When a television show you love ends, it can feel like leaving home. But when a television show ends years after you stopped really loving it, it can feel like hearing that the house you grew up in—but have since moved far away from—is going to be torn down. You might not have the same connection to that place anymore, but you still feel that loss, and that loss makes you think about who you were when you lived there and how much has changed since then.
I haven’t watched American Idol in years, but for a brief time, that show and its fandom were my home. So before it ends tonight, I wanted to look back—not so much at the show itself (because people far more talented than I am have done that already) but at its impact on my own life as a fangirl.
I was an Idol devotee for its first two seasons. I had a picture of Justin Guarini in my high school locker and worshipped Kelly Clarkson. (Let’s be honest: I still worship Kelly Clarkson.) I saw the Season Two contestants on tour, and, yes, I will admit to casting more than one vote for Clay Aiken. That show was something my family—even my extended family—wanted to watch and talk about together, which was rare at the time.
But as time passed, I drifted away from Idol, only returning for occasional episodes and each season’s finale. In fact, it was during the Season Eight finale that I saw Kris Allen and Adam Lambert perform “We Are the Champions,” and I knew right away that I was in trouble. Allen had the cute, singer-songwriter vibe I always adore, and you had to be crazy not to be drawn to Lambert’s incredible voice and magnetic stage presence. When coupled with the genuine friendship I saw on display when Kris was named the winner, I knew it was only a matter of time before I fell down an Internet rabbit hole, trying to catch up on everything I missed during the season.
During my trip down that rabbit hole early in the summer of 2009, I encountered a LiveJournal community about American Idol, and it felt like finding a home. The people there were smart, funny, and just as obsessed with the show and its contestants as I was. It was the same magical feeling I got when I discovered my first Star Wars fan site and visited MuggleNet for the first time. I didn’t feel alone anymore. But I didn’t have much experience with actual fandom participation. Sure, I’d posted on message boards about So You Think You Can Dance and even had my own blog about my hometown hockey team, but this was bigger and crazier than a message board and much wider in scope than the Buffalo Sabres fandom. I was scared to make that jump from lurker to participant in the discussions.
But then it hit me: I wanted to be a part of this. I didn’t want to watch everyone else having fun and making friends like I did in the Alias fandom back when I was in high school. I wanted to have fun and make friends myself. So the night of the first stop on the Season Eight tour, I stopped lurking and started commenting, and I never looked back.
That summer was the most unique summer of my life. I spent countless nights upstairs on my old desktop computer listening to “cellcasts” (horrible cellphone live streams) of concerts and working to get our fandom to the top of the Twitter trending topics. I would stay up way too late waiting for the perfect pictures from tour stops and get up way too early to watch performances on morning talk shows. I even took my laptop on vacation with me to the beach so I’d never be too far away from the fun. (This was, of course, before I had a smartphone.)
And then I wrote. We used to have “Appreciation Posts,” in which we’d write about what certain contestants meant to us. And for the first time, I discovered that I could share my story with people by sharing the story of why I loved something that was important to me. And I discovered that I could learn so much about other people by reading about what drew them to the people and things they loved.
It was in those shared moments with other fans that I figured out what fandom friendship is all about. As I talked to my fellow Idol fans that summer—and throughout the year that followed—our conversations grew from favorite performances and how adorable Kris Allen is to opening up about our lives. And that’s what friendship is all about no matter where it forms: moving from shared appreciation of something else to shared appreciation of each other. And I needed that friendship. My time in the Idol fandom was a time of major transition in my life: I was getting ready to enter my senior year of college in Summer 2009, and by the next summer, I had my first full-time job. My Idol fandom friends encouraged me as I finished my senior honors thesis, cried with me after I left my college newspaper office for the last time, and gave me great advice about everything from boys to searching for jobs. Those friendships taught me to always be open to the possibility of making new friends—both online and in the world outside of fandom.
Some of those friendships have faded with time, and some were sullied by the same drama that plagues all big fandoms. But some of those friendships didn’t just last through changes in fandoms; they flourished. The Idol fandom is where I met the wonderful Leah, who is still my go-to person to text during sporting events and who so many of you also know and love. It’s where I met Nikki, who was the first fandom friend I spent time with in person; who took me to Erie, Pennsylvania, to see Adam Lambert in concert on my 22nd birthday; and who I still meet for lunch and dinner dates. And it’s where I met Heather, one of my best friends and someone who I now can’t imagine my life without.
Season Eight of American Idol brought a lot of people together who were going through huge shifts in their lives, and in its fandom, we found a place to belong. We found a home. In talking about a season that featured incredibly different people coming together, becoming friends, and making something special, a group of incredibly different fans came together, became friends, and made something special. And the sense of unity, understanding, and belonging that I felt in the early days of that fandom have informed everything I’ve ever done here at NGN.
Ultimately, I walked away from that fandom when it stopped being fun, and that taught me something, too: It’s okay to leave. If the drama gets to you, if you start feeling misunderstood instead of understood, and even if you simply don’t like the show anymore, you can walk away. The true friends you made will still be there, and it’s not like you’ll never find anything to love again. And walking away allows you to leave with good memories, which is how all fandoms should be remembered. You have to leave home sometime, but you’ll always carry a piece of that home and those people with you—no matter how many years pass or how many other fandom homes you have afterward.
American Idol helped a lot of people find their voice—not just on the show itself but in the fandom that built up around it. I’m one of those people, and I will forever be grateful to that show for being the gateway through which I found the community that would help me grow into a more confident fangirl and a stronger, happier woman.
Do you have any memories of American Idol you’d like to share or any stories of fandom homes you’ve had over the years? Tell us about them in the comments!