It was impossible to grow up in America during the 2000’s and not hear the words “American Idol.” However, for a show that was once such a cultural powerhouse, it ended with a fizzle and not a bang. On April 7, the judges, contestants and yes, Ryan Seacrest, gathered for one last hurrah 15 seasons in the making. Yet no one has seemed to talk about this, and I would have hardly known it happened if my mother was not still a devoted watcher.
I am not here to discuss why American Idol lost its once unwavering popularity, as things simply lose their luster with age. However, I am here to harken back to a time when TV watching was an activity that America shared every evening, and pose the question of whether the new approach to television can unify us as much as shows like American Idol did.
Try to go back in your mind to a time when bell-bottom jeans and flavored lip balms were popular. When social media didn’t exist and flip phones were fresh on the market. The 2000’s were a strange decade for pop culture, fashion, politics and pretty much everything else. Yet there was one thing almost everyone was clued in to: American Idol.
We watched religiously, devoting our evenings from January through May to watching terrible auditions, nerve wracking eliminations and often glorious performances. We voted on our cell phones. In the early days, we even voted by calling a number on our landlines, which would always be busy and would keep you redialing all night.
The next day at school or work, everyone would be talking about it. Perhaps it was the insane auditions, from the likes of William Hung or Sanjaya. Or maybe Carrie Underwood or Fantasia just wowed us with an amazing performance.
It was everywhere. Local radio and television stations sent representatives out to the finale to report on it for the people back home. The remaining three contestants got parades in their hometowns and days named after them. And the finale, where the new winner was crowned, was always a source of great anxiety and celebration.
I personally remember being so excited Carrie Underwood won, I recorded her winning performance on my tape recorder and listened to it for weeks on end. And who can forget those girls who cried when David Cook beat teen heartthrob David Archuleta?
American Idol was a phenomenon unlike one I have ever experienced, and probably ever will again, simply because it basically united the entire country. Millions of people viewed, voted for and talked about the same show for months on end, and it was something anyone could watch and enjoy. It was almost like watching an election unfold, except Idol was simply for the joy of entertainment.
Yet, as it faded out of popularity, so did the idea of everyone watching something unfold at the exact same time, sharing a mutual experience across the entire country. In the new age of streaming television, this sort of collective enjoyment and excitement is basically relegated to only Super Bowl Sunday or award shows, which in themselves alienate a lot of people.
I haven’t watched a show as it premiers in months, almost years, and while there is something to be said for the accessibility of platforms like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime, there is also something to be said for a collective excitement over a piece of pop culture.
Idol grew old, yes, but there is no denying how special and revolutionary it was in American television watching habits. Rarely before, and probably never after, will we find ourselves all huddled on our couches across the country, experiencing entertainment together and sharing in the joy and heartbreak of its aftermath with such fervor it becomes a part of our everyday life. And that is why I wish to give American Idol its proper, although long overdue, sendoff through these words.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of Josh Hallett’s Flickr Account.
Julie Kearney is a senior English major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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