American Idol is an unstoppable corporate machine.  This is FOX and Idol‘s dirty little secret.  On a few occasions, the executive producers of American Idol have admitted as much: Idol was created for the sole purpose of finding and selling new pop stars to a large populace.  The producers own the recording companies who produce all the albums for Idol alums.  This massive, inescapable contrivance has been largely ignored because it hasn’t really affected the integrity of the competition.

The talent that’s appeared on American Idol was undiscovered at the time and, even if FOX and 19 Entertainment used the singers as pawns in their own large-scale game of Monopoly, what we saw on TV was pure – young, hugely talented artists who rose from anonymity to fame in a mere five-month span.  After six seasons, however, a problem emerged (at least in the eyes of the producers): what happens when the undiscovered talent dries up?

After the names of the top 24 finalists for season 7 were leaked last week, a disturbing reality was revealed.  More than half of the finalists are ringers.  They are not the “undiscovered talent” that American Idol so proudly brags about.  These are singers who, at some point, were indeed discovered and then, for some reason or another (as is wont to happen in the recording industry), failed.  The new question is this: Does it matter that this season’s top 24 is peppered with industry ringers?  Or, better yet: Will anybody care?

Three members of the top 24 this season have recorded and released albums while signed to a major label.  Others have appeared on major tours, major reality shows, sung with other major artists, or released their own albums.  A few have curious ties to American Idol and their affiliated recording companies.  Over its seven-season run, American Idol has regularly boasted about how its goal is to bring the best-undiscovered talent to the masses.  These people, no matter what your definition is, are not “undiscovered.” 

Here’s a look at some of the more blatant recording industry veterans who, according to the leaked list, have made the top 24 (We have to thank for uncovering the pasts of these singers):

Carly Smithson (formerly Carly Hennesy):  This is the tattooed Irish lady.  She tried out a couple of seasons ago but was expelled due to visa issues.  She recorded an album for RCA that sold very poorly in the U.S.  One of the songwriters on her album has also written songs for Kelly Clarkson and Clay Aiken. 

Robbie Carrico: Robbie was part of a boy band during that unfortunate time when boy bands were all the rage.  They made a couple albums, were a failure.  Lately, Robbie has been a part of a pop-rock band that has also failed miserably.  Reportedly, he was also one of Britney Spears’ first boyfriends.  That looked a lot better on the resume a few years ago. 

Michael Johns: This Aussie has been the frontman for two different bands, both having recorded albums.  He had a major falling out with his last band, as he was accused of stealing songs upon his departure. 

Kristy Lee Cook:
She had a record deal with Arista Nashville a few years back and even recorded a music video. 

Syesha Mercado:
She was a contestant on the talent show The One.

Amy Davis: Is a model and has been a member of a band.

Brooke White: She opened for Phil Vassar on one of his recent tours.

Kady Malloy: She recorded an album with the help from a big-time producer who has also worked with Mandy Moore and Natalie Imbruglia.

David Archuleta: He won Star Search when he was 12 and has sung with Kelly Clarkson. 

Joanne Borgella: She won a televised plus-sized beauty pageant.  She has sung with Patti Labelle and has appeared on various talk shows.

Series integrity aside, is there really anything wrong with finding the best singers and having them compete for months on end in front of 30 million-plus Americans?  On last season’s American Idol, the talent in the top 24 was disappointing.  There were only a half dozen or so talented performers and the rest were completely forgettable.  Not to mention the debacle that was Sanjaya Malakar.  You have to believe that, after reflecting on season 6’s shortcomings, executive producers Simon Fuller and Nigel Lythgoe sat and down and decided to artificially infuse this year’s Idol with as much talent as possible.  At the very least, this will make the top 24 more competitive from top to bottom, as opposed to last season, when the top 5 singers were more or less shoe-ins from day one. 

The American Idol fan base is a loyal group, and I wonder if news of this season’s ringers will have any effect on the viewers.  Let’s say this story gets blown up and becomes a major item in the mainstream gossip press.  I don’t think it will, but you never know.  American Idol packages their product (the singers) in such a way that rooting interests are set up early.  From the first time those top 24 finalists perform, viewers will have their favorites.  At that point, the fact that some of these people are showbiz veterans will likely be met with general apathy.  Although I think this is dishonest and an insult to Idol’s de facto mission statement, I certainly wouldn’t encourage or join any ensuing uproar.  After all, American Idol is entertainment.  FOX, ulterior motives aside, is putting out a product for the public’s enjoyment, and the means by which they accomplish this are inconsequential.  Everyone already assumes that what they see on most reality shows isn’t actually real, that people are coached and fed lines, so what harm is there in FOX cheating a bit in creating what will ultimately be a superior product? 

Another issue regarding the top 24 ringers is the question of fairness.  By bringing in singers who have recorded albums and performed on major tours, has this stripped the real undiscovered talent of a shot at the Idol crown?  As part of the leaked top 24 list, we found out that there were a number of these ringers who didn’t end up making the cut in Hollywood.  There is still the possibility of a true rags to riches story inside the top 24.  Wouldn’t it make the whole thing even more captivating if a real amateur emerged and took down all these ringers? 

American Idol, FOX, and 19 Entertainment may have violated the trust of those Idol fans who choose to pay attention to the track records of the finalists.  Still, the facade was already there.  It’s no secret that FOX’s goal is to make money – that’s what networks are supposed to do.  If they think that bringing in ringers will help them do that, and if we can agree that this might just make the competition better, I don’t see the harm.

-Oscar Dahl, BuddyTV Senior Writer 
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Oscar Dahl

Senior Writer, BuddyTV