'American Idol' Tell-All Author Says Show Must End Its Megastar Drought
By Catherine Donaldson-Evans Posted Jan 19th 2011 02:33PM
But since we've turned into an 'Idol'-saturated society, what more is there to say about the Fox hit? Aside from reporting on the progress of each season's contestants, the periodic scandals, the judge shuffle and the day-to-day dramas, there isn't really enough for another entire book about it, is there?
Apparently there is. And its author, Los Angeles Times 'Idol' writer Richard Rushfield, is even so bold as to call his 'The Untold Story.' Untold, indeed. With all the ink spilled on the reality TV sensation, how could that be possibly true?
"There's so much we see, but there's so much that has been untold -- what really goes on behind the scenes and into the making of it, and how it affects the lives of the people involved," Rushfield tells PopEater. "It's an amazing glimpse of what goes on backstage at 'Idol' and the pressures. How 'Idol' came into being has never been told."
And who better to recount those tales than the show's creator himself, the now-legendary British producer Simon Fuller?
When 'American Idol: The Untold Story' readers first meet Fuller, he has just been dumped by a band he molded into an iconic force in its own right: the Spice Girls. Their decision to cut their manager loose for a calmer lifestyle would wind up being one of the most impactful decisions in modern music industry history.
Fuller's idea, initially called 'Fame Search' and then changed to 'Pop Idol,' was to put together a U.K. talent show that would sweep the country's general population for contestants, turn those ordinary people into stars and then give the audience the final say in who wins. 'Popstars' was a similar concept, minus the element of audience control, and it had become a fast hit among British TV viewers.
But Fuller thought his show "could do this much, much better. I saw certain similarities in what 'Popstars' was to what I wanted to do," he told Rushfield. "What I always intended ... was to make it a real-time experience but just focus it on singing."
'American Idol' Snapshots
"American Idol" judges, from left, Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson, and host Ryan Seacrest take part in a panel discussion on the show during the FOX Broadcasting Company Television Critics Association winter press tour in Pasadena, Calif., Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2011. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)
What debuted as 'Pop Idol' in the U.K. -- to mediocre reviews -- soon became a mind-boggling success before traveling across the pond to the U.S., landing in the hands of media mogul Rupert Murdoch and being transformed into 'American Idol,' one of the biggest TV crazes ever.
Rushfield says his book marks the first time the now 50-year-old Fuller has shared the details of how 'Idol' was born.
"It was not officially sanctioned [by the makers of 'Idol'], but I got a lot of cooperation from the people involved," says Rushfield. "Simon Fuller agreed to sit down and tell about the creation of the show for the first time."
Among other behind-the-scenes tidbits in 'The Untold Story,' Rushfield includes anecdotes about a woman who forms a church using only 'Idol' participants, one pop star hopeful's vicious run-in with nasty (and now departed) judge Simon Cowell and a love triangle among three of the earliest contestants.
"There are a lot of little moments that people will love -- just a lot of stories about what life is like living under the tension and the microscope for this group of kids thrown together and riding this whirlwind," he says.
The book also documents the revolutionary changes 'Idol' brought to the music industry and the creation of pop stars including Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Chris Daughtry and Fantasia Barrino.
"It opened up the whole process of how you become a star," Rushfield says. "That was Simon Fuller's intention from the start. He very consciously started this as a reaction to what he saw as a closed system in the record labels, with the music industry being more concerned with being cool and edgy than creating acts that would speak to a huge public."
Thanks to 'Idol,' says Rushfield, there is now a parallel but separate path to stardom outside the music industry in which "the record labels don't dictate who the stars are. You go to the audience about who they want as stars."
It's a shift that has faced its share of criticism from those who believe 'Idol' has lowered the bar, churning out a less talented pool of pop singers than the industry was doing before it came along. Rushfield dismisses that gripe, just as he dismisses similar complaints about how reality shows have dumbed down television.
"I think we have a broader pool of stars," he tells PopEater. "While it might have been more polished before, it was more of a narrow spectrum. People who say that have contempt for the audience and contempt for who the audience chooses ... and they vastly overrate the quality of who we were seeing on television and in the music industry."
As one of the earliest reality shows to strike it big, 'Idol' has been credited with turning traditional programming on its head.
"There's a reason television was so vulnerable: It had become formulaic and stale, and people were ready to tune out those programs," Rushfield says. "'Idol' has done a lot to reinvent television from a pretty desperate place before that."
Still, nearly a decade after its U.S. debut, 'Idol' is facing a critical turning point, with some even sounding the show's death knell. The departure of two of its three original judges -- first Paula Abdul, then Simon Cowell -- the failed Ellen DeGeneres and Kara DioGuardi stints on the panel and the replacement judge choices of Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez have put many on edge about 'Idol's' future.
So has the fact that it's been awhile since the show delivered on its fundamental vow to create a pop star from scratch season after season.
"The jury is out" on the show's future, Rushfield says. "Even bigger than the change in the judges -- which is in itself huge -- 'Idol' has not in several years produced a megastar, not since Chris Daughtry. ... That has to happen again. That's what they promised."
But 'American Idol' has proven resilient so far and has continued to capture the public's imagination because of what it represents.
"They go out into America, find people where they live, bring them to Hollywood and confer upon the winner this huge prize, which is genuine stardom," Rushfield says. "It's the closest thing to the story of the American dream that we have in entertainment."
'American Idol: The Untold Story' is in bookstores and available on Amazon right now.
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