Back in November, Season 9 "American Idol" winner Lee DeWyze's album Live It Up debuted at number 19 on the Billboard chart with 39,000 copies sold--an alltime low for an "Idol" champ, or even for a first runner-up. One month later, Lee has still only sold 84,000 copies--scarcely more than Season 8 winner Kris Allen sold in his first week alone (and Kris's 80,000 was considered a sales disappointment at the time, since he was the first "Idol" winner to not crack the top 10).
Now, this week, Season 9 runner-up Crystal Bowersox has also failed to debut in the top 10 with her album, Farmer's Daughter (she actually sold 19,000 more copies than Lee did in his first week, but only debuted at number 28).
What is going on here?
Obviously, both contestants are talented. Both made strong albums with the help of many proven industry heavyweights, some of whom worked on more successful past Idols' albums. But that was not enough, apparently. So unless something happens soon to change this situation, Season 9 may be the first "Idol" season to not spawn a top 10 artist. (Season 8 yielded two top 10 acts: Adam Lambert, who debuted at number three, and Danny Gokey, who peaked at number four.) We'll have to see how Season 9's recently signed third-place contestant, Casey James, fares when he releases his debut on Sony Nashville next year.
There are of course many reasons for this troubling development, none of which have to do with Lee or Crystal's actual talent. Season 9 was a relatively unpopular season of "Idol," and on top of that, much of the show's drama and hype centered on what was going on behind the judges' table--the departure of Paula Abdul and then Simon Cowell, the rumors regarding possible Simon replacements, the guest judges, the controversial hiring of Ellen DeGeneres, the continued backlash against Kara DioGuardi--than on the actual contestants. This resulted in viewers feeling less emotionally invested in those contestants, in the long run.
Additionally, this a tough time for any artist (other than Taylor Swift or Susan Boyle, of course) trying to shift units. I could argue that if even Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood had competed in Season 9, in 2010, they probably wouldn't be platinum sellers right now, and it's worth noting that many former Idols have fallen on tough times trying to stay relevant in this struggling music business.
Still...millions of people supposedly voted for Lee DeWyze and Crystal Bowersox week after week on "Idol" this year. So...where are those millions of people now? Buying albums by a 2009 "Britain's Got Talent" contestant instead? Apparently. Simon Cowell truly is having the last laugh, then.
While Lee and Crystal will probably have long and respectable, if modest, careers as singer-songwriters (which is nothing to sneeze at, since most modern-day pop stars have ridiculously short shelf lives; short-term sales aren't everything), really now, that isn't what "Idol" is ultimately about. It's a "Search For A Superstar," and frankly, superstars sell millions of records. I suppose that's why Simon's former foe Nigel Lythgoe, who has been very vocal regarding his misgivings with Season 9, has returned to the show to executive-produce Season 10 and supposedly make "Idol" a real vehicle for creating megastars once again. Obviously, considering how few record-buyers are now interested in the singers that only a few months ago had them gathered around the TV, speed-dial-voting in earnest, Nigel has his work cut out for him. That's probably why he's making so many changes this coming season. For the sake of the show as well as the future Bowersoxes and DeWyzes out there, I sincerely hope Nigel can do it. Because if "American Idol," a program watched and loved by millions, can't get an artist to sell millions anymore, then the universally appealing Cinderella-story dream at the heart of this show is over.
And once viewers--and contestants--stop believing in that dream, then "American Idol" is over as well.