Has America Turned Against ‘American Idol’?

Photo: Courtesy of Fox

From American Idol's disappointing, ratings-deficient season premiere back in January, all the way through to Tuesday's disappointing, ratings-deficient pre-finale, critics have been writing eulogies for the show's influence and forecasting its inevitable slip from Zeitgeist-capturing juggernaut to something you'd only watch if your Wii were broken. "Ridiculous!" others claimed, presumably in unison. "Sure, it's less of a hit than it used to be — but it still draws at least 20 million viewers per episode, meaning it's still way more popular than pretty much anything else!" But what if Idol's biggest problem isn't the people who've stopped watching, but the ones who still are?

Nonconformist cock-rocker David Cook's surprise landslide victory over the more-orthodox presumed winner David Archuleta suggests that a majority of even the fans most engaged with Idol (i.e., the ones voting) might finally be sick of the show's long-standardized forms and conventions. For the first time, a nontraditional contestant who never once compromised his love for the dour, morose post-grunge of the mid-to-late nineties has been named a season's victor. And the fact that he beat Archuleta — the living embodiment of everything the show's ever been up to this point — is a clear sign to producers that it's probably time to change the formula.

Despite our (half-)joking assertions that Cook is a balding, Philip Seymour Hoffman–esque caterwauler, we don't think he's such a bad guy (or even an untalented guy!), just an unrepentant fan of a musical genre completely inconsistent with Idol's pop pedigree, and one which most reasonable earthlings have happily purged from memory. (No, Chris Daughtry's success doesn't disprove this; his singles are actually pretty catchy.) How many voted to hear him sing more Collective Soul songs (and why didn't those same people buy the album Collective Soul put out last year?) and how many voted because he's a good-natured, telegenic antithesis to the bloated, aimless corporate monster the show's turned into?

If the point of American Idol were to find front men for alt-rock bar bands, then why haven't they ever had a post-grunge night? (None of these bands are too busy to turn down an invitation, that's for sure.) No, it's historically been about sappy balladry, awful Andrew Lloyd Webber nights, and even more awful Mariah Carey nights. It's broad, cheesy, and aimed squarely at grandmothers and 13-year-old girls. Sure, it's had its share of maverick contestants, but they were either sent home in early rounds (Daughtry, Constantine Maroulis, Chris Sligh) or they rigorously tailored their arrangements and song selections to conform to the please-everyone pop format (Taylor Hicks, Bo Bice, Blake Lewis), and certainly none were ever so bold as to sing a Collective Soul song on the finale. But this year, for Cook, it worked; not because there's a post-grunge revival afoot (we hope!), or because he was the best singer (though, admittedly, he was probably the second-best), but because there's been a clear sea change in the show's fan base.

As for David Archuleta, he — like us — entered this season with the assumption that the rules of previous ones still held. He was a ruthless, steely-eyed competitor, turning in near-flawless performances (by traditional Idol standards) week after week. In any other year, he'd probably have claimed easy victory. Heck, the judges practically handed him the crown on Tuesday (for which they apologized to Cook last night). We'd like to think of his defeat as a clear-cut case of voters hating the game but not the player.

To his credit, Cook barely ever stumbled either; he, also, was responsible for a raft of memorable performances — just ones outside Idol's typical idiom. The fact alone that his inventive, alt-rock take on Mariah Carey's "Always Be My Baby" did not make us vomit is probably proof enough that he's a deserving winner.

And while the American Idol producers are likely celebrating this morning (ratings were actually up 3 percent over last year's finale!), we're sure it's not escaped their notice that the show's fan base is a grumpy one. Just God help us if they're considering adding a Collective Soul night to next season.