As soon as the final season of American Idol was announced, I knew I wanted to write something about the show. This show had an enormous impact on pop culture and gave FOX several years of incredible ratings. It gave them a platform to launch new shows, it inspired several similar competition shows, and while it didn’t make as strong of an impact on the music industry as it may have liked, it did launch the careers of Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Chris Daughtry, and many more. From that perspective alone, the fact that the show is ending is a big deal, even if it doesn’t draw the same attention it used to. But while I love it from a TV history perspective, that not why I needed to write about the show. In fact, the reason I needed to write about it has little to do with the show itself. Instead, in honor of its finale, I want to talk about what one season in particular brought to me as an individual.
It seems that most American Idol fans have one season they love just a little more than the rest. Maybe it was the first they watched. Maybe it was the one in which their favorite won. Maybe it was the one that had the best vocalists. Maybe it was the only one they watched. For me, that season is season 8. It’s not the first I watched (that would be the first season) and honestly, I didn’t even watch all of season 8. But it was the one that will forever be a part of my heart and an important part of my personal history.
As has been the case of most of the media I hold close to my heart, season 8 of American Idol came to me at the start of a transitional time in my life. I was getting ready to start the process of applying to graduate school and deciding whether I wanted to pursue psychology or pop culture studies. I was in the process of defining my own identity and beliefs distinct from the one that had been taught to me through 13 years of religious schooling. I was still struggling with the loss of a few old friendships and was very hesitant to let new people into my life. Then in blazed Adam Lambert.
My mom has been a fan of the show for as long as it has been airing so I would often hear pieces of songs when I went to get a drink of water or ask her a question. If I’m remembering correctly, I wandered through during Adam’s performance of “Ring of Fire” and I was intrigued by him. Then I happened to be back next week for “Mad World” and I was hooked. If I didn’t see an episode, I asked her how he did. There were other contestants I liked but he was my favorite. While both Kris and Adam had strong final performance nights (except for “No Boundaries”, congratulations AI, you found a song that fit neither of their strengths), my prior love for Adam won out and I voted for a performer for the first time since season one. He didn’t win, but I wasn’t concerned. I’d been aware enough of the show and the success (or lack thereof) of the winners to know that the top 3-4 was usually guaranteed to release at least one album. For any other season and any other time, my interest probably would have stopped there. I might have enjoyed a song on the radio by a contestant and that would be it.
But once again, it was Adam that kept me invested. His Rolling Stone cover got so much press, both the fact that it was the runner-up on the cover and not the winner as well as the admission of his crush on Kris. At some point that summer, I stumbled across a Livejournal post celebrating Adam and Kris’s friendship, which led to a fan community, which led to a year I won’t ever forget.
I spent the summer of 2009 lurking through news posts and excitement and truly terrible cellcasts. I finally got up the courage to join in two weeks before the group tour ended (I am nothing if not perpetually late to fandoms) and I have never regretted that decision. In that community, I found new friends, new things to love, and a place to belong.
It’s a difficult year to describe. It was a ridiculous number of Twitter trends, Wolfgang, and bubble tweets (which looking back were a really weird idea). It was raising an incredible amount of money for DonorsChoose, Heifer International and UNICEF. It was staying up too late or waking up too early to talk to friends in different time zones. It was icon shopping and over-analysis of everyone’s first post-Idol music. It was disappointment in a terrible AMA performance and excitement over an adorable day with Good Morning America. It was headphone splitters, feathers, and a special kind of ring. It was love posts, anon posts, mod election drama and whole lot of other drama. It was intense and distracting and obsessive but it was also a sanctuary and home for all of us who needed what it had to offer. It was the best and the worst of fandom. It was mine.
This was the place I really began to become the person I am today. The people this fandom brought to me were exactly the people I needed. I needed the people I only saw in passing but never spoke to, the ones I would casually talk to in the off-topic posts, the ones I talked to regularly, and the ones I’ve kept with me since we met 6+ years ago. They made me laugh, gave me the freedom to redefine myself, opened my eyes to new perspectives and experiences with things, provided a supportive presence when I needed advice or comfort, and they wanted the love and friendship I wanted to share with them. It was an experience that was so much a part of my life that I truly cannot imagine where I’d be without it.
So to my fellow fans – thank you for spending that year and your lives with me.
To Kris, Adam, Danny, Allison, Matt, Anoop, Lil, Scott, Michael, and Megan – thank you for your music and the friendship you shared with each other that brought me to new friends of my own.
To American Idol – thank you for being the mechanism that allowed that particular group of singers to come together at that particular time. I, and many others, found friendship and joy because of the show and its contestants and to me, that is your best legacy.