In the 2000’s the talent quest phenomena had been turned on its head, no longer limited to the “New Faces” amateurism of such shows around the world, it was now a big budget, slickly produced, heavily promoted, prime time network fixture, with a guaranteed audience across a wide-ranging viewer demographic, from tweenies to adults. Every major channel jumped on the talent quest karaoke bandwagon, and in Australia Channel 10 paid $15 million for the rights to screen Season 1 of Australian Idol in 2003, a clone of the original American franchise.
Popstars/Idol/X Factor/Australia’s Got Talent all rolled out to impressive ratings over the next decade, followed in 2012 by the first season of The Voice. The format for each show pitted individual artists and/or groups in competition, in most cases the talent received only minimal coaching in vocal technique, stagecraft, and media skills, despite the fact that some of these formats were supposed to be team-based with judges assigned to actually coach particular artists. Inevitably all of these programs are packaged and franchised by their owners as glossy reality show talent contests, with production rights going to the highest bidder, there is therefore great pressure to turn a profit on such investments, and to exploit the participants for commercial gain. The contestants are expected to work extremely long hours for little remuneration, with no guarantee of tenure/success, nor accrued benefits, and ultimately to enter into contracts that are often very one-sided, and potentially exploitive, even before the contest finals are decided. L-R Below – Simon Fuller, Simon Cowell.
Idol was created by UK’s Simon Fuller and originally known as Pop Idol in the UK, but because of negative connotations around the word “pop” in the USA, its name was changed to American Idol. X Factor was also a UK franchise, whereas The Voice was originally The Voice of Holland and then franchised globally using the more neutral title, and Australia’s Got Talent was created by UK’s Simon Cowell, the “nasty judge” from American Idol, and then franchised globally. Below L-R Australian Idol Season 1 Runner-Up Shannon Noll and Winner Guy Sebastian.
In the early years new singing stars emerged overnight, no longer the sweat, strain, and grind of learning your craft, playing in smoky clubs and bars, or touring one-horse outback towns before achieving major chart success. If you finished in the top three or four places of any of these singing talent quests, you were virtually guaranteed of at least one top ten hit. Below American Idol Season 1 Winner Kelly Clarkson
You didn’t necessarily need to know how to write a song or even play an instrument, in fact the less you wanted to control the artistic content of the “product” that was released, the more readily you could be absorbed into the songwriting/recording/production/promotion machine that was inexorably grinding away behind all of the wannabe stars that stepped off our TV screens, and into the real world.
For 20 years shows like Australian Idol, The Voice, X- Factor, Australia’s Got Talent, The Masked Singer, have been a constant feature of our music and television landscapes. They are huge prime time ratings-winners, have generated significant revenue for their sponsors, the TV networks, and associated record companies. But precious little has found its way to the artists who submit themselves to grueling and often demeaning elimination rounds, week after week, as the machinery behind the scenes temporarily grooms amateur or semi-professional people, to fit the script that has been written for them by the show’s producers. Below – audition clip for Stan Walker, Australian Idol Winner Season 7.
Idol may have been perceived by viewers as a reality TV show, a sort of heroic odyssey on which the contestants embarked, in their earnest quest for success, but all the performers were deliberately branded, to ensure that they appealed to different audience segments – the cute aspirational white boy with a guitar, the reticent but gifted kid from a poor family, the first generation migrant girl, the sensitive LGBTQ performer, the wide-eyed country kid, and the rock chick/guy who wore their down and dirty hearts on their sleeves – they all had parts to play, and scripts to follow, lest they be culled from the herd. Past Australian Idol Winners – Wes Carr, Natalie Gauci, Kate DeAraugo.
As the Idol format graphically illustrated, the talent is mercilessly “culled down” from thousands to a final few, only then to be commodified at the whim of the show’s producers and the associated record company, with whom the artists are forced to enter into often punitive and one-sided contracts. Many are called but few are chosen, and in Australia the number of those contestants who have gone on to successful careers in the local recording industry via Australian Idol would number only four – Guy Sebastian, Shannon Noll, Jessica Mauboy, and Anthony Callea, and in 2021 the long-term prospects for the last three are looking dubious .Below – Past Australian Idol Winners – Damien Leith, Guy Sebastian, Casey Donovan, Stan Walker.
Guy Sebastian was the first winner of Australian Idol, he was talented, marketable, and importantly malleable, in the eighteen years since he won season1 in 2003 he has released 9 studio albums, including three #1s, with total album sales to date of 4 million, 6 number 1 singles, and the ARIA Award for Song of the Year with Choir in 2019. Like Kelly Clarkson who won the first season of American Idol in 2002, Guy benefited from the initial market impact of Idol success, and unsurprisingly, given the global franchise nature of Idol, both Kelly and Guy recorded debut songs written by the same songwriters, Jorgen Elofssen and John Reid, for their debut hit singles – A Moment Like This (Clarkson) and Angels Brought Me Here (Sebastian) – both power pop ballads crafted for the “money moment” final in Idol contests.
