American Idol Returns, Selling More Drama Than Music

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If you can believe it, American Idol kicks off its twelfth season tonight on Fox. But not just on Fox. Here is how One India Entertainment, "India's No. 1 Language Portal," announced the news at 18:03 IST (India Standard Time) today:

MUMBAI: After the successful run of The X Factor USA while cashing in on the post-digitization opportunities among English GECs, BIG CBS LOVE, the leading English GEC amongst elite urban women, is all set to air the 12th season of the world's most loved singing reality show, American Idol, concurrent with the U.S. (GEC = "General Entertainment Channel")

Like one of its main ("presenting") sponsors, Coca-Cola, Idol has become one of the leading exports of American culture around the world. The culture it is exporting is not pop music, but one of runaway cross-platform integration, relentless branding and fully integrated corporate/media partnerships. Idol has so much product placement now that it might as well not even cut to the actual commercials, but of course that's not going to happen.

The music is almost incidental. This year the show replaced Jennifer Lopez, a global empire unto herself, and Aerosmith's Steven Tyler, a symbol that rock's influence within the overall pop-music sphere continues to decline, with Nicki Minaj, Mariah Carey and Keith Urban. Urban was a savvy enough choice: rugged good looks, a movie-star wife and (beneath it all) credentials as a veteran musician.

But Carey and Minaj were brilliant. Google their names together, and the AutoFill prompts "feud," "fight," "drama" and "beef" are all in the Top 10. That's what Idol is really selling these days, besides Ford Fusions: hysterical reality-show drama to go with its familiar Hollywood/fairy-tale cliches -- will the ugly duckling open his or her mouth and become a swan? -- not singing, which to do well requires intense discipline and training on top of God-given talent.

Which is just as well. Idol can always spit out a Phillip Phillips (the current champ), who may be good enough for a spot on the newest Now! That's What I Call Music compilation, but forgotten soon after. The show has not produced a contestant that has had a significant musical impact since Carrie Underwood in Season 4, now eight years ago. (Adam Lambert and Scotty McCreery notwithstanding... maybe.)

But then it's not supposed to. Idol was once interesting because once Simon Cowell told the truth, perhaps for the first time on American TV since Walter Cronkite, by having the gall to tell a bunch of kids that they should find a different dream besides becoming a pop star because their singing was godawful.

These days Idol is selling itself, its brand -- which this season includes the surefire subplot of Carey and Minaj's "zany" judge's-table antics -- as much as any of its sponsor's products. The words "dreams come true" are plastered all over its Web site. In one promo video there, Urban says "I don't really see what we do as judging so much as mentoring."

That's one word for it. By "mentoring," Urban might as well mean "encouraging mediocrity." A television program that started out legitimately groundbreaking, but fairly simple -- it was a talent show, like Star Search -- and irrevocably changed global pop culture along the way has at this point become a model of how to descend into self-parody.

Which is also why millions of people across the planet will be watching it anyway.

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