In our forties, we often get a second shot at pursuing dreams we’d put on hold to focus on careers, marriage and kids. For me, one of those dreams was to become a singer. But according to American Idol, the national showcase for emerging vocal talent, it’s too late. I am just way too old.
In 2004, American Idol decided to increase the maximum age for contestants from 26 to 28 years of age. The minimum age, 16, remained in place. The reason for the change, explained FOX programming chief Gail Berman, was that the network felt too many talented “older” people had been turned away in prior seasons.
What I want to know is this: why must American Idol impose an age limit at all? Musical knowledge and ability don’t peak at age 28. According to Joni Wilson, renowned voice trainer and performance coach, "There is no reason for the voice to age except for poor voice technique." And American Idol knows this. FOX’s Berman stated, "I'm sure there are people who are tremendously talented above that age, but we're talking about people who hope to have pop careers afterward."
So, according to FOX, people over age 28 can have tremendous talent. They just can’t expect to be pop stars. Well, I guess no one told that to Sheryl Crow, Daniel Powter, or KT Tunstall, all successful pop artists who each had their first record released when they were past American Idol’s age limit. Older touring acts are some of the industry’s top sellers – just look at the Police, the Rolling Stones and Madonna. They’re all over 50 years old, practically geriatric by American Idol’s standards.
Age is the single demographic characteristic regulated by the show. The only other requirements are that a contestant be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident and not have a recording contract at the time of his or her audition. A contestant can be of any ethnicity, income bracket or sexual orientation. They can even be (like this season’s David Hernandez) a former male stripper. They just can’t be “older.”
Winning American Idol doesn’t guarantee a successful pop career anyway. Yes, Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood have been hugely successful. But Ruben Stoddard and Taylor Hicks haven’t fared as well. Does that mean men should be barred from the competition?
Of course not. Musical stardom is a chancy dream for anyone to pursue; the odds of making it are miniscule. But making predictions based on a contestant’s age is plain discrimination. American Idol should accept contestants on the basis of their talent, not their age, and let the audience decide who has the most appeal. Only then will we really know what Americans want from their pop stars.
And only then can I audition.