Many people love to sing; in bathrooms, vehicles and karaoke lounges, mostly to amuse themselves.
Apple’s iPod has made it easy to keep with up to 200 of your favorite songs all day long. YouTube makes it feasible to inform the world what those 200 favorite songs are and moreover how you can perform them. Some who feel they have the talent to entertain others take it even further.
It launched a global pop culture phenomenon at the beginning of this millennium. It predated the slew of Korean Pop boy bands and Lady Gaga. It has delivered British dry wit to your living room and made you choose to either like or loathe it. It is American Idol, circa 2002.
Certainly American Idol wasn’t the first singing competition on TV. It wasn’t even the first Idol franchise, which had started a year before in the UK. And if you went through 1999 sober enough, you’d remember the journey of a 5-girl band in Popstars. I was relatively sober then as it was my first semester in business school, so I watched it and dutifully purchased their first single. Simon Fuller not only watched it, he then used it to create the UK’s Pop Idol (renamed The X-Factor following a lawsuit from Popstars).
The huge difference about Idol was the audience participation. Beyond “oohing” and “aahing” contestants’ tricky journeys to stardom, viewers could actually vote for contestants’ next step. Sending the least favorites packing and throwing a rough diamond under the limelight, viewers felt like that they held the power to change someone’s fate.
Even if viewers outside the US couldn’t vote, the American Idol show still captivated the world. Even as it gradually spurned local shows like Indonesian Idol, it remained one of the most watched reality shows globally and remains the only reality show to hold America’s No.1 spot for eight consecutive seasons. Half of its winners have gone on to build successful careers, both critically and commercially.
Beyond feeling involved with aspiring stars and crowned Idols, viewers got involved in the judges’ dynamic, too. I’m one of those fans who admitted that despite the cruel and colorful missives, Simon Cowell was rarely wrong about a contestant’s singing quality or recording potential.
We were polarized on Paula Abdul’s ever-saccharine support and ever-erratic behavior. Most of us have wondered aloud about Randy Jackson’s role and Ryan Seacrest’s, erm, orientation.
But, just like any business, things slowed down after a while. To their credit, Idol producers did try to revive it. The format was changed, like Season 8’s 13th finalist.
Judges were added and reshuffled, with hits (Kara DioGuardi) and misses (Ellen DeGeneres). Last year, veteran rock star Steven Tyler and pop diva Jennifer Lopez were brought in to the panel.
Yet, lo and behold, fierce competition sprung out at the same time. Modeled after an earlier Dutch program, The Voice immediately grabbed global attention. And how savvy the people behind that show have been.
The contestants had clearly been pre-selected to weed out the delusional wannabes we’d got bored with on Idol. The blind audition forced judges to vote on singing voice alone, reducing the possibility of a scenario that we witnessed on American Idol Season 8, when the male judges were seen voting for the Bikini Girl’s other assets. All of these, plus the music and the stage, made even early auditions entertainment-worthy.
The Voice cleverly used the power of social media by actually assigning a Twitter account for each contestant, featuring fans’ messages on Twitter and allocating a segment to discuss them while on-air. Fan involvement thus goes much deeper than just casting votes; it makes them think that they have direct connections to future stars and real-star judges, who faithfully post messages on Twitter about the show.
In relation to judge lineups, not only award-winning stars of four genres sit on the panel, they have to get involved beyond offering commentaries and casting votes. Each judge must form a team of contestants and coach, select songs and advise stage acts, among other task.
This sees even the judges getting competitive among themselves. Who’d forget how visibly nervous rocker Adam Levine was at the first season finale, bowing his head and clutching his hands prayer-like, before jumping in elation when his team member Javier Colon was announced winner?
Or, how Blake Shelton got choked-up after watching his team member, runner-up Dia Frampton, in duet with his country megastar wife Miranda Lambert?
Or, how Christina Aguilera rallied her four female team members, all decked up in bells and whistles, to perform a rendition of “Lady Marmalade” that was so electrifying it turned into Twitter’s global trending topic?
This year, fans are so wrapped up that even CeeLo Green’s cat appeared briefly in his arms and stole enough attention to warrant a Twitter account followed by over 50,000 people.
The contestants are more promising, counting Alicia Keys’ former longtime backup singer in the final four to battle for the title next week. This once-faithful American Idol fan can’t remember when the Season 11 finale will be, yet is feverishly waiting for The Voice.
Sometimes we seek to be amused, tickled, cajoled or involved by TV shows, but at the end of the day, as much as we like to feel good in sending every hopeful songbird out there to stardom, we always demand to be entertained. American Idol’s hegemony has finally been challenged and might just be toppled next year because, baby, bathroom singers are so last century.
Lynda Ibrahim is a Jakarta-based writer and consultant, with a penchant for purple, pussycats and pop culture.