There is no doubt that American Idol has had an impact on mainstream country radio. Fourth season winner Carrie Underwood has built on her launch on the show to become one of today’s best selling artists. She can boast several CMA Female Vocalist titles, and is the reigning ACM Entertainer of the Year. The show has been much more successful at kicking off careers than country-based equivalents like Nashville Star and CMT’s Can You Duet, although sustaining them has proved harder.
The first Idol contestant to make a mark on country radio was Josh Gracin, who finished fourth in season 2, in 2003. He signed to Lyric Street, and enjoyed a short run of success including one #1 hit and several top ten singles, but his time ran out and he was dropped by his label last year. Carrie then raised expectations for Idol alumni, and the year after her win saw two contestants move on to country chart success. Kellie Pickler has gained more attention for her personality than for her music, but is still doing reasonably well. Bucky Covington followed Gracin to Lyric Street, and his career pattern is looking similar: he enjoyed some success from his first album, but singles from his as-yet unreleased follow-up have not done as well.
Contestants from later season have not fared as well. Season 6’s Phil Stacey and season 7’s Kristy Lee Cook both got deals soon after their runs on the show; in a bizarre coincidence each released one single reaching exactly #28 on the Billboard country chart, and an album which was received with indifference, before being unceremoniously dropped. Stacey then moved into Contemporary Christian music. The latest product of the show, last year’s Danny Gokey, has a single currently in the lower reaches of the chart and an album out today; it will be interesting to see if he catches on with a country audience, having (like Stacey) not been identified with the genre while on the show.
This year’s show has two teenage pop-country singers very much on the pop side of that equation – Aaron Kelly, who cites Rascal Flatts and Keith Urban as influences, and African-American Haeley Vaughn, who is comparable to a non-writing Taylor Swift, right down to the poor live vocals. The history of the show suggests that if either of these 16 year olds can reach the top six or eight, they can pretty much count on a major label deal. Any lower placing probably means a quick return to obscurity.
Nashville Star has been generally less successful at launching careers. The last two winners never even got a general album release. The biggest star from the show is season 1’s third placed Miranda Lambert, but her rise has been slow; followed by season 4 winner Chris Young, who had to wait a few years before getting his first big hit last year. Both are genuine talents who I suspect would have got there in some other way eventually. Can You Duet, lauded as the best of the reality shows at finding real talent, launched the wonderful Joey + Rory, but first season winners Caitlin & Will flopped at radio. The jury is still out on their successors Steel Magnolia.
Why has a country-based show been less successful than a multi-genre one at launching country artists? Partly the answer lies in exposure: Idol is shown on a bigger TV network, and can boast substantially higher audience figures. There are several drawbacks to this; one is that effectively the new artists gaining the greatest media exposure are selected by a TV production company without any particular interest in country music, and whose primary concern is making a TV program which will attract the greatest number of viewers and sell commercials. In addition, those who do well on Idol tend to be those who appeal across demographics and musical tastes. Carrie Underwood was very vocal about being a country singer, but clearly her musical influences incorporate pop as well, and she gained fans on the show partly through her performances of rock songs. Doing well on a voting-based show with Idol’s numbers indicates a starting fan base which does a lot of the groundwork for the marketing people. Others to have launched country careers after the show (Gracin, Stacey and Gokey for instance) showed little attempt to come across as country artists at all until very late in the day. The Idol contestant who appears to be the most rooted in country music are probably Kellie Pickler, and her records have not yet borne that out, while she is not the strongest singer; and Kristy Lee Cook, who was a pleasant enough singer but lacked the vital spark.
Appearing on Idol is by no means a guarantee of stardom in country music, but it allows some singers to get that initial break, together with mass exposure most can only dream of. I can hardly blame any aspiring singer from applying for the show, or begrudge them any success they may get as a result. Nor can the show be blamed for the drift popwards of country radio, which was already well underway before it was launched. It has however benefitted from that drift, which has offered a more welcoming home for artists with the inbuilt crossover appeal necessary for a successful Idol run. I can’t really criticise the labels for signing artists from Idol or similar shows, either. In some ways, the voting audience provides a giant focus group for the A&R department, as well as providing publicity and developing fan bases which help to get a nascent career off to a good start. A down side is that poor live performances are also transmitted to a wide audience, and those bad memories can linger. I still remember with shuddering horror Kellie Pickler failing to hit the high notes on aversion of Martina McBride’s hit ‘How Far’, and that has probably colored my response to her records ever since.
Do you think American Idol and its competitors have been an influence for good or bad on country music – or have they made no real difference to the underlying issues, just changing some of the faces?