For me, the 2000s was when some of my fondest memories of childhood were formed (that also very much shows my age). In any case, one of those fond memories involved American Idol. I remember tuning in on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, as my mom and I decided who was our favorite contestant, who we wanted to be eliminated, and why we would always hate Simon Cowell. People absolutely loved it--the concept of rooting for someone’s singing dreams to come true. To know you could help them get there by simply voting every week. I thought it was a great way for singers to accomplish their dreams.
But as I got older, I learned that shows like American Idol are not always what they seemed. Today, I want to go into a few details of not only American Idol, but all singing competition shows, that are incredibly misleading in how they’re presented.
But first, I want to give a little background about American Idol and singing competitions overall.
A Bit of Singing Competition History
Singing competitions have been a sizable notch in the zeitgeist of the last 20 years. Some of the biggest known shows that fit into this category include American Idol, The Voice, America’s Got Talent (and the various Got Talents of other countries), and The X Factor.
Even though American Idol took off in a huge way followed by the others I listed, the idea of a singing competition show wasn’t anything new. In fact, the first notable singing competition reality show dates all the way back to 1948. The Original Amateur Hour. The setup was very similar to how many competition shows are run today. Prospective talent would come to audition in front of a panel of judges and if they made the cut, they would compete against other people who had also made it through. The finale was held at Madison Square Garden in New York and the winners were awarded a trophy and $1,500 (a sizable amount for the time). Some greats came from the show including Gladys Knight, Pat Boone, and Frank Sinatra (the radio version of the show). An interesting fact about the show is that Elvis tried to audition for Amateur Hour at some point, but he didn’t make the cut. They sure dropped the ball on that one! The show ran until 1970 when it was cut from the air after 22 years.
After that, the next big talent competition show came in the '80s with Star Search. By this point, they were separating prospective auditioners into categories, like male and female vocalists, for example. Some big names came out of this show including Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Justin Timberlake. Winners received a cash prize.
By 2002, the world, but especially America, loved watching talented people compete. So, it was only natural that American Idol would do well. American Idol is now known as the face of reality singing competitions. It wasn’t even just big for reality TV. It was one of the biggest shows for the country overall.
After the massive success of American Idol, similarly, modeled singing competition shows popped up like The X Factor. Some huge acts to come out of that show include One Direction, Little Mix, and Leona Lewis. Eventually, we got The Voice, a show where the judges cannot see the person auditioning until they press a big button to turn around. This one broke the mold a bit, but only truly in the audition process. After that, it’s like all the others. All these shows give the audience an option to vote for their favorites and join along in the process of finding the ultimate talent.
Letting viewers at home become more involved in the show (or so they let people believe, but we’ll get to that in a bit), American Idol set itself aside as something different from the other shows. It was America's (or whatever country’s) choice...
Or were we? Let’s get into it.
The Audition Process
Anyone who has watched any of these singing competition shows can probably remember what the audition episodes looked like. There was always footage of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people queued up outside waiting for their turn to audition for the judges. These episodes also included interviews with prospective singers along with footage of auditions paired with the judges’ reactions. I always thought these auditions were real. That some of my favorite people to root for had just taken a chance, and went to an audition because they wanted to be a star. But this illusion isn’t necessarily true. And it’s why it’s a reality TV show at its heart.
Before your heart is truly shattered, I do want to clarify that they do hold some of the open calls in cities for people to attend. They’re not all fake. Just...a lot of them. A lot of the footage you see is usually manufactured. Those “open calls” are not there to find the next big talent. In fact, most of the time, the big talent isn’t even there to audition. Why? Because they have already been recruited to be on the show by a producer or talent scout or their management has already secured them the “role” on the show. Yes, much of the talent on shows like The X Factor and American Idol have been predetermined before the “audition process” begins. Then, the person’s “audition” is created at these open calls to make it seem as if they just showed up to audition. It’s all manufactured and scripted, even down to the stuff the performer’s friends and family say.
So, you’re probably wondering, do regular people actually get to audition then? Yes, sometimes. But as I said, these open calls aren’t looking for talent. They’re looking for the opposite. They want the crazy, awful singers that they can embarrass on TV to make for good entertainment. Now, this may not be totally surprising to some readers. Personally, I remember my mom and I always saying, “These people probably know they’re bad and are just coming to get on TV.” And maybe that’s true. But not everyone. Some auditioners came there with real hopes and dreams. Then, to make matters worse, these networks harness those hopes and fuel the fire. It’s been said that producers have been known to hype the person up before going out to audition, assuring them that they’re amazing and that the judges will love them.
This explains why so often we see untalented people come in extremely confident. They’re often riding the high of being told that they’d definitely get through. So, it’s no surprise that some people broke down when the judges laid into them. Why they were so angry. It really makes you look at those first few episodes of the auditions in a different light, and not an attractive one.
As an audience, most people don’t think or even wonder about the sort of contracts