Those of you who hate “American Idol” should be down on your knees thanking one of its spawn right about now. Because the long running televised search for a superstar is on the slab. Cause of death: Blunt force trauma inflicted by runner-up Adam Lambert’s glittery platform boots.
Those of you who love “American Idol” know I’m right.
Of course, Glambert didn’t intend to kill the show. He just underestimated the strength of his fabulosity.
That this season was arguably the best in the show’s history is due, in large part, to Adam. Going into Season 8, questionable format changes (including a universally scorned fourth judge) and an annoying, ever-increasing focus on contestants’ backstories and commercial appeal over actual talent threatened to propel AI right over the proverbial shark. But then something unexpected happened. Adam Lambert took the stage during the semi-finals and blazed through a fierce and funky version of The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” At that moment, he either completely won you over (as he did me) or had you wondering, “Who the hell was that…and what is he gonna do next??”
What he did next was consistently wow us with his fresh approach to a show that many believed was well past its expiration date. Adam wisely avoided the tired Idol standards (”Against All Odds,” “Unchained Melody,” insert your own most-hated), while strategically choosing songs that would stand out from what the other contestants were doing. He also had a knack for doing the opposite of what the audience might have expected, like camping it up on Movie Night, slowing it down on Disco Night, and using Country Night to completely freak middle America out.
After being force-fed mashed potatoes for seven years, the audience finally discovered French fries, and they couldn’t get enough. Both lovers and haters of the show gobbled Adam up. Even those who weren’t Adam fans couldn’t stop talking about him. They couldn’t stop wondering what his next move (or outfit) would be. People who never watched AI were suddenly tuning in to see what all the fuss was about. Water coolers across the U.S. were drained dry as co-workers debated the big issues: Singer or screecher? Gay or straight? Pencil or liquid (eyeliner)? Maybe it’s powder! Maybe he’s bi!! Should we get back to work?
In a season with lower ratings than it had suffered in years, Adam Lambert breathed new life into “American Idol.” And it tried to hang on, really it did. But that poor show had no chance.
Remember when Glambert opened Rock ‘n’ Roll Night with a sexy, scorching rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love?” Simon Cowell declared that, although Adam had started the show off with a bang, the downside was that no one would be able to follow it. And he was right. In fact, the only one who came close to touching his performance was…well, Adam himself. (With the help of pint-sized, big-voiced rocker Allison Iraheta, he closed out the evening and brought the house down with a duet of Foghat’s “Slow Ride.”)
Perhaps Simon didn’t realize it at the time, but he was also predicting the demise of the entire series. Because, really, who is going to be able to follow Adam Lambert? Ever?
Now, don’t get me wrong. Although Adam may have the power to turn me into a babbling fangirl at times, I’m not suggesting that he is the greatest artist who ever lived. I know that there are plenty of underground club kids out there who could probably give Glambert a run for his money. But a lot of “American Idol” fans wouldn’t know that. Because on a show that excels in creating family-friendly, safe “products” for its mainstream audience, a (not really) sexually ambiguous, guylinered, shrieking wild man with an anime haircut is something brand new. He’s a game-changer.
But does “American Idol” WANT a new game? And is the audience ready to play?
I suppose we’ll find out in January, when AI rises from the grave for a ninth season.
Of course, those questions were partially answered at this year’s finale when Adam, the clear-cut star of the show and most buzzed-about contestant in Idol history, still somehow finished second to the safe boy-next-door, Kris Allen.
To Allen’s credit, he showed much more creativity than most artists of his ilk. He also managed to quietly slide toward victory without the help of furious pimping or a sob story, so the public’s unwavering support of him was certainly a step in the right direction. Had Glambert lost to Gokey, AI would have completely gone over to the dark side, doomed to return next year as Tuesday Night of the Living Dead Karaoke.
There’s still a very real danger of that happening in Idol’s post-Glambert world. If the powers that be just go back to business as usual, stacking the deck with pleasantly dull singers and Daughtry wannabes, its ninth life could be its last. But serving up a bunch of Adam Lambert clones (and believe me, there will be many) isn’t the answer either. To stay relevant, the show needs to finally start delivering on its hollow promise that it is, first and foremost, a singing competition. It needs to throw away its formulas and cookie-cutters and embrace the unconventional.
Most importantly, the powers that be need to stop assuming that they know what we, the viewers, want more than we do. We just want talent. And we know America’s got it.