'American Idol' still entertaining, but no longer a starmaker

'American Idol' still entertaining, but no longer a starmaker
"American Idol XIV" returned with a special, two-night, three-hour premiere event Wednesday, Jan. 7. Pictured is Nashville contestant Michael Simeon. (Michael Becker / Fox)

"'American Idol' is the only show to produce bona fide superstars," judge Harry Connick Jr. said during the show’s two-night premiere, which kicked off its latest season this week.

That earnest proclamation comes often. In fact, each season there's a reminder that "Idol" stands alone in the ever-crowded field of talent shows as the only one that has managed to break viable recording acts.

But “Idol” has increasingly found it tougher to deliver on the promise of its glory days.

And more than a decade past the launch of platinum acts like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, “Idol” has more competition than ever.

Each season there seems to be a rival looking to do the same. "Idol’s" strongest competitor, “The Voice," is such a ratings smash that it comes on twice a year now (good luck naming any of its winners or finding their music, though).

Amateur singers can turn to platforms like YouTube, Vine or Soundcloud to build fan bases and, yes, score record contracts. At the other end of the professionalism spectrum, the industry has evolved to the point where platinum acts like Beyonce, U2 and Taylor Swift are rewriting the rules on how we consume music. And radio? Well, no one quite understands where that factors in anymore. 

Making matters worse are challenges particular to the “Idol” franchise: numerous personnel changes, lower ratings (the season premiere, while strong, saw another year-to-year slip) and mixed results with format reboots.

Now in its 14th season, the show that started our obsession with singing competitions is another year past its prime. Finalists are quickly forgotten, winners continue to struggle to gain a footing in the industry and even the summer tour that caps each season shrinks by the year (the last one was a sad sight).

So what purpose does “Idol” still serve -- and what incentive is there to watch these days?

As a loyal fan who has also covered the show for the past few years, I’ve struggled with that question for some time. Yet, as I have for the past 13-plus years, I tuned in to watch.

There might not have been the same preseason hype as seasons past, but “Idol” continues to entertain.

Ryan Seacrest is a reliable ringmaster (and now the sole original cast member), the judges (Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban and Harry Connick Jr.) have a breezy chemistry, and there’s always an inspiring contestant with a killer voice and moving history that reminds me why I watch in the first place. 

During the premiere episodes, I was drawn by the opening reveal of the Top 24 contestants -- faces obscured, singing the jazzy standard “Feeling Good” -- and also impressed that more hopefuls were accompanied by instruments during auditions.

But am I watching in hopes of seeing the next big pop star? Absolutely not. History has proved those days are long gone. Some contestants (Adam Lambert, Daughtry) have gone on to bigger things. But not many of the titular "Idols" themselves. In case you need a reminder, Underwood won Season 4 in 2005.

That's not to say "Idol" is no longer worth watching. I'll still tune in weekly, root for favorites and check out their musical offerings after the season ends.


I just won't be waiting to hear them on the radio or expect to see them break into the charts -- but who knows, maybe this year will be different.

Follow me @gerrickkennedy