So Steven Tyler is leaving American Idol. Chances are, J-Lo is leaving too. That leaves Randy all alone on the judging panel (again). Is it time for a total sweep? After 12 seasons, the show is definitely showing its age. What a phenomenal run though. They deserve huge credit…if not for INVENTING a genre–the UK did Idol first–at least for executing it so effectively and creating a TV ratings juggernaut. But there’s no doubt in my mind that big changes are necessary if the show is to make it past this next season. Shows like “The Voice”, “Duets”, “X-Factor” etc., have made Idol look dated and old. It doesn’t help that the entire judging panel is made up of celebs all over 40. The viewer demographics used to be young…now they look more like Dancing with the Stars. Idol needs more than a makeover. It needs a complete overhaul if it’s to stay alive. It may be too late. I heard a critic say recently that American Idol has been on long enough to offend pretty much everyone at least once. Even the most dramatic changes may not be enough to regenerate the attention and excitement the show needs to survive.

Where Are The Pop Stars?

Just my opinion, but I think American Idol has a self-awareness problem. It still considers itself a show that makes pop stars when it reality, that hasn’t been true for years. Just look at this cavalcade of stars who’ve won Idol the last five years: David Cook, Kris Allen, Lee Dewyze, Scotty Mcreery, and Philip Phillips. I’m not saying that they’re not all talented singers, just not stars of any consequence. Scotty Mcreery is arguably the one exception since his debut album went platinum, but his popularity has been restricted to country only. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…he’s just not the mass appeal star that Idol produced with regularity in the past.

I’m singling out American Idol but the fact is, none of the talent shows have had much success producing big stars. I had to look up Melanie Armaro’s name. She apparently won X-Factor last year. The Voice gave us Karise Eden. Not to be disrespectful, but who? (By the way, the UK versions of these shows has a track record that’s even worse.) The truth is, TV talent shows produce fewer stars than the Bachelor/Bachelorette produces married couples, and that’s a very low standard.

Unlike Idol, the other competing talent shows appear to know their place. Their modified goal seems unconcerned with creating an international pop star…it’s to present an hour or so of entertaining television each week. That’s why you’re seeing more and more of the backstories, the tugging at the heartstrings, the dramatic judge “walk-off: that X-Factor has been over-using all season, the “feuds” between judges like Christina Aguilera and Adam Levine on The Voice. Anything to take the focus away from singers who frankly are good enough to watch for a few weeks on TV but not nearly interesting enough to parlay the exposure into a stand-alone career as a pop artist. Incidentally, I really like the judge/mentor angle on The Voice. While it may not produce a star, it does create drama and the singers do seem to improve under the tutelage of a big recording artist.

If it Walks Like a Duck…

Maybe it’s time for American Idol to realize that they no longer create what their name implies. At best, they are a couple hours a week of semi-entertaining television with viewers who are content to have their favorites win the big prize, even if the prospect of that winner becoming a big star is looking more and more like a pipe dream. Our real idols are NOT coming from Reality TV. Look at the top of the charts and you’ll see artists like Katy Perry, Gotye, Rihanna, Nikki Minaj, and Adele, who all did it the old fashioned way; sans reality TV talent show. (Carly Rae Jepson may be a week exception. She was on Canadian Idol but didn’t win, and wasn’t really discovered until signed by Justin Bieber’s manager, Scooter Braun five years later. And it didn’t hurt that Scooter offered up Justin and Selena Gomez as promotional tools for Carly’s single, “Call Me Maybe”.)

I’m exposed to new artists almost daily. I search for them on You Tube. I listen to all the rough demos that come across my desk. Most will never make it past building a small fan base and trying to survive on the crumbs. I don’t hold that against them… they’re young for the most part, and they’re pursuing their dream. Who am I to cast aspersions on that? Every once in a great while…and I mean VERY RARELY…I will see an artist that has the talent, individuality, and potential universal appeal to make it. When that happens, I do what I can to help them move to the next level. Just in the past few months I’ve given my support to three of the hundreds of artist demos I’ve listened to. They all seem to share a common trait…they’re different. They don’t rely on interchangable tracks created by producers. They write their own songs. They actually have a point-of-view. I suspect that none of the three I mentioned would ever make the top 12 on American Idol. They’re not karaoke singers…meaning, you can’t just plug them into any random genre and expect them to excel. So why in God’s name does Idol continue to make contestants sing country, jazz, sixties, and the music of Barry Manilow??? Don’t they know that any contestant who’s good at that is exactly not what we’re looking for?

Can Idol Be Saved?

I’ll be honest. I think it’s going to be tough. I know…they still have tens of millions of viewers but the writing appears to be on the wall. The audience has gotten too old, the talent has gotten weaker, and most importantly, the buzz is practically non-existent. I don’t think even the return of Simon Cowell could save it at this point. It seems like every conceivable variation or angle has been tried by other shows and any attempt to “borrow” their format will look like a desperate move to stay relevant. I think American Idol can go one of three ways.

1) Take the show out of the studio and into small clubs where REAL artists are working to gain a fan base the old-fashioned way. Focus on REAL artists who write and play their own music, not some pale, tired, Whitney Houston cover song.
2) De-emphasize the “lie” that whomever wins will become a pop star, and focus more on the personal lives of the contestants. Put them all in the same house and let us watch them interact, create, struggle, and reveal their true selves.
3) Recognize that it was a great run and shut it down before the network does it for them.

Tyler and J-Lo are smart to leave American Idol. They’re huge stars who put in two years, raised their profiles and relevance significantly, and now will go back to what they did before. (I wish Congress would do that.)