American Idol should have quit while it was ahead. Last year the show proved its viability without Simon Cowell, seeing a ratings boost over the lackluster ninth season. It was a triumphant capper to ten years of Idol and a perfect time to say farewell. So far the current season has been dull and tedious. Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez simply bring nothing to the table beyond star power. Randy Jackson, never the most insightful of Idol judges, isn’t cut out for the third judge’s chair, which cries out for a more authoritative voice. The whole audition process is tired and stale. And NBC’s The Voice is currently everything Idol used to be: fun, exciting, and addictive.
As the season eleven “Hollywood Week” trudges forward, focused more on contestants getting ill and falling off the stage rather than their performing ability, one thing is clear. American Idol will need a slam-bang, talent-packed Top 24 lineup to regain its footing. After all, Idol is always only as good as its contestants. Looking back over ten years there was no richer season than 2006, which was led by the unlikeliest Idol of them all. Taylor Hicks became an unstoppable juggernaut in season five, but his eventual victory was never a sure thing. Always a polarizing figure, Hicks was everything that last year’s champ Scotty McCreery was not. That’s not a slam against McCreery, who was an agreeable presence throughout the season ten competition. But as the season rolled on, his Idol journey was entirely lacking in suspense. Everyone saw McCreery’s win coming as soon as the Top 24 were revealed. Those who didn’t simply weren’t paying attention.
American Idol needs another Taylor Hicks to recapture the devotion of its waning audience. Some may be quick to compare the relative success of the various Idol kings and queens, not to mention the numerous non-winners who have established strong careers. That’s all irrelevant to the success of any given season. An average of 30 million people tune in each year for the Idol finale. The average sales total of an Idol winner’s album is currently around 1.8 million units. Far less people continue to follow most winners after their debut release. What does that say? People love watching the show, but fewer are willing to make the commitment of supporting a winner or finalists’ career once the next season begins. Only two Idol winners have become undeniable superstars. It’s what actually happens on the show each season that matters most to the average viewer.
All of which brings me back to Taylor Hicks as he built momentum and eventually overcame Simon Cowell’s original prediction of failure. The husky build and gray hair made him a wild card and a long shot right from the start. But there was a spark of originality in everything Hicks would do as he captivated millions during season five.
Long before contestants routinely appeared onstage with a guitar or seated behind a piano, Hicks was recognized for his trademark harmonica solos without ever blowing a note during a competitive performance. Think about that. Even though playing an instrument was strictly prohibited during Idol’s first six seasons, Hicks was able to sneak in enough licks here and there to establish himself as a formidable musician, adding an important component to his distinctive persona.
Contrary to frequent claims, Hicks’ fan base actually extended far beyond just one specific demographic. Even Richard Rushfield, author of the meticulously researched and highly engaging book American Idol: The Untold Story erred in his appraisal of Hicks’ “Soul Patrol.” Rushfield suggested that Hicks’ 10 years of playing club dates in the southeast had given him a ready-made voting bloc. In actuality, Hicks gained his support through a combination of elements that have been in short supply during recent Idol seasons. He was unpredictable – whether sneaking a Beatles classic into a “contemporary hits” week or introducing Ray LaMontagne’s “Trouble” into the singing competition repertoire (how many times have we heard that since Hicks’ knockout version?). He was unique in his performance style. No one ever worked a crowd like Hicks in previous seasons, and few have done so as effectively since. And most of all, he sang the hell out of everything from John Denver to Sam Cooke.
As a fan of American Idol, I’d like to give it the benefit of the doubt that season eleven will become engrossing. But like many others, I only have so many hours to dedicate to TV viewing each week. And right now, The Voice is making its case as the singing competition to watch. So it’s with skeptical anticipation that I await the Idol Top 24 this year, hoping that someone with the magnetism and individualism of Taylor Hicks crops up. There won’t literally be “another Taylor Hicks” of course, because there’s only one (and he’s still doing what he does best). But even though millions seem to have forgotten, the feeling in early 2006 was that Hicks was a singer and musician with the potential to transcend the Idol formula. Never mind how often you have or haven’t heard his name in the years since (or the reasons why, as Hicks has unjustly become the show’s whipping boy). The point is he provided a sense of can’t-miss-an-episode excitement that made season five the definitive year of American Idol. I’d sure like to see some of that in season eleven.