Increasingly artists now sense a stigma attached to participation in such shows, the vague promise of future stardom and chart success for contest winners has quickly been replaced by career oblivion immediately after the season ends. For the winner the obligatory single and album is inexorably ground out by a now confused, intimidated, and starstruck wannabee within weeks of the final, to capitalize on their fleeting popularity, but who will almost certainly be dumped within a year of winning the contest, as Idol winner Casey Donovan discovered.
There is no commitment to the long-term development of the performers, they are not encouraged to improve their musicianship, or develop their unique talents and artistic concepts, nor to create or sing original songs during the contests, which are literally a karaoke covers wasteland, right through the elimination and finals rounds.
Furthermore, the performers have no control over how their image is used, as unlimited rights to the use of audio, video, and photographic material are ceded to the show’s producers regardless of whether it is embarrassing or humiliating. The contestants and often members of their family are scrutinized and interviewed throughout the show in an attempt to create controversy, family drama, or manufacture conflict and tension between the contestants.
The producers can also edit production scenes, backstage interviews, and other material out of context, to maximize dramatic impact, consistent with the show’s branding strategy and to satisfy the voracious demands of tabloid television and gossip magazines, for inane chatter and insider watercooler prattle. Judging panels below L-R The Voice – Delta Goodrem, Boy George, Kelly Rowland, Seal. Australian Idol– Mark Holden, Marcia Hines, Ian Dickson. American Idol– Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell,
Feuding between judges was an element that was also welcomed as it spiced up proceedings, and given the egos of the people involved, they didn’t need too much encouragement or scripting to go on the attack. On Australian Idol Mark Holden and Ian “Dicko” Dickson waged a battle for years to establish alpha male supremacy on the panel, and on The Voice Australia there was no love lost between Boy George and Seal, and Guy Sebastian fell out with Kelly Rowland, while his relationship with Iggy Azalea was described as “toxic”. On American Idol Simon Cowell never saw eye to eye with Ellen DeGeneres or Paula Abdul, Mariah Carey despised Nicky Minaj, and on The Voice America Adam Levine seemed to have annoyed almost everyone, but especially Blake Shelton and Miley Cyrus. Below L-R Paulini, Sophie Monk, Ricki-Lee Coulter.
Upon the completion of the contest the professional and promotional support mechanisms for the losers disappear, leaving many young, starry-eyed wannabes, contemplating a precarious existence on the fringes of show business – Ricki-Lee Coulter, Casey Donovan, Sophie Monk, Rob Mills, Courtney Murphy, Paulini, all come to mind – or simply returning to their old day jobs, their aspirations cruelly crushed, their self-esteem damaged.
Below L-R Casey Donovan,. Courtney Murphy, Rob Mills.
So why would people submit themselves to a grueling competitive process that is both publicly stressful and demonstrably unrewarding? Well it’s not just the sex, drugs and rock “n” roll, that’s the attraction, but it is about getting a share of the massive revenue generated by the music industry – £4.5 billion total GVA in the UK in 2017, $9.8 billion made by digital and physical sales in the USA in 2018, $542 million by digital and physical sales in Australia in 2020, but the reality is that only a few heavy hitters like Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, BTS (K Pop), and Drake, enjoy the kind of superstar financial returns that Idol contestants can only dream of.
Yet there is always an exception to the rule, one person who grinds their way through an arduously competitive elimination process, and highly manipulative “grooming” strategy, to ultimately prevail and emerge as a music industry icon, and that person was the first winner of American Idol in 2002- Kelly Clarkson. Following her Idol win she has established a successful career over the succeeding 19 years, eight studio albums, 3 of which were #1s, 25 million album sales, 11 top ten singles, 45 million single sales, three Grammys and two Billboard Music Awards, and a performance at the Superbowl in 2012, she is by any standard, one of the most successful artists of the 21st century.
Yet her relationship with Sony/BMG and its head Clive Davis, the record label that effectively owned Clarkson after she won Idol, was fraught, tenuous, and litigious, mostly because of the show-related contract she was required to sign. This placed her under the show producer’s tight control, who directed her recording, merchandising, and promotion, and treated her like a marketable commodity, there were also very restrictive conditions about performance – song choices, wardrobe, miming, etc – a low share of earnings, and high penalties for any breaches of contract, up to $5 million for some breaches, was typical of these kinds of contractual indentures. Like all Idol contestants Clarkson was young, and inexperienced, she lacked any real collective bargaining power when she was forced to sign a highly controlling contract, about halfway through the actual contest, and like all Idol competitors she was completely impotent when confronted with the demands of a business behemoth like the Idol producers CBS/Fremantle and Sony/BMG music.
