if you tried — Ruben Studdard vs. Clay Aiken, Carrie Underwood vs. Bo Bice, Kris Allen vs. Adam Lambert — Fradiani and Beckham haven’t become household names or even enjoyed their 15 minutes. They’re nonentities, though Fradiani at least gets the small benefit of Fox pushing his debut single “Beautiful Life” during Women’s World Cup coverage next month. As Idol expert Maura Johnston pointed out in her smart Deadspin essay, “A ‘funny’ viral-video fluke like Meghan Trainor’s ‘All About That Bass’ or Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ is worth far more than a spot on some TV show.”

Over the next year we’ll hear plenty about Idol’s legacy, and rightfully so. The show has been massively influential, ruling the TV ratings for eight straight seasons, helping Fox dominate multiple nights a week, generating infinite memes, and spawning countless imitators. It made legitimate superstars out of Simon Cowell and Ryan Seacrest, and it was generating viral sensations years before the advent of YouTube. Along with The Bachelor and America’s Next Top Model, it was part of 2002’s bumper crop of reality-contest staples that would go on to reshape television as we know it. (Survivor and Big Brother preceded them all in 2002.) Idol hybridized two primetime mainstays, the game show and the reality show, creating a genre that has flourished to the point that we now accept it as one of the foundational pillars of primetime programming. Dancing With The Stars, So You Think You Can Dance, The Voice, America’s Got Talent, The Sing-Off, Project Runway, Top Chef, Last Comic Standing, Dream Job, America’s Best Dance Crew — all of them and more can trace their lineage to Idol. Casting Cowell as a somewhat villainous character seemed radical at the time, and that too proved influential (see: Hell’s Kitchen, Supernanny). Furthermore, Idol was an early adopter for now-common tropes like mobile voting and its partnership with iTunes, and for better or worse, they were the first to embrace the throwback element that is integrated advertising. It doesn’t seem like a stretch to call it the most influential TV show of my lifetime.

Musically, though, Idol hasn’t changed shit. The show was built around radical premises: Liberated from the oppression of evil music execs, the public would now anoint its own pop stars, and you — yes, you! — could be one of them. But YouTube, Vine and the like have been responsible for way more overnight success stories than Idol. Yes, it birthed a few pop stars who’ve managed to stick around for the long haul, but even most of those have carried an “Idol winner” stigma. Only a few have developed such substantial careers that you might forget they used to be on Idol: Carrie Underwood definitely, Kelly Clarkson probably, Jennifer Hudson and Adam Lambert maybe. And only one of them has changed music in any tangible way. You can make a case that Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” helped inspire a new appreciation for mainstream pop among critics and underground musicians, although that was as much Max Martin and Dr. Luke’s doing as Clarkson’s; somebody was gonna record that song, though credit Clarkson for being willing to record it and supplying the towering vocal performance that jolted it to life.

Even if “Since U Been Gone” had a massive ripple effect, as Stereogum commenter dansolo argued this week, it’s an anomaly. In their post-Idol lives, contestants have typically stuck to extreme musical conservatism, exactly the thing Idol voters reward. In part because the audience skews older and in part because democracy sucks sometimes, the show consistently crowns the safest of the safe, be they glory-note divas or acoustic-strumming milquetoast bros. Risk-taking is punished, and the most tiresome faux-novelty (usually some doofus Ed Sheeran-izing a popular rap or R&B song, a trick that’s older than Idol itself) is applauded. Far from tearing apart the status quo, Idol has always seemed weirdly obsessed with maintaining it, with limiting pop music to a few extremely specific boxes. The phenomenon reminds me of the football essay from Eating The Dinosaur, in which Chuck Klosterman argues that the sport’s nature is contrary to its purported ideals:

It feels like a conservative game. It appeals to a conservative mind-set and a reactionary media and it promotes conservative values. But in tangible practicality, football is the most progressive game we have — it constantly innovates, it immediately embraces every new technology, and almost all the important thinking about the game is liberal. If football was a politician, it would be some kind of reverse libertarian: staunchly conservative on social issues, but freethinking on anything related to policy.

Idol is exactly the opposite. It touted itself as a musical game-changer but mostly just supplied cogs for the existing machine. Season after increasingly dour season, the show cranked out the sonic equivalent of T.G.I. Friday’s, not just upholding convention but blandly upholding it. Now that Idol is about to embark on a self-congratulatory farewell tour, it can fully become what it always was deep down: A celebration of tradition for tradition’s sake.

