When American Idol: The Search for a Superstar arrived in the U.S. in the summer of 2002, it was decidedly retro. The series recalled the variety-show era of the ’70s and relied on music from the big-voiced divas of the ’90s. Its acerbic judge, Simon Cowell, the show’s first breakout star, was a pop-music industry expert whose tastes skewed heavily to decades past; his favorite song, viewers would later learn, was the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody.”
Yet in many ways Idol, which took its final bow on Thursday, was ahead of the pop-culture game. It was one of the first shows that understood both the emotional nerve that connects people to music, and people’s innate desire to see others succeed despite enormous odds. It excelled at creating a personal link between artists and viewers, compelling the latter to take action by calling in and voting. The most successful contestants appealed to a wide swath of the American public—Carrie Underwood’s sheer humility may very well have cinched her the title—but that didn’t stop smaller factions of fans from giving contestants like Elliot Yamin respectable careers.
In this sense, Idol foreshadowed today’s social media-driven society, where fans have the power to mobilize and impact the pop-culture landscape—take the country vet Chris Stapleton’s bump to fame after a single televised duet with Justin Timberlake, or the resurrection of TV shows like the cult favorite Gilmore Girls and the misguided Fuller House. The show also offers a striking case study for how then-nascent Internet culture narrowed the distance between fans and critics. This shift, combined with critics’ increasing willingness to take popular entertainment seriously, has led to an age of criticism that’s far more democratic than it was even a decade ago.