It's really easy to make fun of "American Idol." No one knows the recent winners; there was that disastrous season with Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey; the last few years have had incredibly low ratings.

But lost in the snarky comments? The fact that "Idol" (which kicks off its final season on Wednesday night) is the last singing competition to truly celebrate amateur musical performers — which is one of the only positive outcomes of the reality TV explosion. While television is filled with people showing off beginner talents, from cooking to landscaping, there's something genuinely thrilling about someone plucked from obscurity with the chance to be an actual rock star. Even in an era of YouTube sensations making it big, nothing compares with a real, live talent show.

AD
AD

Sure, unassuming contestants appear on shows like NBC's hit "The Voice" or ABC's short-lived "Rising Star" — yet those programs recruit skilled singers to audition, so you already know competitors are talented. Originally, this was a way to avoid the awkward, terrible tryouts that made "Idol" famous. Though as many viewers can tell you, the contest becomes less fun when a potential winner has already landed a record deal or world tour or award nomination. That's not the case with every contestant, but it got to the point where the show tried to get Americana star Jason Isbell to audition.

The best "Idol" success stories have all been about people with everyday backstories: Carrie Underwood, the college senior who had never been on a plane. Kellie Pickler, the waitress on roller skates. Jennifer Hudson, the cruise ship singer. Clay Aiken, the special education teacher. Kelly Clarkson, trying to be a singer while working odd jobs.

Of course, with increased competition, sagging ratings and people tiring of the awful singers, "Idol" eventually had to up its game, acknowledging there was a better chance for viewers to be invested if they already knew the competitors. In 2014, the show started allowing any eliminated contestant to return and audition multiple times, just as long as they hadn't made the Top 10 finalists. (In the past, singers who made it past the semi-finals were barred from trying out again.) Producers also loosened restrictions in open auditions — artists with active recording contracts were permitted to try out, thus opening the pool to a wider selection of talented singers.

Then you had situations like Season 13 winner Caleb Johnson, who took the crown after making the semi-finals three times. And Season 14 winner Nick Fradiani, familiar to anyone who saw his band compete on NBC's "America's Got Talent." But at the end of the day, "Idol" is still the only show where your average person can simply get in line at a local open audition — even someone who never had the nerve to express an interest in singing — and have a real shot at making it to the big leagues.

AD
AD

One reason "Idol" endured for so long is because it banked heavily on its "anyone can be a star!" premise: Just check out the show's emotional promo for its "farewell" season, focusing on people singing alone in their rooms, dreaming of the day they might be a singing sensation. Producers know that's why some viewers still watch: No matter how cynical the viewing audience becomes, the potential for a classic rags-to-riches story will always be an irresistibly alluring concept.

Read more:

AD
AD