Entertainment columnist Richard Rushfield covers the history of a pop culture phenomenon in American Idol: The Untold Story. Beginning with the show’s UK precursors Pop Stars and Pop Idol, the book devotes several chapters to how Simon Fuller created the ratings juggernaut. The account traces the show right through to the end of season nine in 2010, which saw the departure of its most famous personality, judge Simon Cowell. Devoted fans of the show may already know about the juiciest tidbits, but Rushfield’s writing is compelling enough to make the book worth reading. Those readers who haven’t been watching since the first season will likely find themselves combing YouTube to see the many performances (good and bad) discussed throughout.
What I really appreciated about Rushfield’s style is that he isn’t a breathless fanboy. His book doesn’t debate which contestants were the “best” or “worst.” He takes his subject seriously, but with a focus primarily on the business side of American Idol and its impact on the television and music industries. Anyone looking for extensive commentary about the artistic merits of the contestants will be sorely disappointed. But for a straightforward, detailed explanation of how Idol became one of the most iconic entertainment franchises of the past ten years, Rushfield delivers the goods.
The meat of the book deals with Idol in a roughly chronological fashion, examining the show season by season. Interesting detours are taken along the way including a look at the man who walked away from the show after the first season, co-host Brian Dunkleman. Another chapter is devoted to the controversial website Vote For the Worst, which actively promotes the least likely contestants each season. These little tangents demonstrate Rushfield’s commanding knowledge of the Idol universe, which makes sense considering how extensively he has covered the show for The Los Angeles Times.
Of course, a multitude of controversies are examined, from recurring accusations of vote tampering to more specific incidents such as Paula Abdul’s alleged affair with season two contestant Corey Clark. To Rushfield’s credit, he never adopts a tabloid-style tone regardless of the subject matter. He generally paints a picture of integrity, almost always falling on the side of the show’s producers where matters of controversy are concerned. He also makes an excellent case for host Ryan Seacrest being the show’s unsung hero, detailing exactly why his skills have kept the show so watchable year after year.
Following an in-depth look at the show’s maiden season, less and less pages are devoted to each subsequent season. This is especially true beginning with season six onward. Rushfield isn’t all that concerned with the viability of each winner and runner-up as a recording artist. Some significant contestants, including season four runner-up Bo Bice, are barely mentioned. In fact, the discussion of season four is very limited, except to portray winner Carrie Underwood as being unpersonable behind the scenes. The most unique Idol champ, season five’s Taylor Hicks, seems to mostly puzzle Rushfield. Aside from a few back-handed compliments aimed at his intense competitiveness, he doesn’t know how to categorize Hicks. Given the book’s focus on the business side of Idol, I expected to read more about Taylor Hicks being the show’s most savvy self-marketer.
At 267 pages, American Idol: The Untold Story is a quick read but one that spends ample time fully exploring its subject. This hardcover volume is an incomplete story in a way, as American Idol is going strong in its tenth season. It seems appropriate though that the story ends with Simon Cowell’s departure. Rushfield spends a great deal of time discussing Cowell’s evolution as one of television’s biggest and highest paid stars. He also tracks the disputes and camaraderie between Cowell and the two other original judges Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson. Kara DioGuardi’s two year tenure as the fourth judge is dealt with at some length as well. But the Simon Cowell era is Rushfield’s focus, regardless of who else was sitting at the judges table. He makes a strong case for American Idol as a worthwhile national pastime, despite the show’s critics who believe it has done more harm than good for popular music.