TAMPA BAY TIMES

Back to American Idol

Once a pop culture king, 'American Idol' shrinks with its tour

Jay Cridlin, July 6, 2015

"Part of surrealism is taking something from where it normally is," docent Janice Embrey Brown told them, "and putting it somewhere it would never be."

Clark Beckham, Rayvon Owen, Tyanna Jones and Jax Miskanic can relate. Six months ago, they were just four young singers spread out across the nation. By May, they were American Idol finalists, belting out Top 40 hits for millions of television viewers.

And today, after a week of rehearsals in Tampa Bay, they and Season 14 winner Nick Fradiani will kick off this year's 37-date American Idol Live! tour at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater.

The tour, like Idol itself, is not the juggernaut it once was. For the second straight year, it will hit theaters, not arenas, with its fewest number of contestants to date. Idol's 15th season, debuting in 2016, will be its last.

"When Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood won, the show was at a level where you can't compare it to anything," Fradiani said. "As soon as you got off, you were so well-known and so huge of a star right off the bat. . . . Now, it doesn't mean that if you win you're going to be a star."

Indeed, as the finalists toured the Dalí on a pre-rehearsal field trip, only a few onlookers came up to say hi. Even Brown, their private guide, confessed her cluelessness.

"I have to tell you," she said, "I never watched the program."

Jax leaned in. "Me neither," she said.

• • •

This summer's Idol tour marks the beginning of the end for a show that has affected pop culture like few others.

When Clarkson won Idol's first season in 2002, some 23 million Americans watched the finale (compared to 7.7 million this year) and more than 9,200 fans packed the arena then called the St. Pete Times Forum for a concert by that year's top 10 finalists.

But the superstars (Jennifer Hudson, Chris Daughtry, Scotty McCreery, Clay Aiken) and copycats (The Voice, America's Got Talent) were only the beginning. Think of the memes, moments and punch lines the show has gifted us over the years. William Hung. Sanjaya Malakar. The "Pants on the Ground" guy. From Justin to Kelly. "Pitchy, dawg." The show made such a star of host Ryan Seacrest that he landed a $21 million reality-TV production deal with E! in 2006.

Yes: American Idol gave the world Keeping Up With the Kardashians.

But Idol's last two champs, Candice Glover and Caleb Johnson, failed to set the industry on fire. In 2014, the tour downsized. This year, instead of all 10 finalists, Idol is only sending five, backed by a full band, with time for stories and banter between songs. Today's opening date might not even sell out.

While the singers admit it would be fun to play arenas, they know the change to a more intimate format was necessary.

"It's a different world we live in, as opposed to 12, 13 years ago," Owen said. "With social media, there's more of an instant connection to us. People feel a lot more connected when I can tweet them back."

Idol finalists generally don't have much of an agenda after the finale, so many spend the weeks working social media, cultivating the fans who voted for them, pledging to say hi in person on tour. Clarkson's victory predated Facebook and YouTube. Today, Jax spends huge chunks of her downtime stoking her rabid fan base, the "Jax Pack," on Twitter, Instagram and Periscope.

"That's really where the music industry is right now," she said. "Everything is virtual. That's the future."

The singers know success after this tour is far from guaranteed. When Beckham talked about building his post-Idol career, he began by saying, "Hopefully, if I get signed . . ."

If. If he gets signed.

"You never know," he shrugged, munching catered mahimahi backstage at Ruth Eckerd. "I was playing on the street six months ago, and no one would listen to me. I couldn't even get into a bar, much less a nice venue like this."

That's not just inexperience talking.

“It's changed in terms of viewership for the TV show, and that's translated to attendance at the concerts," said assistant tour manager Ray Heffernan, who has worked on nine of the last 10 Idol tours. "The fans are still there. It's just a question of how many.

"The music industry is a hard, hard way to make a dollar," he said. “American Idol gives you this springboard to introduce you to some people. You're on your own after that."

• • •

Jax was kidding at the Dalí. Of course, she has watched American Idol; they all have. Jones was 3 when the show debuted; she doesn't remember a world without it.

Several of the finalists attended Idol's live tours growing up. Jax's parents sent her to Idol's Season 5 live tour, the one with Taylor Hicks, in a limo stocked with Doritos and soda. Beckham saw that tour, too.

"I remember seeing Taylor Hicks and some of the contestants close to me, in person, and I was like, 'Oh my god! That's him! He's right there! That's him! That's the guy!' " Beckham said. "To think that there's going to be young musicians that might see me that way is really incredible."

Owen attended Idol's tours for Season 6 (Jordin Sparks) and Season 11 (Phillip Phillips), and he had the same experience. These were artists, he said, who developed before his eyes on TV. That personal connection remains a big part of why Idol, even in its downsized state, remains a unique starmaking machine.

"They got to see me, they got to hear my backstory, they got to watch me literally fight to the top every week," Owen said. "I was in their homes. It's a very personal thing. Even major artists don't get that much national TV time."

During their week in Tampa Bay, the Idols haven't engaged in much sightseeing. Rehearsals stretched as long as 12 hours, with the singers in a semicircle at center stage, huddled around a bowl of chips and crackers, parsing harmonies, progressions, the notes between the notes. At the end of each day, they collapsed, studied lyrics, unwound with Orange Is the New Black.

"Not much time for fun," Owen said.

That also means they haven't had to fend off the frenzied throngs of fans that might have greeted Clarkson or Underwood. But every now and then, a diehard comes along.

The other day, a young fan showed up outside Ruth Eckerd sporting one of Jax's trademark X's at the corner of her left eye. Jax popped outside and signed her guitar.

"This is like a victory lap for us," Jax said. "There's no judges in front of us, judging every move we make. Now, people are choosing to come out here and buy these tickets to come see us. We almost feel like we're on top of the world, and this is our prize. We all feel like winners right now."