American Idol

So, New Year has come and gone, and Christmas is but a distant memory. (Sadly, the usual seasonal weight gains are still with me, though.)

Which can mean only one thing: it’s time for American Idol to hit our screens again.

I make no apologies for the fact that I’m a fan of a number of reality TV shows, and they don’t come any bigger than the show which can trace its ancestry directly back to the UK’s Popstars and Pop Idol, and which remains the brainchild of two Brits – Nigel Lythgoe and the ubiquitous Simon Cowell.

As well as being a showcase for new US talent, a number of whom – Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson, Jordin Sparks – have also achieved international success, it is also a ratings juggernaut, regularly topping 30 million viewers and dominating the TV schedules. (By comparison, CSI, the top-rated drama series in the US, achieves a regular audience of around 21 million.)

There is, however, a reason why I religiously watch Idol every year, while ignoring its UK equivalent, The X Factor. It’s all a question of the quality, depth and longevity of its talent.

Obviously, as a country one-sixth the size of the US, the talent pool in the UK is much smaller. Even so, it is fast becoming traditional for the X Factor winner to lose their novelty and become forgotten in the rush to embrace the next year’s winner.

To illustrate the point, here is a potted career history of the winners of X Factor (and its predecessor, Pop Idol) up to 2006:

Will Young (Pop Idol, 2002) – Four number 1s, six other top 10. Four albums: two number 1s, two number 2s. Still going strong. Verdict: HIT.

Michelle McManus (Pop Idol, 2003) – Debut single number 1, one other top 20. Appeared on a You Are What You Eat special. Now presenting on radio station Clyde 1. Verdict: MISS.

Steve Brookstein (X Factor, 2004) – Debut single number 1. Second single peaked at 193. Recording contract terminated. Sang in cabaret on a P&O cruise ship. Now part of the cast of the musical Our House. Verdict: MISS.

Shayne Ward (X Factor, 2005) – Debut single number 1, three other top 10 singles. Both albums to date have gone platinum in the UK, with decent sales in international markets. Verdict: HIT (but in danger of becoming yesterday’s man).

Leona Lewis (X Factor, 2006) – Three number 1s, two other top 5 to date. ‘Bleeding Love’ also reached number 1 in the US, the first chart-topper by a British female solo artist since Kim Wilde in 1987. Verdict: BIG HIT. (Has the talent and profile to become the UK’s biggest-selling export in years, period.)

In addition to the above list, reality shows have also given us Hear’Say and Liberty X (Popstars), Gareth Gates and Darius Danesh (Pop Idol), Girls Aloud, One True Voice, Phixx and Clea (Popstars: The Rivals), and David Sneddon, Lemar and Alex Parks (Fame Academy). Of those, only Girls Aloud and, to a lesser extent, Lemar, have had any significant, lasting impact on the UK pop scene, and most of the others shone briefly (if at all) before sinking faster than the proverbial lead balloon.

Now let’s compare this to the US winners of American Idol (chart positions refer to the US unless otherwise indicated):

2002: Kelly Clarkson – Seven top 10 singles (one number 1). Three top 3 albums (one number 1). Five UK top 10 singles, two top 3 albums. Similar success in several international markets. Verdict: BIG HIT.

2003: Ruben Studdard – Two top 10 singles, one number 1 album, with his other two albums both top 20. Grammy Award-nominated. Verdict: HIT. (Incidentally, runner-up Clay Aiken has released four top 5 albums to date, with global sales totalling over 7 million, as well as starring in Spamalot on Broadway, which makes him an even bigger hit.)

2004: Fantasia Barrino – Debut single reached number 1. Two top 20 albums, totalling nearly 3 million sales globally, with a third album due for release in 2009. Starred in The Colour Purple on Broadway, earning rave reviews. Verdict: HIT. (Seventh-placed Jennifer Hudson recently released her debut album which reached number 2 and, of course, is the proud owner of an Oscar which she won for her turn in Dreamgirls, making her arguably the biggest hit of the lot.)

2005: Carrie Underwood – Seven number 1s on the Country chart. Debut album reached number 2, follow-up topped the album chart; both multi-platinum. Winner of three Grammys and approximately 19 million other awards. Firmly established as one of the biggest names on the country music scene. Verdict: BIG HIT.

2006: Taylor Hicks – one number 1 single, one platinum-selling album which peaked at number 2. Dropped by Arista Records in January 2008. Verdict: MISS. (He was never going to be a mainstream star really.) (Fourth-placed Chris Daughtry’s band Daughtry has achieved two top 5 singles plus a number 1 album, while sixth-placed Kellie Pickler has released two number 1 albums on the Country chart, as well as winning three Country Music Television awards.)

Idol’s two most recent winners, Jordin Sparks (2007) and David Cook (2008) have also had promising starts to their post-Idol careers. Sparks has already registered a top 10 album and four top 20 singles, two of which were top 5. (‘No Air’ also peaked at number 3 in the UK.) Cook’s debut single and album both reached number 3 on the respective charts, and he also set a record in the week following his Idol win by having 11 singles in the Billboard top 100, the most since the Beatles had 14 in 1964.

Anyway, you get the idea. In terms of pure numbers, there is simply no comparison. And, having seen every season of Idol except the first, I can testify that in terms of that magic combination of talent and marketability, there is no one among the UK set – aside from Leona and, arguably, Girls Aloud – who can hold a candle to their best American counterparts.

The girl next door with the voice to die for? Leona Lewis certainly has ‘it’ and has shown she can break into the all-important US market, but Kelly Clarkson has already been there and done it.

The ‘plus-size’ girl who succeeds in a size zero world? Michelle McManus’s pop career stalled almost before it had started – as far as I was concerned she had, at best, a moderately interesting story married to a competent but mundane voice. Jennifer Hudson, on the other hand, exudes sassiness, won an Oscar for Dreamgirls and made Beyonce Knowles look like a supporting act in doing so. No comparison.

The sweet young man who came out of the closet? Will Young, yes. But Clay Aiken ticked that box and more, from the initial uber-geek look, to a back-story which included teaching autistic children, to the persistent questions about his sexuality (he only officially confirmed he is gay in September 2008, more than five years post-Idol), and, to top it off, he has also fathered a child. Oh, and while Will Young has a very good voice, Aiken’s voice is astounding. Listen to Aiken’s cover of ‘Soiltaire’. Read ‘em and weep.

In short, American Idol may be British in origin – and with Simon Cowell the real star of the show, its beating heart is also British – but in terms of talent and entertainment, it wins hands down over The X Factor any day.

Which is why I’ll be glued to Idol religiously for the next four months. Whereas I can already barely remember 2007 X Factor winner Leon Jackson, and will have probably forgotten his successor, Alexandra Burke, by next Christmas.