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Idol running on empty

When American Idol debuted in 2002, I will admit I was excited.Getting a bunch of unknown, untrained singers to perform for SimonCowell, the surly British producer, was an intriguing concept —and whenthey showed the terrible audition tapes, I was hooked.

When American Idol debuted in 2002, I will admit I was excited. Getting a bunch of unknown, untrained singers to perform for Simon Cowell, the surly British producer, was an intriguing concept —and when they showed the terrible audition tapes, I was hooked.

I wasn’t sure what to make of a show that would create a superstar out of nothing, but when Kelly Clarkson won — far and away the best singer on season one, and maybe the best voice to ever grace the program — I was shocked.

Well, that was eight years ago and a lot has changed. After the 10 contestants left on this season get whittled down to one, Cowell’s taking off to host the U.S. version of The X Factor, the hit British TV singing competition, Ellen DeGeneres remains the new Paula Abdul without the endearing loopiness, and the show’s fans lost their ability to pick a winner a long time ago.

Idol, according to Fox, is staying on the air, but what they should really do is take a big red marker to their master programming schedule and cut the program out. They’ll never do that — it still draws around 20 million viewers a night, though that’s down significantly from the first few seasons (about 50 million watched the season one finale) — but these days it’s not adding much value to the lives of music fans.

The biggest disappointment has been its inability to create stars. Every season thousands of people try out for the show, so you’d think there would be at least a few more Clarksons out there. In reality, there’s usually one standout, and that person doesn’t always win. Take last year — flamboyant rocker Adam Lambert was a shoo-in, but the forgettable Kris Allen took the Idol title.

For every Carrie Underwood, there’s a Ruben Studdard; at least a few of the singers who do have talent but don’t win — like Jennifer Hudson — have still found successful careers. If the show entertains people, makes the network money and still produces a few big hits every couple seasons what’s the big deal, right?

Well, it feels like the talent is getting thinner and thinner. This season I only like Crystal Bowersox, a guitar-slinging Janis Joplin-meets-Tracey Chapman character. The rest likely won’t make a real mark once their Idol run ends. The quality of music put out by former Idol contestants is nothing to write home about either — besides Clarkson’s 2004 disc Breakaway, with Since U Been Gone on it, the offerings mostly add more noise to an already packed pop field.

Plus, there are other ways to discover new stars. MySpace and YouTube have generated a few big names. It might be time to make stars the old fashioned way again — through hard work and good music.