The beginning of the end of American Idol

‘In one segment, American Idol was explained as the ultimate end goal of the American Revolution’

Herein, the first in a semi-regular series chronicling the ninth season of American Idol.

With last year’s winner now almost entirely forgotten, it is time again for a new season of American Idol. Such is the circle of life, the natural order of things, the way it has always been. Or at least the way it has been since Starbucks began systematically over-caffinating the developed world.

If everything about life has always been fleeting, it is somehow now more so. Everything about Idol has always seemed tenuous—desperate hopefuls chasing glory, contestants forgotten shortly after defeat and victory, each season daring to drain America’s well of undiscovered talent. And so it is that this season begins feeling like an end.

As announced days before last night’s season opener, Simon Cowell, the show’s British judge and central force, will be moving on after this ninth campaign, apparently to pursue another televised talent show. It is possible to overstate the implications of this, but only barely. It is Cowell, tormentor of the weak and cruel voice of reality, who is counted on to identify talent, guide the viewer and bestow his blessing on the truly worthy. The other judges are superfluous voices of generalities, the contestants interchangeable, Ryan Seacrest unremarkably acceptable. Cowell is constant, an ever-present reminder of the show’s claim to a higher purpose. He wears only t-shirts and seeks only to reward the deserving. He is possibly the last pure and uncompromised thing on television. And a post-Cowell Idol would seem destined to be something akin to a post-Jordan NBA or a post-Clinton America: strange, uninspired and grasping at golden calves (in fairness, Grant Hill and Donald Rumsfeld seemed like really good ideas at the time).

The producers—perhaps astutely, perhaps accidentally—had already begun to transition to something new. A fourth judge—the relatively substantive, if easily antagonized, songwriter Kara DioGuardi—was added last season. After an acrimonious split, Paula Abdul, Cowell’s effusive foil, will ultimately be replaced by the vaguely subversive Ellen DeGeneres. (Randy Jackson, a former music producer who may or may not have been created by Jim Henson, remains and could well endure in a post-Cowell Idol. If only because it is impossible now to imagine him existing outside this show.) Assuming Cowell is replaced by someone with some wit—and a British accent—it is possible to see Idol surviving and succeeding, in some sense, for several years more. But it won’t be the same. It will be somehow more complicated. Idol, as we’ve known it, will cease at this season’s end, destined to struggle for some time unless and until a transformative figure (its LeBron James or Captain Sully) arrives to save it for a new generation.

We have then but five months to revel in simpler times. Let us cherish them.

The first episode of this ninth season, chronicling the start of open auditions, was in keeping with what we have come to expect from each season’s opener: a parade of weirdos, performance artists, deluded narcissists, sobbing also-rans, irrepressible talent, conspicuous product placement and heartwarming tales from Middle America. For all the mocking freakishness of the early going, it is on inspiration that Idol ultimately depends. In these first two hours, covering tryouts in Boston, we were introduced to the girl whose family adopts children with Down Syndrome, the plus-sized Italian bartender, the floppy-haired hippie with two broken wrists, the girl whose grandmother has Alzheimer’s, the handsome cancer survivor and the Long Island girl whose parents were strict churchgoers. This last singer, apparently chasing her parents’ approval, somehow seemed the most affecting.

We were also introduced to one girl, a student from Boston, who was said to possibly possess “it.” And Victoria Beckham was there, for some reason. And, in one segment, American Idol was explained as the ultimate end goal of the American Revolution.

In its own way, this all made perfect sense.

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