The year 2002 was quite a wild time in pop culture. Justin and Britney called it quits for good, Nickelback had one of the biggest songs of the year, Apple released its second-generation iPod with 20 whole gigabytes of storage and a small show called “American Idol” made its debut on television screens across the nation.
Since then, a lot has changed. Justin Timberlake is now known more for a botched Super Bowl performance than his early-aughts relationship, Nickelback is nothing more than an Internet meme, Apple released the iPhone X and is on the verge of taking over the world and “American Idol”… is on its 16th season.
That’s right. Much to the surprise of many — including myself — “American Idol” is still going on. Gone are the days of Simon, Paula and Randy. Now in their places sit Luke Bryan, Katy Perry and Lionel Richie. Oh, but Ryan Seacrest is still there — some things never change.
With ratings that have been on a constant decline since season seven, one begins to wonder why “American Idol” even bothers to go on. Though a highly-rated “farewell season” premiered on Fox in 2015, the competition show has been resurrected on ABC for its latest season. Yet it is no longer producing hit-making superstars like season one winner Kelly Clarkson and season four winner Carrie Underwood. Instead, it’s become a show unacknowledged by a general audience, only coming into the public eye only when it stirs up controversy.
So why does “American Idol” persist? Why can’t cable TV just let it die? Maybe it’s just the way the industry works, but maybe it’s something bigger. Americans are suckers for the “self-made man.” It’s the reason why every trust-fund baby politician weaves stories of how their great-great-great grandfather’s tailoring shop helped them get into Harvard Law. And it’s the reason that shows like “American Idol” stay on the air.
While most of America has changed in the past 16 years, “American Idol” has stayed consistent. Despite a new channel and a new set of judges, everything from the format of the show to the contestants are identical to the series circa 2002. Picture the quintessential “American Idol” contestant: some 24-year-old white boy with a guitar, lower-middle class parents — maybe raised by a single mother to really spice things up — who just quit his 9-to-5 job to pursue his real dream of becoming a star. He’s still showing up to auditions, and the American people eat it up. They cheer for him, pray for him and want to see him win, because if he can make it big, maybe anybody can.
Killing “American Idol” basically kills the American Dream. The American Dream is more than just the go-to answer when you’re in an American literature class but haven’t read the book and the professor asks what “The Death of a Salesman” is all about. It’s the foundation of shows like “American Idol” and “The X Factor” and “The Voice,” shows that have fallen out of popularity to programs centered around the rich and the fabulous. It may be a stretch, but Americans still need to trick themselves into believing that anyone, no matter their background, can succeed. Just the existence of “American Idol” perpetuates this false reality that anyone can become whatever they dream to be, whether it’s a star, a CEO or a senator.
Is “American Idol” an elaborate propaganda machine used to blind Americans to the true societal barriers that keep us secured in our socioeconomic and cultural bubbles? Doubtful. It is more representative of a national culture that longs for hopeful stories of the home-grown boy who made it big. And if reality refuses to give that to us, at least Ryan Seacrest always will.