Hi, my name’s Mike and I watch American Idol. I used to qualify that statement by adding quickly that I didn’t buy any of the music put out by former Idols. But I can’t say that anymore. In the last year, there has been an explosion in Idol music on the Ipod, including a major flurry in the last two weeks when my wife and I decided it was time for an Idol playlist. And you know what, I realized that I actually like a lot of the music that’s been put out by former show contestants. (Though, for the record, I still qualify my American Idol experience by pointing out that I don’t vote.)
We started watching American Idol in the second season. So I completely missed the first go-around where Kelly Clarkson charmed viewers. At times, I’ve thought it might be fun to go back and watch that season just to see that moment where she wins and the producers realize that this concept — start with tens of thousands of hopefuls and whittle it down to one pop star — actually works. They certainly got what they were looking for with Clarkson. As I said, we didn’t have much Idol music before, but recently we bought two of Kelly’s albums: Breakaway and All I Ever Wanted. All I can say is that the show got very lucky to find her in the first season (similarly to how Survivor lucked out by picking Richard Hatch to participate in its inaugural season). These are two incredibly listenable albums, full of little pop nuggets that lodge firmly in your brain. Whether you wanted to or not, you’ve heard all the hits, but try out I Want You from the new album if you want to know what I’m talking about. I’ll be stunned if it is not one of the big summer hits this year.
Although our watching of AI started in season two, it was just last year that we started to buy some music. And it is all David Cook’s fault. I liked him, but my wife loved him. We started buying tracks of songs he performed on the show during season seven. We dug up his old album. And when he won, we were thrilled. So, unlike in previous years, when Cook came out with his post-Idol album, I bought it. And it also turns out to be quite enjoyable. Songs like Permanent and Life On The Moon and Come Back To Me revel in their emo-ness. Catchy and heartfelt fun. But my favorite David Cook song is still a cover he did during the show — Innocent by Seven Mary Three. He got panned on the show for this one, but the studio version is one of those songs I’ll never skip. Not sure if it is still available, but pick it up if you can find it.
So, following Cook’s win last year, the floodgates on buying Idol music opened. My defenses were gone. There are now 75 songs by former Idols on the Ipod. In addition to 26 tracks from Ms. Clarkson and 23 from Mr. Cook, I just downloaded Chris Daughtry’s first album. He was another favorite of ours. We wanted him to win and we knew he wouldn’t, and we were right. He came in fourth in season five and has gone on to be one of the biggest-selling former contestants. Again, his five singles off the album are pretty much inescapable on the radio. He puts out well-crafted pop-heavy-metal in the Nickelback mode. I hate Nickelback, but for some reason Daughtry doesn’t rub me the same way. And that’s all because of Idol.
The show is really a genius of marketing for music as well as a juggernaut of a TV product. After watching these folks compete week in and week out — and yes I do actually enjoy the competition part of the show — I find myself pulling for them even in their post-Idol career. Take Jordin Sparks, who won season six. I enjoyed listening to her on the show, but her pure pop wasn’t my thing. Yet when her album came out I found myself wanting it to go platinum. I was invested in it going platinum. With each single, I thought it would push it over and it inched in that direction and I cared about how she was doing. (Of course, that was when I still didn’t buy Idol albums, so I didn’t actually help it go platinum.) And when it finally did go platinum, I was irrationally happy. For the record, this latest buying binge yielded three Jordin singles on the Ipod, but not the full album.
There have been limits to what I’ve purchased. Idol has had an amazing ability to turn out country singers — Carrie Underwood, Kellie Pickler, Josh Gracin, Phil Stacey, Bucky Covington have all charted. But I don’t like country and no amount of residual Idol enjoyment is getting me to buy their songs (with the exception of Underwood’s cover of The Pretenders’ I’ll Stand By You). Similarly, there have been some solid R&B artists in winners Ruben Studdard and Fantasia and non-winner Jennifer Hudson, but their recordings are just not my thing. (Again, there is an exception which was Elliot Yamin’s Wait For You.)
This season my wife and I liked both the winner, Kris Allen, and the runner up, Adam Lambert. (My kids also watched the finale with us, which adds a new element to the operation — my four-year-old is a big Kris fan.) I feel there will be albums from both on my Ipod in the future. Because ultimately, American Idol has succeeded in churning out catchy, popular, Ipod-ready music from likeable, competent artists. It has yet to discover an iconic artist or result in a truly classic album, but those things are rare to begin with. So, I’ll just say it again — I watch the show and I buy the music. Nothing to be ashamed of there.
And who knows, maybe next season I’ll even start to vote.