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Is American Idol Ageist? On the Possibilities for a New Culture of Fame

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Popular culture favors youth. Celebrity favors youth. Many of today's icons of the Boomer generation achieved fame before turning 25, certainly by 35.

But unlike older generations, where many youth icons faded from superstardom after age 45, Boomer icons persist today, filling stadiums (Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Gene Simmons, and Bonnie Rait) and winning starring roles in movies (Richard Gere, Jessica Lange, Meryl Streep, and Sigourney Weaver, to name a few).

The Boomer generation's cultural hegemony is maintaining and even expanding veteran celebrity status for those well past 45, including all the aforementioned artists who all turn 63 this year.

In Marketing to Leading-Edge Baby Boomers (Paramount Market Publishing, 2005), I raised another possibility for the future of fame, if but a wish: that this nation would be capable of recognizing and elevating artists who do not achieve first acclaim until after the age of 45.

I proposed this possibility as another hopeful indication that Boomer dominance over popular culture will not fade as some critics predict; rather, the generation would continue to influence paradigm shifts about aging and celebrity appeal with more contemporary revelations. Undiscovered artists might step onto the international stage for the first time but later in life. These talented individuals would rise above ageism, looks-ism and longstanding social barriers to attaining acclaim after reaching a certain age.

After watching the ascension and victory of young Phillip Phillips on American Idol last Wednesday night -- the 21-year-old pawnshop employee from Georgia with a scraggly vocal style -- I pushed away from the eleventh Fox Network talent competition wondering what's missing in the annual line-up of would-be musical superstars. The finale program that catapulted Mr. Phillips to superstardom did not demonstrate any bashfulness about paying homage to previously discovered post-55 talent, including Credence Clearwater Revival's John Fogerty, Neil Diamond, Steven Tyler and Aerosmith and veteran country star Reba McEntire.

So what's the issue? As typical, all of this year's finalists were comfortably south of age 30. American Idol has failed to find and showcase new talent over age 45. The vast Idol audience seems to love a narrative of the sensitive-pawnshop-clerk-who-has-only-played-guitar-for-several-years storyline. But what about another gripping plotline? How about the seasoned music veteran who has played for 30 or 40 years, never achieving celebrity, but then Idol discovers this fresh talent, catapulting the veteran musician from obscurity to renown?

In April 2009, an understated woman opened her mouth and sang "I Dreamed a Dream" from the musical Les Misérables with nearly perfect pitch and clarity. The judges and television studio audience became flabbergasted, struggling to find congruency between what their eyes were witnessing and their ears were hearing.

Susan Boyle, then age 48, a church volunteer from lackluster Blackburn, Scotland, became an instant celebrity. YouTube videos of her unexpected performance on Britain's Got Talent, the UK version of American Idol, have received over 38 million views. According to Visible Measures, a company that computes viewings of Internet videos, her catalog of on-online clips was watched over 310 million times during 2009.

Following Talent, her shrink-wrapped CD, "I Dreamed a Dream," sold 701,000 copies in the United States during the first week; became the fastest-selling debut album in British history; and soared to the number one sales position in Canada, New Zealand, Ireland and Australia. Her debut album became the second-biggest selling album of 2009 in the U.S., with 3.1 million copies sold.

Equally thought-provoking is the manner in which fans purchased Boyle's album. Ninety-four percent of the sales were CDs, not digital downloads, which is counter to the prevailing trend where only 77 percent of music sales today are CDs. That means immense profits for the music publishing industry--sales levels not easily realized through downloading.

Older artists can achieve extraordinary dreams if given a chance. Western society has traditionally erected nearly insurmountable barriers before those who sought fame for the first time after the age of 45. Susan Boyle shattered those barriers. Now "American Idol" needs to grasp the potentiality and profitability of later-life talent, not on faith but because of monetary evidence.

When the culture of fame finally admits older newcomers -- those who have not spent months or even four years preparing for greatness but rather have practiced their art and nurtured their dreams for decades, as did Susan Boyle -- we can finally witness and celebrate the complete realization of human potential, unimpeded by race, culture, sex, prior socioeconomic status -- and most assuredly, age.