American Idol Live!, coming to Comerica Theatre next week, is a testament to how much smaller American Idol gets every year as a cultural institution.
Don't get me wrong -- it's still big. Season 11 winner Phillip Phillips' debut single is still impossible to avoid if you are or have ever been inside a grocery store. But how many of the finalists from this year's show can you name? How many of the judges can you name?
At the show's peak, being a runner-up was its own kind of pop stardom. Even Clay Aiken, one of the least obvious stars of the past decade, didn't actually have to win to pick up a radio hit, the astonishingly creepy "Invisible":
That kind of pop culture pull made Idol Live!, the concert tour featuring each season's finalists, a big deal in itself. The Top 10 were all possible stars, with their own hyper-devoted Idol fiefdoms.
This year, in a finale watched by just 14 million fans, Candice Glover -- she's the winner, the first in years who isn't a gravelly voiced guy with an acoustic guitar -- beat Kree Harrison. Glover's first album won't come out for a few months, but her debut single peaked at 93 on the Hot 100.
For all that, though -- for all the indications that its demographic is narrowing, and with it the appeal of the people who get voted into pseudo-stardom -- it's still around and still, if I had to guess, making a ton of money.
American Idol began life as one of the most ubiquitous shows in decades, an anomaly in a TV (and music) landscape increasingly dominated by finding niches to appeal to and then exploiting them.
Now it's become its own niche.
Which isn't new -- it's been a long time coming. Starting with David Cook in Season 7, the small slice of Idol watchers who actually vote for contestants revealed a deep, undeniable love for white guys with expensively messy hair and acoustic guitars. If you can tell David Cook, Kris Allen, and Lee DeWyze apart, you probably voted for all three of them.
But as the ratings continue to decline, American Idol won't just be selecting people who fit a very obvious niche -- it'll become its own very obvious niche.
Do you like reality shows? But not mean reality shows? Do you like country music, but not really sad country music? Do you like pop, but mostly '90s pop?
Are you really, really into those sad-violin micro-documentaries about each member of Team USA that NBC plays between events during the Olympics?
America as a whole has bequeathed American Idol to you, where it's really belonged all this time. And Idol Live! is all yours.
A few years ago, Idol Live! could attract TV fans -- people who were interested in watching all the singers they'd heard about for months. Now it's for American Idol fans. There are fewer of those than there used to be, but they'll probably fill Comerica Theatre anyway.
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