I remember it so well — the screaming fans, Simon’s grimace as he folded his arms and glared at the young would-be singers and the yelps of families as triumphant contestants revealed they’d received those fateful words: “You’re going to Hollywood!”

American Idol

Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8 p.m. on Fox3

There was Kelly, Ruben, Carrie and Clay Aiken! Remember William Hung? That’s right, the “She Bangs” guy — in case you forgot he was actually famous for a short while. He was famous because of “American Idol.”

The show used to mean something. It was a landmark television event when it first aired, with the promise of turning a nobody into the next musical superstar. And it worked. Since her first-season win, Kelly Clarkson has released four albums, one of which went multi-platinum and won two Grammy Awards. Aiken didn’t even win, but he still became a pop sensation. Again and again the show lived up to its reputation as a vehicle to stardom. Just making the final round provided fame for more than a few potential Idols. This was back when Simon and Paula bickered and Randy remained neutral from his side of the table.

But recently, things have changed. At first, it was visible in the judging table. Singer-songwriter Kara DioGuardi was added as a judge in season eight. This was fine until both she and Paula dropped out. Then one day I turned on the TV and Ellen DeGeneres was hosting. Now, I’m no expert, but what does Ellen know about music? She may know a lot about hosting a daytime talk show, but singing, not so much.

Where does that leave us now? On Jan. 19 Fox premiered season 10 of “American Idol.” Ryan Seacrest still hosts and Jackson still comments and criticizes from his corner. So what specifically has turned this pop culture phenomenon into a shadow of its former self? Maybe it’s the revolving-door judges seem to have gone through in the past few years (we’re now on to Jennifer Lopez and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler). Or maybe it’s the fact that, despite being rated number one for six consecutive seasons, the recent “Idol” winners have fallen short of the bar set by those of the past. If Kris Allen and Lee DeWyze sound a tad unfamiliar it’s because they’re the least successful “Idol” winners to date. Or maybe it’s the sheer fact that after nine seasons, the glory has begun to fade.

In a way, watching the auditions in the “Idol” premiere in Nashville, Tenn., was like the old days, but something was off. The contestants still shout their dreams into the camera, and we get to peer voyeuristically into the good, the bad and the ugly of the preliminary rounds of “Idol” auditions. Except the unexpected has become expected. Lopez and Tyler bring little to the table that hasn’t already been said, argued over and said again in the past nine years of judging. This season’s polite mocking of Allen Lewis, a professional tattoo artist with the appearance of a Lynyrd Skynyrd member, was tame in comparison to the days when Simon would tear into contestants with little remorse or sympathy. In a recent interview, Steven Tyler revealed he’d be looking for someone with “voice” who’s got “the whole package.” Well, that’s exactly what the show has been committed to for the past nine years.

I’m not demanding the end of “Idol.” I’m merely proposing that while it may be the most profitable of the talent-based reality shows, we’re not the audience that we were back in 2002. By this point we’ve seen the formula adapted to countless other genres. Think Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance,” CBS’s “Live to Dance” and NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” — all of which employ a similar format complete with unknown hopefuls and a panel of judges reminiscent of the dichotomy first present among Randy, Paula and Simon.

Perhaps I’m nostalgic for a time when it seemed like all anyone did on Wednesday nights come springtime was huddle around the TV and wait to see who made the next round. Chances are the show will stay around for a while, but winning doesn’t hold the same weight it used to. The first few winners were bigger than the show. Now each is only one of many to be cranked out of the Idol Machine. The allure of watching a waitress, paint store clerk or bartender rocket to fame has been played out over and over again.

Maybe this season will hold new surprises. It’d be great to see “American Idol” recapture the flare it once had. But I, for one, am doubtful.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.