It's Fox's swan song for ‘American Idol’

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

“American Idol” survived cast changes and controversies. It survived “From Justin to Kelly” and the Cold War between Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey. It even survived Sanjaya.

But it could not survive time.

“American Idol” kicks off its 15th and final season tonight on Fox. For the one-time ratings and cultural juggernaut, it’s the beginning of an unceremonious march into the void. Buzz has cooled, viewership has fallen off a cliff. You probably can’t name any of the last three winners.

Yet its impact on pop culture has been undeniable, bigger than any Marvel movie or highly touted app launch. It activated the careers of pop superstars Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, made Simon Cowell a global star and turned Ryan Seacrest into a household name. The shockwaves reverberate from there: Seacrest went on to produce “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” and “Idol’s” massive success paved the way for successors such as “The Voice.” Without “Idol,” most of what you see in today’s tabloid magazines — from Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton to Caitlyn Jenner — would be markedly different.

It all started with a classic talent show premise, “Star Search” for the modern era. Singers performed in front of a trio of judges who offered instant critiques — sometimes scathing, often including the word “dog” — and a vote was put to the people. It let viewers play record exec and offered a weekly demonstration of democracy in action.

It was a slow burn hit. When it premiered in summer 2002, two years after “Survivor” blew the doors open for the reality era and nine months after 9/11 sent audiences seeking the comfortable and familiar, “Idol” earned a loyal following. Around 10 million viewers tuned in for the series premiere, a number that swelled to 23 million the night Texas waitress Kelly Clarkson was crowned the first “Idol” winner. That night, two stars were born.

Kelly Clarkson’s importance to the “Idol” franchise cannot be understated. By becoming a legitimate star in her own right, she validated the “Idol” premise and promise. The show would have been a hit without her, but it wouldn’t have held the same real world clout, the feeling that what the show was doing had a tangible effect outside of its own bubble. It’s something the show’s knockoffs still struggle to achieve.

Other stars followed, most notably Carrie Underwood, “Idol’s” all-time most decorated alum, but also Jennifer Hudson, Clay Aiken, Ruben Studdard, Chris Daughtry, Fantasia Barrino, Kellie Pickler, Katharine McPhee, David Cook, Phillip Phillips, Jordin Sparks and Adam Lambert. Together they’ve sold millions of albums, charted dozens of hits, collected 13 Grammy statues and even won one Academy Award.

As “Idol” roared along, it peaked in its fifth season with an average of more than 30 million viewers an episode, and remained America’s most popular television program for eight seasons. Families watched, your co-workers watched, and it was a genuine sensation.

But all sensations die out. After Paula Abdul exited the show in 2010 — the first member of the show’s core judging team to leave — cracks in its armor began to show. Simon Cowell bailed a year later, and a revolving door of judges — Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez, Nicki and Mariah — could never match the chemistry of the original three. NBC’s “The Voice” took to the air in 2011 and updated the “Idol” model with flashier judges and more bells and whistles. For the old stalwart, once so shiny and new, the writing was on the wall.

Ratings plummeted, and the show fell from Nielsen’s Top 10 in its 13th season. Last May’s Season 14 finale was the show’s lowest rated finish ever, with less than 8 million viewers tuning in to see Nick Fradiani beat Clark Beckham. It was a long way from the 38 million who tuned in to watch the Ruben Studdard-Clay Aiken finale in Season 2.

But don’t cry for “American Idol,” whose legacy is intact. Its funeral season will see visits from old faces and will celebrate everything that made “Idol” the biggest show of its day. It will even feature an audition from Kanye West — who, without “Idol’s” influence, might not be married to Kim Kardashian. (Debate the merits of that union elsewhere, please.)

And in our current culture of remakes, reboots and revitalizations, it won’t be long before “Idol” is resurrected for a new generation. Everything that’s old is eventually new again, and “Idol” is too big to stay gone forever. Next time, just keep Nicki and Mariah out of it.

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

‘American Idol: The Farewell Season’

8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday

Fox

Aretha Franklin is interviewed in March 2015 after a taping for “American Idol” XIV at The Fillmore Detroit, where she talked to contestants about careers in the music industry.

‘American Idol’ and Detroit: A love story

Here are five ways “American Idol” showed love to Detroit over the years:

Theme weeks: “Motown” was one of “Idol’s” most popular themes, and was done in Seasons 1, 2, 3, 8, 10 and 14. In addition, Diana Ross was given her own theme week (in Season 6) and Stevie Wonder was a theme week twice (in Season 5 and in Season 11, when he split it with Whitney Houston). The popular Motown theme was expanded to “Music of the Motor City” for the Top 8 contestants during Season 12, and for that episode, judge Keith Urban sported a Detroit vs. Everybody T-shirt.

Auditions: “Idol” auditioned for contestants in Detroit twice, for Season 2 (in 2002) and Season 13 (in 2013).

Live shows: For its 14th season, “Idol” staged its semi-final rounds at the Fillmore Detroit, winnowing the field from 24 contestants to 12 over the course of four episodes. During that time, the contestants were mentored by Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, who shared lessons with them she learned after 50-plus years in the music business.

Alums: Farmington Hills’ Jena Irene is the most successful “Idol” contestant from Metro Detroit, making it to the finals of Season 13 (where she was runner-up to winner Caleb Johnson). Other finalists with Metro Detroit and Michigan ties were Westland’s Joshua Gracin (fourth place, Season 2), Flint’s LaKisha Jones (fourth place, Season 6) and Ypsilanti’s Matt Giraud (fifth place, Season 8).

Motown visit: After paying tribute to Motown a number of times, “Idol” brought its Season 8 Top 10 finalists to the Motown Museum for a visit with Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. and guest mentor Smokey Robinson.

Show facts

First air date: June 11, 2002

Hosts: Ryan Seacrest and Brian Dunkelman the first season; Seacrest the remaining 14 seasons

Judges: Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson (original team for nine seasons); Kara DioGuardi, Ellen DeGeneres, Jennifer Lopez, Steven Tyler, Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj, Keith Urban and Harry Connick Jr.

Winners: Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard, Fantasia Barrino, Carrie Underwood, Taylor Hicks, Jordin Sparks, David Cook, Kris Allen, Lee Dewyze, Scotty McCreery, Phillip Phillips, Candice Glover, Caleb Johnson, Nick Fradiani

Finalists with notable careers: Jennifer Hudson, Adam Lambert, Chris Daughtry, Scotty McCreery, Clay Aiken, Katherine McPhee

Celebrity mentors/guests (partial list): Tony Bennett, Bette Midler, Prince, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Gladys Knight, Rod Stewart, Billy Preston, Smokey Robinson, Gwen Stefani, Jimmy Iovine, Kenny G, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, George Benson, Toni Braxton, Al Jarreau, Meat Loaf, Mary J. Blige, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Barry Manilow, Queen and Paul Rodgers, Andrea Bocelli and David Foster, Green Day, Seal, The Jonas Brothers, Dolly Parton, Steve Martin, Carlos Santana, Kiss, Lionel Ritchie

Highest ratings: Season 5, which found the show at the peak of its powers and had the best group of finalists ever (a highly spirited bunch that included Kellie Pickler, Chris Daughtry, Katharine McPhee and winner Taylor Hicks); averaged 30.7 million viewers.

Lowest ratings: Season 14, which saw a condensed format with only one show a week once the competition was down to 10 contestants; averaged 10.9 million viewers.