American Idol finale: less a fond farewell and more a welcome retreat

After 15 seasons it’s time to say goodbye to the reality juggernaut, but with interest at an all-time low is this really the end or just a cynical ratings ploy?

It’s all come down to this. American Idol exhales its final breath tonight after 15 long seasons. But let’s be honest: it’s not so much a farewell as it is a euthanasia considering the show has been culturally dead for the majority of the past decade. From an incredible heyday when the reality competition brought in an astounding average of 30 million viewers (with original judges Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson, and Paula Abdul), Idol now barely manages to carry a third of that.

Of course, the downfall is not all the fault of American Idol. The television and cultural landscape at large is a much different place today than it was when the competition premiered on Fox in the summer of 2001, the year Kelly Clarkson was crowned its first winner. This was before the dawn of viral-ness, before the social media age, and during an entirely different era of the music industry. Instead of keeping up with the times, Idol instead has stubbornly remained stuck in its old mindset, like a guest who doesn’t get the hint to leave a house party as their host is beginning to clean up. Case in point, the current chatter that this “farewell season” could just be a break. (Or, in television-speak, a ratings ploy.)

Regardless, long gone are the days when the country at large gathered around the water cooler to chat about who triumphed or fell flat during the previous night’s performance. The novelty of the early audition rounds has worn off. And the excitement of who may win is all but gone. In a show that could be as DVR-proof as it is inherently viral, Idol seems to be lackluster in both categories. When was the last time a co-worker shared an Idol clip on Facebook or Twitter? This is a fact Idol doesn’t seem to care about considering that the show’s YouTube account didn’t even bother to upload last night’s full performance by the final three of Kygo’s hit dance ballad Stole the Show.

Randy Jackson, left, Paula Abdul, center, and Simon Cowell
Randy Jackson, left, Paula Abdul, center, and Simon Cowell Photograph: Mark J Terrill/AP

And about our final, final three. Last night during the penultimate episode, it was revealed that milquetoast talents Dalton Rapattoni and Trent Harmon made the cut. As did La’Porsha Renae, talented for sure, but not someone you’d label as captivating. This has become a problem since the show last minted a star in season eight when Adam Lambert was named runner up. (That year’s winner, Kris Allen, recently released an album independently after being dropped by his label.)

For better or worse, the show has always lived and died on the talent it’s found or hasn’t, something it struck gold with in earlier seasons ranging from the likes of Carrie Underwood to Jennifer Hudson. In recent years, right up to this present season, electrifying personalities seem to have vanished, and not just from the stage. At the judge’s table, perhaps things first went off the rails when Ellen Degeneres joined the ranks. The current grouping of Jennifer Lopez, Harry Connick Jr and Keith Urban pale in comparison to the palpable chemistry Cowell, Jackson, and Abdul once had. The hole Idol is leaving is that it’s one of the last vestiges of the reality TV competition craze, a fad like westerns in the 50s, once ubiquitous but now almost completely faded away with the sole exception of Idol rival The Voice.

So pour one out for American Idol, a sometimes vibrant, sometimes dull piece of the cultural fabric that is dying off as a contradiction. It’s a show built on discovering stars that hasn’t found any in years and one of the most successful shows in television history that is going out regarded as anything but.


Rob LeDonne

The GuardianTramp

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