5 Things I Learned From American Idol

Photo Credit: Associated Press

I know. You’re either thinking – I love American Idol and have watched it religiously, or I hate that show and never understood its purpose. Truth be told, I’m somewhere in the middle. I may have given up on American Idol after about 8 seasons. I have watched bits and pieces but couldn’t tolerate the bickering of judges with dubious qualifications or the contestants I just didn’t think were as good as my friends. But this season was different. First, it was the last one (in this incarnation, anyways), so I thought I should give it another chance for old time’s sake. Second, I discovered one singer that intrigued me, Trent Harmon. I saw his audition and thought “oh boy, he’s different, I’m interested” (and I was introduced to Allen Stone, amazing!). Plus, I heard Harry Connick Jr. say to him in his audition “this competition needs you as much as you need it”.

I started DVR’ing so I could watch his part on the show. I watched group week where he had to sing solo because of getting mono and I thought “yikes, this boy is committed.” I started to think of him as more than just another contestant. I was introduced to Chris Stapleton (am I the last one?) when Trent sang “What Are You Listening To”, and proceeded to buy Stapleton’s music and tickets to his concert! And then I just saw this transformation occurring in Trent. He came into the competition with strong vocals but some suggested he work on his facial expressions and stage presence. And as the weeks went by, he took the feedback, made adjustments, and figured out how to connect more with the audience.

He also worked on his voice – it became rounder, purer and more controlled (in a good way!) as was evidenced in the episode where he sang Sia’s Chandelier. That was the moment I thought “he has a real chance to win this thing!” I couldn’t stop playing the Youtube video, it gives me goosebumps every time. And then Keith Urban picked Parson James‘ song, “Waiting Game” the following week and I was blown away once again – the beautiful tone, the wide range, and a magical transition from falsetto to chest voice (that I kept telling my musical friends, “hey, listen to this!”). If I could have purchased Chandelier and Waiting Game right then and there (throw in Unaware, Simple Man, What Are You Listening To, and Tennessee Whiskey, ha!), I would have done so in a heartbeat! And then after much final frantic voting and telling anyone I could about him, he went on to WIN it all! I was just amazed and got super emotional, as it was such a great bookend to a show that has been around for so long.

So here are the 5 things I learned from American Idol, and Trent Harmon 🙂 …

1. Bonding over music is never a bad thing. In the early days when my friends and I watched it, we argued, took polls, made pizza pot pies, drank wine, stayed up late. Yes, we were all music nerds and singers of various sorts. But it was like March Madness college basketball to us! Some of my favorite memories are big discussions about my passion for David Archuleta vs. others’ for David Cook OR even earlier the debates between Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard. It was FUN! Those are friends I have to this day, and we still debate on music. I can see the contestants had similar friends who will serve them well in the years to come.

2. Hard work can make you an overnight success. 🙂 Trent said he worked hard and that he didn’t expect to win, rather that he “prepared to win” (to quote Bobby Knight). I know some people brush off American Idol as a glossy TV production, but I not only saw hard work visible and pay off during the show with Trent, etc., but also in careers post-show for Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Chris Daughtry, etc. As Thoreau said “Success usually comes to those who are too busy to be looking for it.” Just keep working and doing your thing, and success may come or not, but if you don’t do the work, it will never happen. And then of course I’m reminded of Steve Jobs, who said “I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance.”

3. Music has power to communicate like nothing else. Oh my, when I heard Chandelier this season, I was completely transported to another dimension and just started crying from the sheer beauty of his rendition. And for someone else, it will be some other song or type of music. But when you can evoke such reactions from people just through music, you have the power to change the world. I’m reminded of the David Archuleta season where I also had “Imagine” on repeat, or Katherine McPhee’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. And for me sometimes it’s 2 notes in a song! and from random varying genres – classical, pop, country, jazz, etc. – that just breaks me down. And what American Idol also did with the voting was make people tap into what affected them; i.e., Trent’s music resonates with me, but not others. And that’s the beauty, there is no wrong answer with music!

4. Technology and art are entwined. I just saw on Twitter recently from Eric Whitacre “Art tells us who we are. Technology tells us who we want to be.” I’d love to philosophize on that a lot more, but I’m at least sure they are inextricably linked. Social media – case in point. When Idol first started, there was no Twitter, Instagram, etc. We voted via phones and text! So this season, as I started following Trent on American Idol, I checked out his socials and I also caught him on Periscope and Facebook Live. It connected his fans with him and his life like nothing else had before. I felt like I was able to encourage him by commenting, even though I’m sure he has no idea who I am. Of course now that he’s won, his audience has grown significantly and that’s when some negative responses can creep in. I truly hope he will be able to navigate it all, avoid the destructive aspects, and stay true to the art of music.

5. Use your platform to spread kindness and love. One thing I very strongly did not like with American Idol was the focus on allowing very bad singers through just for shock value and sensationalism in the earlier seasons. I was happy to see in the final season that the focus was more about actual singing and performing abilities. And I was also pleased to see the judges providing constructive feedback that the contestants could actually work on each week. And it made me think – we need to use our voices or platform for good, whatever that means – small circles or huge audience. I also just saw a wonderful documentary film, “What Would Beethoven Do” and in it Benjamin Zander of the Boston Philharmonic says something like “most people want fame, power, or fortune – I just want to see shining faces” [of children/others enjoying music]. Positivity, humility, kindness, love conquer all in my opinion, and I also saw Trent representing those values.

So there you have it, friends. American Idol, good bad or indifferent, had an undeniable impact on America these past 15 years and definitely made an impression on me. I hope all the best for the winner, Trent Harmon, and all the contestants as they move forward in their lives. I certainly know that I have been changed … for good. 🙂

2 Replies to “5 Things I Learned From American Idol”

  1. Mary-Ann Schreiner

    One thing about moving so much is that I lose touch of what is current in pop culture and am often a season or two behind. I often rely on you and your recommendations to find new and interesting music and artists, and I am never disappointed! (Black Keys, The Stray Birds, Diana Krall, The Little Willies, Phillip Phillips to mention a few). I love this continual ‘bonding over music’ that we share and thankful for your love of music to keep the recommendations coming! p.s. Chills, absolute chills when listening to Trent Harmon’s rendition of Chandelier, thank you.

    • Hope Post author

      Aww that’s sweet. And I have learned about music through you, too! How would I ever know Blue Rodeo or Sam Roberts Band, Buena Vista Social Club, Tragically Hip, Vampire Weekend, not to mention the entire Afrobeat genre with Fela Kuti, etc. I loved our time in NYC and Africa listening to music and singing, and dancing. Hehe. I love having friends who appreciate music and all different kinds!


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