I was late to the “American Idol” train. I didn’t see Kelly Clarkson win the singing competition during its first season on FOX, nor did I watch Carrie Underwood rise in season four while still using a hair crimper.
I tuned in with the rest of America in 2008. It was the seventh season of “Idol,” with the holy trinity of judges still present (Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul; a.k.a. bad cop, lukewarm cop and overly good cop). I was transfixed. My eighth grade friend group watched religiously each week, our fingers poised over cordless phones to six-way call each other when something huge happened (OMG, he’s singing an acoustic version of Michael Jackson!!!) and to dial in votes for our favorites at the end of the show, punching their digits with surgical precision.
It was all very dramatic. Debates over which David was better — David Cook or David Archuleta, the two finalists in season seven — got heated at the lunch table, on the “Today Show” and in every tabloid magazine. At the season finale, “Idol” received over 97 million votes from viewers, the highest recorded number in the show’s history. Cook won over Archuleta by a margin of just 12 million votes. We cheered, we cried.
And then? “American Idol” fell hard.
The trinity broke up: Paula was first to go, leaving the judging panel after season eight. Simon, the group’s loved and hated leader (let’s be honest, his merciless commentary was really why we all watched the show), left in 2010. Randy, arguably the most useless judge (his go-to advice: “Dawg, you’ve got to sell it”) held on until season 13, long after the show ratings had plummeted. New judges filled in — Nicki Minaj, Mariah Carey, Steven Tyler, Kara DioGardi, even Ellen Degeneres took a turn — but like a Defense Against the Dark Arts professor at Hogwarts, no one stayed for long.
Despite host Ryan Seacrest’s apparent immortality, the show died. In May 2015, FOX announced that “American Idol” would run for a final season 15, dubbed the “Farewell Season.” Jennifer Lopez, Harry Connick, Jr. and Keith Urban would make up the season’s judging panel, with past “Idol” winners helping weed out the good and the bad at auditions.
Following tradition, the January premiere was spread out over two nights, but the audition process this year seems to be in overdrive: “Idol” showcased not one, but four cities, including Atlanta, Denver, San Francisco and Little Rock. Where Atlanta auditions alone used to fill two episodes, the cities are now distilled into 45-minute segments of Golden Ticket winners (contestants who are approved to advance to Hollywood). The auditions were all the same: solid performances, but a startling lack of funny/absurd/terrible tryouts. No hilarious “Pants On the Ground” guy (Larry Platt, season nine) or even an irritating “Bikini Girl” (Katrina Darrell, who auditioned in her bikini in season eight). Maybe “Idol” is trying to get artistic respect in its last days by cutting epic fails?
Here’s who they found: good singers with gripping backstories. Lee Jean, a 15-year-old whose brother died in 2012, stole the show in Atlanta with Ed Sheeran’s “I See Fire,” prompting J-Lo to squeal, “I just want to squeeze you!” Jordan and Alex Sasser, an overly cheerful married couple, auditioned in Denver together with a baby in tow, though only Jordan walked away with a ticket (leaving a very uncheerful Alex). In Little Rock, Dalton Rapattoni, wild-eyed and dressed like he was plucked from a Green Day music video, wowed with an indie-rock version of “The Phantom of the Opera.”
But the biggest surprise came in San Francisco, when some guy named Kanye West hit the stage, his girlfriend Kim Kardashian waiting expectantly outside. No, seriously. Kanye delivered an a capella version of “Gold Digger” and (shocker) got a Golden Ticket from the judges, making him probably the only person to announce his plans to run for presidency and audition for “Idol” in the same year.
Has “American Idol” changed? Yes and no. Looking past the sob stories and J-Lo’s boy crush favoritism, there’s still some undeniable singing talent among contestants. The show hasn’t failed because people can’t sing anymore — “Idol” is just not catchy enough. There’s no meanness or sexual tension (looking at you, Paula and Simon) on the judging panel; no more atrocious auditions that become viral hits overnight. Cameras don’t follow angry rejected contestants down the hall. Ryan Seacrest doesn’t even flirt anymore.
The bottom line is, “American Idol” is boring. It isn’t an epic fail in quality, but the show’s utter blandness and predictability make it impossible to watch. Still, I’ll give my old favorite the benefit of the doubt in its early stages — maybe one more star will come from it yet.