Mariah Carey’s $17 Million American Idol Contract Moves the Show Further Away From What Made It Great

Reality talent shows used to be about achieving the American Dream. Now, it's about the biggest celebrity judge.

I spent the summer of 2002 cheering for Nikki McKibbin, the American Idol contestant with candy-colored hair, a perpetually bared midriff and a powerhouse voice that was great for ballads. My then-boyfriend and I spent many evenings plopped in front of the television, addicted to the drama of the reality competition. It was frivolous summer TV, but it was also compelling enough to keep us tuning in several nights a week to see our favorites advance to the next round.

We rooted for some singers and actively rooted against others, sometimes for arbitrary reasons. (We were particularly offended by local boy Justin Guarini’s Sideshow Bob hairstyle.) When Kelly Clarkson won, it felt like she’d achieved all her life goals in that one moment. (Even though her emotional rendition of “A Moment Like This” left a lot to be desired.) And even if it sounds silly now, just thinking about it reminds me of the feeling that “hey, maybe I could do that, too.”

When Idol began, it felt like an opportunity for average people—at least the ones who could carry a tune—to achieve the American Dream of success. If you worked hard, stayed strong and were talented, you could get a chance to fulfill your dreams—for the contestants it was professional singing careers, but the message translates to just about any goal you could have. The stars of the show were the regular schmoes who were fortunate enough to advance through audition rounds. The most famous judge was Paula Abdul who had been out of the spotlight since the mid-90s.

In the years since Nikki McKibbin and Kelly Clarkson, American Idol has morphed into a show about celebrity judges. Since Abdul’s departure in 2009, there’s been a slew of celebrities sipping from giant Coca-Cola cups and jeering at contestants. Ellen. Steven Tyler. J. Lo. And the same goes for similar reality competitions like X Factor, The Voice, So You Think You Can Dance?, and America’s Got Talent.

This week, Mariah Carey become the latest addition to Idol. For a cool $17 mil, she’s joining the judges’ panel and rumors have it that country superstar Brad Paisley is also on tap to judge.

As I was reading this latest news about the Idol changes, I tried to remember who won the competition last year. (I had to look it up: It was the monotonously named Phillip Phillips.) I watched The Voice with embarrassing regularity last year but I can’t conjure up the name of one contestant, because my memory is clouded by vision of Christina Aguilera’s Snookie hair and Cee-Lo Green’s weird cat fetish. The shows have stopped being about making great strides toward dreams. Instead they’ve become platforms for high-paid celebrities to show off their latest quirky personality trait or regain some positive public recognition after bad PR or a hiatus.

And I’m way less willing to spend my nights cheering for that.