Does Winning 'Idol' Mean Anything?

by Alex Kritselis

A format shake-up may be coming to American Idol Season 14. While E! Online reports that host Ryan Seacrest has already signed a new deal to return for the show’s next season, and judges Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban, and Harry Connick Jr. are all “expected to return,” as well, American Idol will likely only air once a week going forward. The show already cut its results show down to just half an hour this season, but it may be following in the footsteps of fellow FOX reality show competition So You Think You Can Dance by moving to a once a week format.

It’s no secret that American Idol’s popularity has been on the decline in recent years. In fact, the show’s ratings almost reached an all-time low near the end of March. Could a new format possibly help American Idol draw in more viewers? I’m not sure. Regardless, I don’t think there’s any chance that reducing the show to only airing once a week is going to help it produce another mega star like Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood. Increasingly, it’s starting to feel like winning American Idol doesn’t really mean much anymore.

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I’m hardly the first person to make this argument — articles about the dwindling power of American Idol winners have been appearing online for years. While past Idol winners like Ruben Studdard, Fantasia Barrino, Taylor Hicks, David Cook, and Lee DeWyze all appear to still be involved in the music industry in some capacity, you could hardly call them pop stars — and isn’t that kind of the point of American Idol? To find America’s “next big thing”? While I realize that it would be unreasonable to expect all of the show’s winners to reach the dizzying heights of Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood, in some ways, American Idol seems to be headed down a bad path.

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Last season’s winner, the supremely talented Candice Glover, has a phenomenal voice — absolutely incredible (she’s gorgeous, too). Unfortunately, after being crowned the winner of Season 12, Glover’s coronation song, the bland “I Am Beautiful,” failed to make an impact on the charts. Following “I Am Beautiful’s” lackluster performance, the release of Glover’s debut album, Music Speaks, was pushed back by several months.

Despite working with some great producers on the album (Darkchild, Mike Will Made It), Music Speaks debuted at a disappointing number 14 on the Billboard 200 album chart, selling only 19,000 copies. Sadly, Glover now holds the record for the lowest-selling debut album by an American Idol winner ever. (DeWyze’s first album actually debuted at number 19, but it sold more copies than Glover's.) What went wrong?

It should be noted that after being delayed, Glover’s debut album also holds the record for “longest gestation period” by an American Idol winner, as well. Perhaps because Glover wasn’t able to “strike while the iron was hot,” so to speak, the general public forgot about her and moved on. Maybe Glover didn’t do enough promotional performances to keep her name “out there.” It’s hard to say.

It’s also interesting to note that in a 2011 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, shortly after it was revealed that DeWyze had parted ways with RCA Records, RCA CEO Peter Edge said:

The best Idol results come from doing great A&R. The TV platform provides amazing coverage, but if you don’t have the right songs, it doesn’t really mean a whole hell of a lot, because we’ve seen American Idol winners come and go in a heartbeat. And we’ve seen them have great records, like Kelly Clarkson, starting with “Since U Been Gone.”

Maybe Glover just never found “the right songs” for her. After all, Season 11’s winner, Phillip Phillips, is doing quite well for himself. He may not be a household name just yet, but he’s settling into a groove making lively, foot-stompin’ indie pop. In contrast to Glover’s “I Am Beautiful,” Phillips’ coronation song, “Home,” has sold over five million copies to-date in the United States, making it the “best-selling song by any contestant” in American Idol history. Wow.

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It’s entirely possible that Glover’s disappointing performance is just an isolated incident, but given the post-Idol struggles of past winners, like the previously mentioned DeWyze and even Cook, I tend not to think so. American Idol isn’t alone in its struggle to produce America’s next big thing, however. Rival singing competition The Voice is currently in its sixth season and has yet to produce a major star, period. Maybe audiences have just grown tired of singing competitions in general.

This possible once a week format change for American Idol feels like a response to the show’s fading popularity more than anything else. Still, I think Idol's producers may need to look into some new ways to help ensure that the show's winners are more successful. If someone wins the show but then just disappears into relative obscurity a few years later, what's the point in tuning in?

Music is a tricky business, that’s for sure. I wish I had more answers. I hope that the contestant who ends up winning American Idol this season will be able to flourish, but honestly, I’m not feeling especially optimistic. I would love to be proven wrong, though.