This was not a banner year for “American Idol,” though it had little to do with the actual talent presented to the world.
Besides the inevitable, inexorable aging of the show’s audience, which is now about 50 years old (vs. 32 when it debuted in 2002), the show was buffeted by competitive forces in the form of “The Voice” and “The X Factor.” Ratings fell about 25 percent year over year to its lowest level since season one, when the show aired over the summer.
Here are my top 10 “Idol”-related stories of the year, which includes career updates of many of the biggest stars of “Idol” over the years.
10) Marry me! During the “Idol” finale, season 5 singer Ace Young proposed live to season 3 runner up Diana DeGarmo. She was genuinely surprised in one sense but the two have bonded closely since they met on Broadway during a production of “Hair.” The first true “Idol’ couple (though others have dated) have already set a wedding date on June 1 of 2013.
9) Clay is runner up – again. Season two runner up Aiken watched his career ebb over time. So he signed on for Donald Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice” to give himself a boost. Overall, he came across well, showing smarts and self-deprecating humor dealing with the likes of Lou Ferrigno, Aubrey “I’m a big star in my mind” O’Day and the emotional Lisa Lampanelli. In the end, he came in second as Trump gave the crown to former talk-show host Arsenio Hall, a move tat remaining Claymates found reason to be livid all over again. Did this actually give Aiken a genuine career steroid shot? I’m sure Clay fans will provide me evidence soon enough.
A smash! Well, sort of. Season five runner-up Katharine McPhee landed a starring role in NBC series “Smash.” She became the first “Idol” alum to land such a plum prime-time role. In her case, she played an ingenue Broadway singer trying to land the job as Marilyn Monroe in a Broadway musical. While the pilot showed promise, the series in its freshman year veered from sublime, especially during many of its musical sequences, to cringe-inducing, especially its stilted dialogue and plotlines and annoying characters (Ellis anyone?). McPhee’s singing was often great. Her acting? Sometimes stiff but hardly the worst part of the show. Ratings were mediocre yet good enough for NBC to give it a 2013 renewal. The creative force behind season one Theresa Rebeck was dumped and many of said annoying characters (bye Ellis!) have been excised. Here’s hoping for a more consistent second season.
7) The successor. This was yet another banner year for Dunwoody High School grad and “Idol” host Ryan Seacrest. His relationship with Julianne Hough entered its third year. Two major investors Thomas H. Lee Partners and Bain Capital in January committed up to $300 million to his media company to help him grow. His Kardashian TV properties continued to blossom, whether you want them to or not. He may have dropped daily E! News coverage but in April, he signed a deal to expand his role onto sister station NBC, which included Olympics coverage. And with the death of his mentor Dick Clark, Seacrest will become the solo host of “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.” Yes, this is Seacrest’s world. We’re just living in it.
6) Ten years and still relevant. Season one winner Kelly Clarkson has survived a decade in the brutal music business with her dignity intact and enough chart-topping songs to generate a greatest hits album at the tender age of 30. Her career is as strong as ever. She sang the “Star Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl. Her song “Stronger” was a No. 1 hit. She was a mentor on an ABC summer series “Duets.” She became engaged to Reba McEntire’s stepson in November. All in all, life is good for Clarkson and we as “Idol” fans couldn’t be more proud.
5) Keep calm and Carrie on! Season four victor Carrie Underwood has now sold more albums than any other “Idol” with about 14 million to date. Her current album “Blown Away” has generated two top two hits in 2012: “Good Girl” and the title track. That makes 15 consecutive top 2 hits on the Billboard country chart over seven years dating back to “Jesus, Take the Wheel.” She hosted the CMAs for a fifth year with Brad Paisley. Last month, she landed a role as lead in a remake of “The Sound of Music.” She toured to sold-out crowds again, hitting Gwinnett Arena earlier this month, where she thanked “Idol” for getting her to where she’s at, something she certainly no longer needs to do but still does. Class act, that lady.
4) Depth chart. Sure, the judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler became mere wallpaper I more or less ignored this season, the novelty having long worn off. Not surprisingly, neither are coming back for season 12, though “Idol’ has kept Randy Jackson around for continuity and economic reasons. But I give them credit for one of the deepest top 10 casts to date in terms of talent and variety. I even liked No. 10 Erika Van Pelt, even if she has no prayer of ever being seen again on a big stage. Heejun Han started with promise but ultimately disappointed. Nonetheless, he may end up in a sitcom one day. DeAndre Brackensick may have used his falsetto too often but his infectious desire to please amped up the “Idol” live tour. Despite only finishing seventh, Colton Dixon signed a record deal and has a solid shot at a Christian pop music career. I could never get into rocker Elise Testone and her distracting hand gestures though she obviously had her fans that got her into the top 6. Skylar Laine brought a ballsy, throaty country strong presence to any episode. Hollie Cavanagh was the black horse, raising her game near the end, as she blossomed into a passable stage singer. Joshua Ledet provided an over-the-top gospel spin to tunes and a Bruno Mars flair. Runner up Jessica Sanchez felt robotic to me at times but there’s no denying she has a voice beyond her years. And then there was the winner Phillip Phillips, a Dave Matthews clone who we’ll talk about soon. Despite a successful season in terms of talent, only three of these acts have signed record deals: Phillips, Sanchez and Dixon. A sign of the times.
3) The winner. Georgia had two runners up before season 11: the aforementioned DeGarmo and season 10’s Lauren Alaina. But the state broke through season 11 with Phillips. He was the rare early favorite show who ultimately won it all with his aw-shucks off-stage demeanor, his confident on-stage persona and his Joe Cocker-meets-Dave Matthews mannerisms and vocal style. I talked to him several times this year and he is undeniably likable, even as he suffered through painful kidney stones (ultimately involving post-show surgery), slept a lot and skipped many a Ford music video. The man landed a surprisingly effective “Idol” coronation song in “Home,” which became an anthem for the Olympic girls’ gymnastics team and a massive hit, selling more than two million downloads. He ultimately showed upon on dozens of TV shows and toured radio shows, including the Star 94 Jingle Jam earlier this month. While he hardly fashions himself as a pop star, he certainly has a solid shot at a long-term career. Next year, he opens for Matchbox Twenty.
2) Judge turnover. With Lopez and Tyler out, “Idol” dug into its pockets and came up with Nicki Minaj, Mariah Carey and Keith Urban as judges, all three big A-list stars in their own right. Minaj got into heated arguments with an annoyed Carey in early audition episodes, the type of publicity “Idol” hopes to parlay into revived numbers. That’s debatable. Many viewers lament that these shows nowadays are more about the judges than the talent. We’ll see if they can entertain us and provide constructive critiques. Just think that season one, they had an unknown British record executive and a washed-up pop singer on the panel as well as name-dropping Jackson.
1) Brutal hit to ratings. This was the year when viewers began moving on to other shows. Ratings fell by an alarming rate to the point “The Voice” and shows such as “The Big Bang Theory” would beat “Idol” in 18-49 ratings while “NCIS” would regularly out-perform “Idol” in overall numbers. It’s hard enough to keep a decade-old show fresh but the audience for music reality shows is finite. “Idol” lost millions of viewersr to both “The Voice” and “X Factor.” The new judges might give “Idol” a modest lift next month when it returns Jan. 16 but it’s likely to continue losing steam. At least “Idol” can take pride that it can still generate a modest star or two (as in Phillips) while the other two shows have been less successful on that front.