FAREWELL SEASON

An ‘American Idol’ Premiere So Good Not Even Kanye West Can Ruin It

The final season premiere of Idol overflowed with pimpled belters with stars in their eyes and God in their hearts. Not even a lame Kanye cameo could stop the wholesome fun.

01.07.16 3:00 AM ET

It was a simpler time.

Ryan Seacrest was tanner than an Oompa Loompa, had frosted tips, and had not yet worked so many hours on so many jobs that, honestly, Ryan, we’re concerned for your health.

There was a human named Brian Dunkleman. He was at one time as famous as Ryan Seacrest! Poor Brian Dunkleman.

It was June 11, 2002, and a television show called American Idol was about to premiere. The series would change the face of music, democratizing the process of minting new music superstars and introducing the world to industry juggernauts like Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, and Jennifer Hudson.

It altered the face of television as well.

In tandem with Survivor, the mammoth success of the show birthed a reality TV boom that at one point threatened to suffocate scripted programming entirely. Everyday people were made very famous. The sadder the sob story, the more obnoxious the jackass, the more appalling the acting out, the longer we extended their 15 minutes.

What began so wholesomely with Kelly Clarkson adorably saying “cool beans” in her outfit sewed out of old jeans eventually, dare I say it, led to Donald Trump running for president.

(The Apprentice would not exist were it not for the success of American Idol. Donald Trump’s public profile wouldn’t have resurrected without the success of The Apprentice. And here we are. Look what you did, Paula Abdul!)

It’s been 13 years and a whopping 14 American Idols crowned since the Days of Dunkleman, and Wednesday night, the reality TV stalwart debuted what will be its farewell season.

It speaks volumes about what reality TV and specifically Idol has become that the most talked about moment is not an audition by one of the hopeful superstars, but an exercise in ego masturbation and headline baiting by Kanye West and the Idol producers who OK’d his fake audition.

But the rest of the two hours made a case for why American Idol, as a form of entertainment, is as strong as ever.  

Critics of the aging show have argued its irrelevance. Though Idol alums continue to pop up in the world of entertainment—Best New Artist Grammy nominee Tori Kelly once competed on the show—it’s hard to argue that, in recent years, it hasn’t failed in its founding mission: to find the next music superstar.

Quick! Tell me the names of the last two winners.

(Update: I have Googled and can’t say that I’ve ever heard the names Caleb Johnson and Nick Fradiani in my life.)

But you’d also be in the same boat if you were asked about anyone who has ever won The Voice, a ratings blockbuster for NBC but which also has not made good on its promise to deliver to us the next great music superstar. Ditto to the now-defunct X Factor, Simon Cowell’s overwrought Idol clone.

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What The Voice offers is what, through its 15-season evolution, American Idol has transformed to offer: less a talent competition than talent television.

Amusing Simon-Paula antics led to celebrity judges that steal focus from the contestants. Commoditizing the laughingstock of William Hung gave way to an exploitative overemphasis on the freak show parade of bad auditions. The backlash to that paved the way for the bombastic over-the-top production value of the contestants’ performances.

So in its final days, American Idol is lying in a bed of its own making. As we toss and turn in it, we judge the farewell season of the show on what it is now more than ever: sheer entertainment. Forget the talent search.

By that regard, consider Wednesday night’s Season 15 start a rousing success.

It’s telling that the first five—maybe even 10—minutes passed before a single full audition was shown.

There was footage of the show’s greatest moments and winners (Taylor Hicks sighting!) with the current judges explaining how the show has changed television and, in the grand tradition of American Idol’s gleeful embrace of hyperbole, even the world.

There were lots of clip packages and inspirational music. Occasionally there was a second or two of a person actually singing. Through it all Jennifer Lopez’s skin glowed with the kisses of a thousand angels.

Nostalgia’s in these days, so the walk down memory lane was quite delightful, if a bit interminable. At the end of the rose-colored road was a reminder of why we’re all ostensibly tuning-in in the first place: to find a bookend to Kelly Clarkson. The last American Idol.

First up was 15-year-old Michelle, a little girl who has been alive for barely longer than this show has existed and is now old enough to audition. She sings Leann Rimes’s “Blue” through her braces.

