Love it or hate it — and if you are like me, you hate yourself for loving it — you would have to have been hiding in a cave in Afghanistan for the last decade not to realize that American Idol is not only the biggest show on television, but probably the most ingenious marketing tool in the history of entertainment. Since its 2002 debut, Simon Fuller's American Idol has proven to be the biggest money-making machine ever conceived.
Let's start with Idol as just the television powerhouse that it is. Fuller has practically invented a new sports league to rival the NFL. Idol needs no writers, creates new stars out of nowhere, and reinvents itself year after year, providing FOX with three to five hours of monster ratings every week as the show wends its way naturally through its ludicrous audition season to its inevitably over-bloated crowning of a new mega-star.
Back in the 1980s the music industry was almost decimated by the rise of video games. American Idol has pumped the industry back to life by essentially converting it into a video game. Such is the ratings power of this show that even the reclusive Prince wanted a chance to appear on it!
Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Ed Sullivan — I think we all understand the power that television has to fuel a recording career, but Idol has taken it to absurd new levels. As a young fledgling artist on American Idol, you don’t merely get to perform on the number one show on television; you get to do so every single week for up to three months! Fuller has essentially figured out a way to sidestep the payola issue by creating his own medium for artist promotion. American Idol creates its own stars and then keeps making money off of them on the back end by managing not only its winners, but any artist that raises enough of a stir to seem marketable.
This year American Idol has come up with yet another new wrinkle of genius. Every single song performed on the show is now released as a fully produced single on iTunes. You can have all the qualms you like about the divergent needs of art and commerce, but American Idol is such a money making Goliath that you'd have to be either a fool or the most artistically principled singer in the history of the world to ignore the Idol path to success. Elvis Presley spent the better part of his teens traveling to every small local talent show he could find on the map. American Idol? Elvis would have camped out for a week to be first in line for the Memphis auditions.
Artistically, Idol alumni have had varying levels of success. At minimum, the show’s winner is guaranteed a number one coronation single. This single will be sappy, maudlin, and boring. Its lyrics will be bland, life-affirming pabulum about chasing and realizing one's dreams. If you are Taylor Hicks, it will be the last time anyone in the world cares about you, but if you have enough talent to stick around like Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood, it will be the song you jokingly refer to, as you don’t perform it, during one of your sold out live shows. Both Underwood and Bo Bice took the song “Inside Your Heaven” to number one on the Billboard Pop 100, and neither one of them would be caught dead singing it in public again.
Idol may be a blight on our modern musical landscape; it may be a crass gutting of artistic integrity; it may be a lot of things, but it’s almost impossible to deny that it’s an incredibly entertaining and fascinating social experiment. The show is now in its eighth season and the smart contestants are the ones who don’t forget that they are on a game show.
I’ve been watching Idol since about the top ten of the first season. Each season, I inevitably make my predictions and pick a contestant or two to root for. This year, I made my prediction before the competition had even winnowed its way down to its top 34 contestants. Thanks to some pre-existing YouTube material and a strong hunch, I decided on February 4 that this year’s American Idol would be Adam Lambert.
With the “competition” now down to seven contestants, my strong hunch has turned out to be a stone cold cinch. In each of Idol’s seven seasons, there has been at least some doubt about who the eventual winner would be. Not this year. This year American Idol has become The Adam Lambert Show. Remember the 1992 USA Men’s Olympic Basketball Team? That was the year Charles Barkley topped off a United States 116-48 rout of Angola with a viciously dirty elbow to the chest of Angola’s Herlander Coimbra, to which the starstruck Angolans responded by lining up for autographs. Well, for Danny Gokey, Lil Rounds, Kris Allen, Anoop Desai, Matt Giraud, and Allison Iraheta, it’s autograph time, because the 27-year-old Lambert has made America’s biggest show into his own personal plaything.
One way I like to measure the strength of an Idol contestant is by looking at the Television Without Pity message boards. Each of the Idol contestants has their own performer thread, where fans and detractors alike are free to post messages. Scott MacIntyre was sent home last week as the eighth place finisher. Scott’s TwoP thread was eight pages long. There is significantly more interest in Danny Gokey, whose thread is longer than anyone not named Adam Lambert. As I write this Danny’s thread is 45 pages long. Adam’s thread? 180 pages and growing!
Clint Eastwood famously bought the screenplay for the movie Unforgiven in 1979, and then let himself age for 13 years before bringing the story to film. I get the impression that Adam Lambert has done pretty much the same thing. He’s made no secret of the fact that he’s a fan of the show. He could have auditioned any of the past seven years, but this is clearly a kid who has been planning his assault on show business since the age of three or four.
Adam Lambert waited, watched, and learned. He has mastered this game. He is the ultimate American Idol. The next seven weeks aren’t about winnowing the entrants down to a winner. That’s already been decided. The next seven weeks are about tuning in to see what Adam Lambert does next. Yes, in its eighth season, American Idol may have found a talent worthy of its money-making machine.
Two weeks ago, Lambert sang a version of Wild Cherry’s “Play that Funky Music White Boy.” Resident Idol nutball judge Paula Abdul responded with this evaluation: “True genius does not fulfill expectations, true genius shatters it. There are artists that have longevity in this business, because of their unique and riveting performance. I’ll name a few – Mick Jagger, Steven Tyler, and Adam Lambert!”
Now that’s usually the time when Simon Cowell wonders out loud whether Paula is off her meds or not, but this year the dour hyper-critical Brit, though he may smile at Abdul’s hyperbole, has to watch what he says, because the simple fact is that she might well be right.
