In what might be further proof of the faltering of the American Idol franchise, Billboard.com reported in a brief post yesterday that the American Idol summer tour, which features Season 9’s top 10 contestants including this year’s winner Lee DeWyze and shoulda-been winner Crystal Bowersox, will be coming to an early close at the end of August. But while I certainly sympathize with the show’s performers, I have to think this is a good thing – for the performers as well as their audiences. Although by its very definition, the American Idol concert tour should feel current, it has always struck me as a weirdly anachronistic concept, an ugly ghost of the recording industry’s past haunting the summer tour schedules each year. Like the travelling road shows of the 50s and 60s (famously sent up via the “Play-Tone Galaxy of Stars” tour in Tom Hanks’ wonderful 1996 movie That Thing You Do!), it always seemed more about advancing the Idol brand then promoting any of the individual artists.
Especially as the franchise has maneuvered away from the by-the-numbers big-vocals pop performance template it began with, gradually culminating in this last, much-unloved season’s full-on embrace of “artist” values – varied and often idiosyncratic vocal styles, varied and often idiosyncratic stage personae, singers as both songwriters and (multi-)instrumentalists – the American Idol summer tour has begun to seem out of touch with its own brand. Moreover, as the show has started to find more and more artists who’ve already had their foot in (and slammed by) the music industry’s door, there’s an even greater disparity among its finalists’ in terms of level of experience and/or naivete. Even despite the relative compatibilities of their styles (compared to previous seasons’ first and second finishers), why, but for their common appearance on a hit TV show, should someone like Crystal Bowersox ever have to share a bill with a singer like Lee DeWyze? Or vice versa? (I don’t mean that as a diss to either.) In the real world, there’s no way David Cook would ever co-headline a tour with David Archuleta. I mean, c’mon. The sheer diversity of the show’s contestants has turned what used to be a pretty straightforward pop showcase into an increasingly hodge-podgy (in terms of both stage prowess and style) travelling version of a talent show for which the winner has already been declared, thereby limiting and cheapening what each of the performers can do, reducing their act to a least-common-denominator-ready instant replay of the season’s greatest hits and misses.
That said, a far more palatable (and possibly far more profitable) alternative to the annual Idol tour is already presenting itself. This summer, last year’s runner up Adam Lambert is currently on tour with fellow Season 8 finalist Allison Iraheta. Not only does it offer Lambert, clearly the more seasoned and exciting performer, the showcase he clearly deserves while giving Iraheta a platform (and a sympathetic audience – surely more of Iraheta’s AI constituents gravitated toward Lambert than Season 8 winner Kris Allen in the final tallies) on which to grow as both an artist and a live performer. Maybe the venues they’re playing are smaller than the Idol tours, but I imagine that after spending nearly half a year watching these singers from the comforts of their living rooms, audiences would both crave and appreciate the intimacy that smaller venues might afford. Seriously, how many people really come to see all 10 artists?
So. Note to American Idol producers. Ditch the “Top 10” road show. Instead of one big tour, why not criss-cross the country with three or four smaller tours with two or three artists on each bill. For every Adam, an Allison; for every Kris Allen, a Danny Gokey. It will better serve the artist. It could very well better serve the brand as well. The Idol tour might only hit any given concert market once or twice in the summer. With multiple tours, they could hit the same market half a dozen times. And there really may be folks who want to see all 10 artists bad enough to buy tickets every time one of the many AI tours comes to town. Just sayin’.