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 contestants had to sign to be on these sorts of singing competition shows. As years have gone on (and brave souls have anonymously breached contracts), the internet has learned what those contracts were truly like. These 30+ page contracts with difficult legal jargon (that could take the average person weeks to fully understand) were handed to people without enough time to properly review its contents before they were expected to return them signed to be on the show. Some of the terms of the contracts include:
The shows can use any footage of you they’ve captured during the show in whatever way they choose to. What does this mean? It means that they have the legal right to manipulate a clip of a person to fit their narrative. They can make a person look like an awful person even if it’s untrue, and that person can’t do a thing about it. They can make the audience's reactions be whatever they want it to be. Because it’s part of the contract. They basically own the contestants.
You cannot speak negatively against the show or the producers, even after you've been kicked off. Even if you won the show and years have passed. This particular clause was particularly interesting because, for shows like The X Factor, they specified that you could also not say anything negative about the creator publicly (AKA Simon Cowell). So, Cowell could put a performer through the wringer, steal money from them, force them to perform for free, what have you, and legally, they cannot say a bad thing about him. This explains why members of One Direction (a group who got discovered because of The X Factor) always dance around questions asked about Simon Cowell or make sly vague comments instead. Those won’t get them in legal trouble.
You have to promote the show for months. Even if you get eliminated. Even if you never make it to the top 10 or “live” show at all. You still have to promote the show. For FREE.
You cannot talk about what’s in your contract with others or the show details. These shows are so serious about confidentiality. The Voice even specifically says if this facet of the contract is breached, the person can be fined $500,000+
These are just a few details of what’s been revealed in these contracts have included. So, while it may seem like these performers are getting a chance at fame, it comes at a very high cost. And a lot of rules.
Have you ever wondered, why so many of these singers come from such sad backgrounds or have “interesting” backstories? Because most of the time, they’re also manufactured. Very seldom are the backstories that these shows put out to the audience, the actual true stories of the people behind them. These shows take people that they feel are marketable, and they craft a touching backstory—something that will tug on the heartstrings of the public.
One contestant could be more talented than another on the show, but if the show feels the latter is more marketable, they’re the one that’s going to get a positive spin on the show. Because even if we are led to believe that we’re deciding the results, a lot of the time, the show already has a favorite and idea of who they want to win. They help do this by highlighting the one they want to win. Make them the favorite of the audience too.
I keep saying it, but it’s all so manufactured, and I never realized this until a couple years ago. I had no idea.
The Vocal Training
These shows always make it look like the judges are putting all this work into helping the contestants improve their singing skills, marketability, etc. But that isn’t necessarily true. Yes, judges often do help contestants, but they’re not the only ones. There are a dozen people working to make that person’s performance at the level the show wants it to be. Vocal coaches, stylists, media trainers, and more are behind the scenes putting in more of the work to help train these contestants while the judges get to take all the credit for the hard work. Not cool.
The (Lack of) Artistic Freedoms
This one shocked me the most of all. The winners of these competitions do not have as much creative freedom as one might think. It’s no secret that the prize for many of these shows is a multi-million dollar recording contract. But what they don’t mention is that the company the performer is signed to holds an insane amount of control over the person’s career. They decide where they perform, for what event, and if they get compensated or not.
Phillip Phillips, the 2012 winner of American Idol, came out about working to break his contract in 2015 because of the “oppressive” contract he was under. He talked about how he was forced to perform at events by American Idol sponsors or on shows that in the long run weren’t doing anything for his career. He had very little creative control over the music he put out even down to not knowing the title of one of his albums until it was announced publicly. Phillips was luckily able to get out of the contract in 2018, but many former Idol winners had to wait much longer to be set free of their contracts. Kelly Clarkson for example, who won the very first season of American Idol in 2002, was stuck under contract with 19 Entertainment (the label under American Idol), for seven studio albums before she was able to get out of it and branch out into other genres. Under the 19 Entertainment, she was forced to remain in the pop genre until she got out in 2015, signing with RCA Records.
It also doesn’t just go for the winners either. The Top 10 for each season are required under contract to do the American Idol Tour where they go to cities all over the United States.
It kind of puts an icky taste in my mouth when I realize how much of the show that I grew up loving was all a ruse. As an adult, it makes sense, of course. This was a reality TV show at its core. But it all felt so real back then. I’m sure it still feels real now for people. Learning these things has definitely changed how I view the show, but I still hold a lot of nostalgia for it. I know in more recent years, American Idol got cancelled then rebooted to a different network and now a different recording company is giving out the contracts. But the record company is Hollywood Records, a company known for having a lot of Disney stars under their roster before they ultimately tried to escape and do their own thing. So, I don’t know if it’s necessarily better for contestants who sign up now, but one can hope, right?
I hope you learned something from this article, and it hasn’t entirely ruined the show for you. Did you believe a lot of the show to be real back in the day? Sound off in the comment section!
A special thanks to the sources who helped inspire and put together this blog post....
Written by Kristen Petronio