She gets a Golden Ticket to Hollywood and her whole family rushes in, screaming and yelping and giving her hugs. Kelly Clarkson’s “Heartbeat Song” plays triumphantly over B-roll of rampant enthusiasm. I cried.

This is why I watch American Idol, or any reality TV competition series, really. It’s for you, or it isn’t. Give me emotionally manipulative music booming over dreams coming true and I am there. There were 15 instances of weeping in the first 12 minutes of The Biggest Loser premiere Monday night and I’m wondering where that show’s Peabody is.

Following little Michelle is a 17-year-old named Josiah Siska, driving home the point that viewing this final season of American Idol will double as an exercise in making you feel really damn old. But that’s always been one of this show’s draws: the boundless optimism of crooning pimpled cherubs, whose dreams have yet to be crushed by the real world and its responsibilities, jaded practicality, and cubicles.

It’s why 15-year-old Jeneve Mitchell, 15-year-old Lee Jean, and 20-year-old Sonika Vaid were such highlights.

Beyond embodying the night’s blaring motif of “YOUTH!!!” the aforementioned Mitchell was on-trend for a theme of not just the premiere, but of the series’ 13 years on air. She was from the middle of nowhere.

Plucked from obscurity has double meaning on American Idol, which prefers its contestants to not just be anonymous before being discovered by the program, but to be from those small, removed towns that many of us think only exist on The Andy Griffith Show.

Mitchell’s family is off-the-grid, she says, and only turns on the power twice a week so they can watch American Idol (could producers have asked for a better backstory?), winning the episode’s Obscurity Olympics featuring a spate of off-the-grid talents.

“Could you be on Naked and Afraid?” Connick asks one such contestant. “Naked and afraid, that sounds like my wedding night.” From Nashville straight to the Borscht Belt, it’s Harry Connick Jr., everybody.

A supercut of sob stories followed, a clip package of the show’s most egregious exploitations of contestants’ past tragedies that tread the line between self-congratulatory tribute and self-aware mockery.

The pandering (patronizing?) backstories have long been a point of contention with the show’s critics. Speech impediments! Illness! Deafness! Homelessness! Orphans! Oh my! Blissfully, they took a backseat in this premiere to wholesomeness.

To that regard, consider this premiere to be a palate cleanser for anyone who watched The Bachelor.

In contrast to the show in which a coven of 22-year-olds drunkenly fight over a man who has made out with at least three girls named Lauren directly in front of their faces, American Idol portrays an America overrun with worship service leaders, 20-year-old married couples, giggling babies, and families who think nothing of wearing T-shirts with their cousin’s face on it and driving nine hours to watch them audition for a reality TV show.

By the time married worship service leaders (so many contestants listed this as an occupation) auditioned together with their literally cooing infant on their hip, even Connick had to say, “There’s too much goodness in here right now.”

Which brings us to Connick (and Lopez and Urban).

In its effort to draw viewers with big-name celebrity talent and keep up with The Voice’s trumpeting of judges over competitors, Idol has offered up some judging panel stinkers. (That Ellen fiasco.) The beauty of the current panel is that they’re not attempting to re-create any sort of Paula-Simon playful-antagonistic magic, or even steal focus for any other reason than it is their job to offer opinions after each performance.

They are simply polite. (“That was nice!” was probably the most common critique.) And they are fun. (At one point they all started singing old TV theme songs out of boredom.) You like watching them. They’re not stressful, like Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj, or nonsensical, like Steven Taylor. They are pleasant and pretty and offer valid advice about being a musician and a performer.

The premiere ended with two big personalities that will probably dominate the day-after press.

The first was 23-year-old hairdresser Shelbie “Z” James. She blew the roof off the place with her performance of “Last Name,” all Carrie Underwood charisma and control with Miranda Lambert grit.

Then there was Kanye West, appearing for no reason at all to perform a verse of “Gold Digger” while Kim Kardashian stands outside with Seacrest, and Lopez wonders aloud, “What the eff are you doing here?”

It tainted what was otherwise a solidly entertaining Idol premiere that sought to celebrate what’s made the show such an institution while kindling sparks of excitement for the end of its run. Less of that. More of James, please. No need to worship false Idols.