American Idol has always depended on the myth of the virtuosic outsider — the young ingénue or hard-living roughneck who sings only in the shower (or in church), waiting to be discovered. But over the past couple of seasons, that ideal has slipped further and further into the rearview mirror. It seems the country is running low on hidden gems, and a distinct professionalization has taken place on Idol.
Or we could just go ahead and call it Nashville-ification. Not only has Music City talent been a prominent presence on the show, but a growing number of performers are on their fourth or fifth go of it in the industry — singers with veiled child-performer pasts, fluency in the treacherous music business crap-shoot and a slight twang.
Few contestants epitomize this shift more clearly than Kree Harrison, one of a couple of Nashville locals to make it into this year's Top 20. She finished second to soulful South Carolina powerhouse Candice Glover while displaying a low-key grace and deep affection for classic country and R&B. Though it wasn't mentioned on the show — maintain the myth! — Harrison is a music industry vet who in her own words "pretty much grew up on Music Row." She had a record deal at 10 years old and a publishing deal at 14; she even sang on The Rosie O'Donnell Show. For her, Idol is simply another tool in the arsenal.
"I just feel like people have their own route that they take," Harrison says by phone from the American Idol Live tour. "This could be mine."
Harrison's seasoned nose-to-the-grindstone attitude might help her carve out a place in the industry, but it also means she's exquisitely, excruciatingly professional. Everyone she worked with on the show was "fun"; she uses the phrase "Idol journey" unironically; she slips into the third person more than once; she refuses to gossip about the infamous song-clearing rodeo or share even one Nicki Minaj story. She could not be tempted into any hand-biting.
While the TV production team had little interest in Harrison's early career, they were very interested in her tragic personal life. Her narrative on the show — brought up during her first significant appearance — focused mostly on the death of both her parents when she was young. While we took a teary tour of her childhood home and viewed grainy footage of school recitals and family photos, we never saw a tween Harrison munching crudités in a green room or walking the halls of her publishing company. The producers crafted a character who karmically deserved this opportunity, not someone who had worked her butt off for it.
When asked about how it felt to have something so personal turned into a complete-with-swooning-soundtrack TV storyline, Harrison had an unambiguous take: "Telling my story is not the easiest thing to say out loud. But I also feel like it would be selfish to not. The whole point is to show that moving on is a joke, but moving forward is just something you have to do. You have to be selfless, because maybe you can help somebody else."
It's sort of amazing that Idol is still so invested in fetishizing the golden amateur. What's so wrong with being a pro? Times have changed, the show has changed — the audience is probably ready for the hard truth that most people who end up successful performers have been at it a while.
That said, this shift has been implicitly condoned by the show's shrinking audience. Idol used to have its own equivalent of the indie "sell-out" detector, only it was secret professionals who needed to fear discovery (just ask Carly Smithson). In the early years, witch-hunts were common: "He's no amateur!" "She had a record deal!" "They already had their shot!"
Maybe we're all a little savvier now. We know how to read between the lines in our reality TV scripts. And Idol, our sacred network TV cow, is full of dents. Twelve seasons have proved that the show is no golden ticket to fame and fortune. It's a calculated risk — and one that more and more Nashville vets are taking.
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