CHART WATCH

Mumford & Sons’ attempt to go electric has been a critical flop (what else is new?), but commercially they’re doing OK. Wilder Mind becomes the band’s second #1 album, debuting atop the Billboard 200 on the strength of 249,000 equivalent units (231,000 in pure sales). Billboard notes that those figures mark a steep drop-off from 2012’s Babel, which opened with 600,000, the best sales week this decade for a rock album. Still, Wilder Mind’s weekly total is the biggest for a rock album since Coldplay’s Ghost Stories last year, so perhaps we can partially chalk up the deflated numbers to rock’s diminishing commercial profile and ever-decreasing album sales in general?

Right under Mumford is Josh Groban, whose Stages holds steady at #2 for a second week with 101,000 units. Now 54 debuts at #3 with 71,000, and rapper Tech N9ne continues to affirm his popularity with 69,000 for Special Effects, good for a #4 debut. Last week’s #1, Zac Brown Band’s lamentable Jekyll + Hyde, falls to #5 with 66,000. Fifty Shades Of Grey’s soundtrack is back up to #6 with 53,000, probably due to the movie’s release on DVD and Blu-Ray last weekend, while the Furious 7 soundtrack is down to #7 with 46,000. The top 10 is rounded out by celebrity superfriend bestselling mainstays: Sam Smith’s In The Lonely Hour (#8, 39,000), Taylor Swift’s 1989 (#9, just over 36,000), and Ed Sheeran’s x (#10, 36,000).

The Hot 100 reign of Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth’s “See You Again” continues for a fifth straight week. As Billboard reports, the Furious 7 single becomes the longest-running #1 song by a male rapper since the Eminem and Rihanna’s “Love The Way You Lie” led for seven weeks in 2010. That means Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen” remains at #2. (Sorry, Tom Breihan.) The Weeknd’s “Earned It” climbs back to #3, bumping Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ historic (and historical) former #1 “Uptown Funk!” down to #4. Numbers 5-8 stay the same: Walk The Moon’s “Shut Up And Dance” (#5), Maroon 5’s “Sugar (#6), Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do” (#7), and Jason Derulo’s “Want To Want Me” (#8). Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” rises back to #9, and the Flo Rida/Sage The Gemini/Lookas collab “G.D.F.R.” ascends back to #10.

TRACK CITY

Britney Spears & Iggy Azalea – “Pretty Girls”
I didn’t think it was possible for me to hate this song more. Then the video came out.

Hilary Duff – “Sparks”
The video for Duff’s whistling, Tove Lo-penned single — a song for which I have already expressed my approval — weirdly mashes together an extremely colorful standard-issue glamorous pop video and a reality-TV-style documentary about Duff’s much-publicized Tinder date. It’s an awkward combination, and it makes me wonder if the entire Tinder stunt was planned marketing for this video (in which case, blech). On the bright side, it will probably draw a lot of attention to a pretty cool song.

Steven Tyler – “Love Is Your Name”
I’ll say this for Steven Tyler’s first country single: It’s a lot less embarrassing than Bret Michaels’ first country single. Honestly, I will not mind hearing this on country radio.

Nate Ruess – “Great Big Storm”
Sounds like fun.

Owl City – “Verge” (Feat. Aloe Blacc)
The Owl City x Aloe Blacc combo is everything you feared it would be, which is to say: These guys would do great on American Idol.

Zedd – “Beautiful Now” (Feat. Jon Bellion)
I’ve voiced my opinion that Zedd is generally more entertaining than your average big-drop rave-pop superstar producer, but this one feels a bit Zedd-by-numbers, doesn’t it?

Adam Lambert – “Ghost Town (Blood Diamonds Remix)”
Lambert’s new single was already extremely promising; Blood Diamonds made it weirder and better.

Josh Groban – “Anthem”
This kind of thing ain’t exactly pop, but it will always be popular.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Members of Congress are charging $2,500 a pop to sit with them at Taylor Swift concerts. [The Washington Post]
  • Justin Bieber said he was originally writing the Jack Ü collab “Where Are U Now” on piano before Skrillex and Diplo turned it into a club banger; also, those guys might appear on the “uplifting” album Bieber’s doing with Kanye West and Rick Rubin.[YouTube]
  • Australia’s government called of Waka Flocka Flame’s tour Down Under due to the rapper’s recent gun and drug charges. [Billboard]
  • Iggy Azalea is about to start promoting a new album, but not with that godawful Britney Spears duet. [Twitter]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME