Is American Idol Trying to Be the Olympics?

The 10-year-old show is playing up its history, but what young person wants to watch "an institution"?

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Jonathan Alcorn / Reuters

Jennifer Lopez, left, Randy Jackson and Ryan Seacrest, co-hosts of "American Idol," take part in a panel session in Pasadena, Calif. on Jan. 8.

American Idol has certainly come a long way from its humble beginnings as a summer replacement series in 2002. All things considered, it stepped into its role as a pop culture juggernaut with surprising grace. It’s now unstoppable and ubiquitous and has been for almost a decade. But now there’s one other thing it’s trying to be: venerable. Which it probably shouldn’t.

To understand what I mean by “venerable” in the context of network TV, consider another televised competition that consistently demands the country’s attention: the Olympics. The broadcasts of the event constantly remind us of the Games’ long and dignified history, which, it is implied, we are fortunate to be participating in at this very moment. Similarly, last week’s season premiere of American Idol kicked off with a montage of some of this season’s youngest hopefuls, who were only 6 years old when the show debuted. The message is clear: just as the Olympics have always been around for as long as we can remember, our young people are growing up in a world where, to them, there has always been an American Idol.

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But that’s not the only way Idol is trying to be more like the Olympics. NBC and its affiliated networks’ coverage of the Games has for years been focused more on the athletes’ personal dramas and backstories than the actual competition. Bob Costas or some other host will introduce a lengthy clip package all about the origins, setbacks, tragedies and victories in some medal contender’s past, just so we can be that much more invested when we finally see them do what they came to do. Which often takes a fraction of the time we just spent learning about their brave battle against poverty, family trauma, scandal, injury or some especially tragic combination thereof.

Watching the early audition rounds of this season of Idol is a similar experience. Before we even get to hear most of the contestants sing, we’re already forced to “get to know them.” American Idol is all about elevating one talented individual to the heights of fame and fortune. So to provide the greatest possible contrast, each contestant’s story must begin by visiting their current depths, whether socioeconomic (as with Amy Brumfield, who lives in a tent in the woods,) literal (as in the case of coal miner Shane Bruce) or merely comparative (like Jim Carrey’s daughter Jane). We’re expected to have our hearts tied up in their almost invariably sad stories before they even sing a note. And this will probably continue, as host Ryan Seacrest promised (or threatened, as the case may be) that much of this season will be told from the contestants’ point of view. In other words, expect more inspirational schmaltz, Olympics-style.

It’s one thing for the Olympics to play on its venerable history; after all; it’s not every day a network gets to air a regular event whose first incarnations took place millennia ago. But American Idol, as successful as it is, has yet to earn that distinction. And for a show aimed at young people who make up its giant audience and nearly-as-large talent pool, it’s something of a mistake to hearken back to antiquity by trying to act like an event whose cultural relevance is less than it once was (not to mention the new logo introduced last season, in which the I in Idol looks like a Greek column).

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Instead, Idol should play to its strengths, which are the parts that people talk about: the unpredictable moments, but those are fewer and further between. Judge Steven Tyler and the show’s editors occasionally still throw in some juvenile antics, but the cavalcade of weirdoes that once characterized the early stages of previous seasons is largely absent from this season’s first few episodes; and thus from water coolers and Twitter feeds as well.

More importantly, pop music is about youth and energy, not history and self-congratulation. American Idol would do well to remember that. It’s easy to imagine it still being on the air in 10 years, but if it continues to try to come off as a cultural institution with roots in the distant past, it’s also easy to imagine today’s 6-year-olds referring to it in 10 years as “that show my parents watch.”