Last week’s edition of Idol ran long. So long that millions of frustrated viewers across the country realized that their DVRs had failed to record Lambert’s show-closing rendition of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World.” Needing to both get off the air and give the singer his due, Cowell ended the show by foregoing the usual judging format. “Adam, the bad news is that we’re running out of time. The good news is I’m going to be the only one who is talking. And I think words are unnecessary, but I want to give you a standing ovation.” Mind-blowing – after that, I wouldn’t be surprised if Rush Limbaugh came out and declared himself a Democrat.
Lambert jumped into the Idol world from the touring cast of the musical Wicked. He auditioned for the show in San Francisco with a version of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the choice and location were perfectly appropriate, because the infinitely glam-influenced Lambert is perhaps the most self-admitted purely theatrical showman the world stage has seen since Freddie Mercury. Like Mercury, Lambert has unbelievably well-honed, octave-leaping chops. While the other contestants are doing their best to hit all the right notes, the ambitious Lambert is looking for places to unleash his vocal fireworks.
One of the more popular and humorous Lambert-inspired tributes currently burning up the web is “The Adam Lambert Roundtable,” which takes joy in putting Lambert’s wordless virtuosity right alongside that of his yelling ancestors Robert Plant, Stevie Wonder, Axl Rose, Kurt Cobain, and David Lee Roth.
Lambert looks and sounds like he walked right out of Todd Haynes’ glam rock tribute Velvet Goldmine. Haynes’ film explored the awakening of a new kind of rock artist. One gets the impression that John Lennon or Elvis Presley sang because they needed to unleash their passions, to bare their souls to the world. Goldmine’s David Bowie stand-in Brian Slade is instead a pop chameleon in love with the joy of performance, with taking on a persona. Haynes traces this Bowie/Mercury persona back to the gay, artistic subculture of English dramatist Oscar Wilde.
Adam Lambert: I was born January 29th, 1982.
Adam Lambert’s mother: When Adam was little, he was interested in everything. He loved books. He loved music.
Adam Lambert’s father: Sports … not so much.
Adam Lambert (laughing): I just loved playing dress up … not soccer.
Yes, no one has any desire to come right out and say it, but Adam Lambert, the man running away with American Idol, is in all likelihood gay. When Bill O’Reilly found pictures of Lambert kissing other men on the Internet, he did his best to rile up his minions.
The world’s collective response to O’Reilly’s outraged muckraking: a gigantic yawn of epic proportions. Lambert is so talented and so open about who he is that the subject is a huge non-issue. Who knows, maybe at least in the entertainment world, we’ve even grown up?
Lambert’s Idol success has been a function of both outrageous talent and innate studied craftiness. Here’s how Adam Lambert has conquered and mastered American Idol.
1. Be a fantastic singer. Lambert’s range and charisma are off the charts
2. Be humble. If Simon Cowell tells you that your reimagining of "Ring of Fire" is "indulgent rubbish," smile and thank him for his input.
3. Take chances. Lambert’s final performance during Hollywood week? Cher’s “Believe”! Possibilities for next week — anything!
4. Reinterpret famous songs in your own unique style. Previous Idol contestants Blake Lewis and David Cook have shown the value of shaking things up. Lambert has mastered it. When you perform a well known song in a unique way, it shows off your uniqueness and puts the emphasis on your performance. So far Lambert has scored with an outrageously campy “Play that Funky Music White Boy,” a Grand Ole Opry week version of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” that sounded like it came directly from outer space via Mumbai, India, and a Gary Jules-echoing version of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” that left Jules feeling honored rather than ripped off. While the rest of Idol's slate of contestants has done their best to survive, Lambert has made the show his own personal showcase by sounding outrageously different each and every week. He’s not someone looking for his voice, he’s a finished product stretching his wings and enjoying himself as he sets the nations’ airwaves on fire.
5. Embrace your inner Madonna. Not only has Lambert sounded different every week, he’s looked completely different as well. No other contestant in the show’s brief reign has ever made a bigger impact through hair and costuming. Goth prince, rock god, clean scrubbed Elvis descendant – this competition is over so why do we tune in? Because we have no idea what Lambert will look or sound like next week and we’re dying to find out.
If Lambert had a possible Achilles’ heel, he put it to rest three weeks ago during Motown week. If any criticism of Lambert’s act seemingly had the ability to gain traction, it was the opinion voiced by Cowell and fellow judge Kara DioGuardi that perhaps it was all a bit too dramatic, too theatrical. That was before he bowled Smokey Robinson away with a humble, stripped down, pure, and straight from the heart version of the legendary songwriter’s own “Tracks of my Tears.”
During rehearsals, Robinson joyfully told Lambert, “You just kept it tender and sweet and soft and I’ve never heard it done like that!” After the singer’s unplugged, hyper-passionate performance, Robinson gave Lambert a thumbs up before joining Motown impresario Barry Gordy in extending the young artist a standing ovation.
Said Cowell, "You were able then to sum up everything we were trying to say tonight about originality, choosing a great song, being a relevant recording artist … and you tonight have to me really emerged as a star, congratulations."
It will be seven more weeks before Adam Lambert is crowned the eighth American Idol, but don’t let the lack of competition get you down. For once, all the hype may well be deserved. I don’t know what Adam Lambert will look or sound like this week or next week on American Idol, but he has shown an intense determination to enjoy his time on the big stage and like any spirited hungry young artist worthy of true teen worship, he seems to only be competing against himself.
Look, I know how un-hip it sounds to be prattling on and on about the talent of someone on as shallow a vehicle as American Idol, but before you tell me that I’ve lost my mind, ask yourself, why wouldn’t the next David Bowie compete on American Idol? For better or for worse, to anyone who has been paying attention, doesn’t it seem inevitable?Powered by Sidelines