Fans below Mason-Dixon Line turn out in record numbers to support hometown heroes

While “American Idol” is ostensibly geared toward spotlighting the talent onstage, there’s little doubt as to who’s the straw that stirs the drink.

But even though Simon Cowell invariably gets the lion’s share of attention over the course of an “Idol” season, he’s hesitant to cast himself as the reason people tune in each week.

“The show is entirely reliant on who shows up,” he says. “If you get tons of dull people, that will be reflected in the show. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened to ‘Idol’ all that often.”

Over the course of its five seasons, “American Idol” has turned out champions that have run the stylistic gamut from straightforward pop (first-year winner Kelly Clarkson) to old-school soul (so-called “velvet teddy bear” Ruben Studdard, who took top honors in season two) to mainstream country (Carrie Underwood, who emerged victorious in season four). That diversity doesn’t, however, extend to the realm of geography, as all the victors to date have come from below the Mason-Dixon Line.

“There has been a Southern bias over the years, which is not necessarily a bad thing,” Cowell reckons. “The people in the South tend to get behind their own, which explains why all the winners so far have been from the South. The West Coast and East Coast don’t seem to care as much.”

While each of the show’s top vote-getters have had at least moderate success with their post-“Idol” recordings, some — like third-season champ Fantasia Barrino — have had trouble sustaining the initial burst of interest for the long-term. Cowell suggests that’s not necessarily a reflection on the singers themselves.

“You have to have amazing songs to sustain a career,” he says. “Compare Kelly Clarkson’s second album to Fantasia’s first. I couldn’t hum one of the songs on Fantasia’s album, but there are three or four classics on Kelly’s.”

As anyone who’s ever watched “American Idol” can attest, Cowell isn’t hesitant to slice, stilettolike, into even the most likeable contestants. And while most of the eventual winners — notably last season’s champ Taylor Hicks — felt that sting at some point in the judging process, Cowell is hesitant to offer any after-the-fact criticism of the show’s alumni.

“With Taylor, who won the last series, he wouldn’t have been my first choice, but that’s a personal thing,” Cowell admits. “If I really don’t like somebody and millions at home think that person is wonderful, they have the final say. The voting audience takes their role more seriously now. We’ve created 30 million judges.”

That pool of potential jurists doesn’t seem to be in danger of shrinking anytime soon, as evidenced by the performance of “Idol’s” fifth-season finale, which drew some 36 million viewers — a showing that has led Cowell and his fellow producers to take an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude toward the impending sixth season.

“‘Idol’ contains so many components of other great shows that there’s no need to change much,” he says. “We’ve created the musical equivalent of the Super Bowl, so why mess with that?”

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