Despite the fact that Clarkson had specialized in soul and R&B classics during the contest, and her musical inspirations were Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye, she was not allowed to record songs from these genres, she had been neatly pigeonholed as a pop singer, and Clive Davis had discouraged her from writing her own songs. But Kelly Clarkson was no pushover, she ultimately wrote half of the songs on her second album entitled Breakaway for obvious reasons, and Davis told her it wasn’t commercial and would jeopardize her career, and to forget about songwriting and just sing. The album was a resounding success, sold over 12 million copies and won a Grammy Award, Kelly would move on to Atlantic Records after completing her Idol-linked contract with Sony/BMG, and pursue a direction in music about which she was passionate, and also successful. Below Carrie Underwood.
With the glowing exception of Carrie Underwood, fourth season American Idol winner, who has amassed impressive sales within the country/pop crossover genre, Idol winners after Kelly Clarkson generally struggled to impress, the roll call of winners who found that fame was ephemeral would include – Ruben Studdard, Kris Allen, Lee De Wyze, Candice Glover, Caleb Johnson, Maddie Poppe, Trent Harmon, Nick Fradiani, Taylor Hicks, and Laine Hardy, who would all be relegated to the “Where Are They Now File”. Below L-R – Top 1-5 – Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard, Fantasia Barrino, Carrie Underwood, Taylor Hicks. Bottom 6-10 – Jordin Sparkes, David Cook, Kris Allen, Lee DeWyze, Scotty McCreery, and #11 Phillip Phillips.
Similarly in Australia winners like Casey Donovan, Kate DeAraugo, Natalie Gauci, Wes Carr, and Stan Walker, no longer have recording contracts or chart with hit records. L-R Below Wes Carr, Stan Walker, Natalie Gauci with runner-up Matt Corby
There does seem to be an Idol curse that dooms the future careers of the winners but is occasionally a lucky token for the runners-up, in the USA Jennifer Hudson, Adam Lambert, Chris Daughtry and Clay Aitken have all carved out respectable singing careers post-Idol, and in Australia runners-up Shannon Noll, Jessica Mauboy, Anthony Callea, and Matt Corby have done likewise. L-R Below – Shannon Noll, Jessica Mauboy, Matt Corby.
Idol has also been criticized by the LGBTQ community about a perceived homophobia when it comes to anointing gay people as winners. In the 18 seasons of American Idol and 7 seasons of Australian Idol no LGBTQ performer has ever won. Several runners-up including Adam Lambert and Clay Aiken in the States and Anthony Callea in Australia, were all regarded as hot favourites to win their particular season, but were beaten by apparently lesser contestants, Kris Allen, Ruben Studdard, and Casey Donovan respectively. L-R below – Anthony Callea, Clay Aiken, Adam Lambert.
Viewers have also become increasingly sceptical about the way that voting is conducted on these shows, do viewer votes really count, are they actually tabulated on the night, and even if they are, do they really impact on the final result? Is it OK for judges to use “wildcards” to reverse the decisions of viewer votes and bring ousted contestants back to the show a week later, or re-introduce a new contestant several weeks into the finals, to “spice up” the ratings? At best the voting has been described as pseudo-democratic, and at worst downright manipulative.
Professional musicians immediately scorned the instant celebrity enjoyed by the Idol show alumni, branded them no-talent one-hit wonders, “Big Brother Karaoke”, while secretly craving their public profile and instant chart success, and feeling vindicated when one by one they faded into obscurity. Such feelings are now more generally shared by people in the industry, who understand that it is better for an artist to organically build a fan base and a solid future, acquire professional skills in a structured and effective way, free from the hype, pseudo-celebrity, manipulation, scripted reality show phoniness and often bitter disappointment and disillusionment that many of our talent show contestants ultimately endure.
Part 1 of Career Karaoke or Idol Fame will focus on the period 2000-2012 and profile the hits of Bardot (Popstars) and the most successful Australian Idol contestants from that period – Guy Sebastian, Shannon Noll, Anthony Callea, Casey Donovan, and Cosima de Vito. Part 2 will continue to track the work of other Idol alumni including Matt Corby, The Young Divas, Damien Leith, and Paulini, and also explore the impact of other shows such as X-Factor, The Voice, and Australia’s Got Talent, and profile the songs of Dami Im, Justice Crew, Samantha Jade, and others.
I hope you enjoy our journey through Career Karaoke or Idol Fame, and remember your feedback is always appreciated.