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I’ve got a challenge for you: name the past six winners of American Idol (without Googling). Can you do it? I didn’t think so, and neither can I. It is hard to remember where Carrie Underwood’s country reign started or when Tate Stevens took home the Idol crown. Oh wait…wasn’t he The X Factor winner? Who knows.
You get the idea. The truth of the matter is reality singing competitions are getting stale, boring, and blurry. With so many shows fighting to keep our attention—American Idol, The Voice, The X Factor, and America’s Got Talent, to name a few—it is hard for any particular winner’s victory to cement in our minds. This singing hangover leaves many of us with a burning question: should reality singing competitions belt out their last notes for good or is there something left for them to say?
The argument for both sides is split down the middle. On the one hand, American Idol continues to perform strongly in television ratings from week to week. However, critics argue its appeal has nothing to do with the contestants but rather lies with boisterous judges Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey. The X Factor went through a similar makeover last year. Simon Cowell attempted to revive his show by adding Britney Spears to the judging panel. However, Spears did not deliver the crazy Cowell hoped for, and the show’s lackluster ratings reflected.
It also seems safe to assume the “superstardom” these contestants hope to attain is pure chance. While some acts like Jennifer Hudson (who didn’t even win her season of Idol) have gone on to multiplatinum success written in Oscar and Grammy gold, others like Kris Allen get one solid hit before fading into obscurity. While Kelly Clarkson has maintained her international success after winning the first season of Idol, it wasn’t until Underwood won the competiton in season four when fame lightning struck twice. Seasons two and three winners were less than lucky.
So where are these shows going wrong? Why is it that only some winners achieve pop superstardom while others become culture roadkill? The problem lies where most of the judges look for talent—a manufactured and generic image of a “pop star.” While this archaic method of talent searching worked well in the late 90s when pop producers were concerned with churning out cookie-cutter acts, the same principle does not exist today. Stars that resonate today are, frankly, weird. With Lady GaGa’s whacky outfits or Taylor Swift’s wispy vocals, I doubt either one of them would have made it past Idol judges. However, they are enjoying the awe-inspring fame contestants are hungry for, and think they will get if they play by the judge’s rules.
What is the solution to this problem? Individuality. Judges need to stop scouring for talent in a check-list fashion and focus on qualities in contestants that are interesting, quirky or even avant-garde. At the end of the day, Madonna did not reach her fame by playing it safe.
If focus goes off judging antics and onto searching for original talent, the singing competition could find prodigious rebirth.