American Idol began in the post-Springer era of Weakest Link, at a very specific time in television when audiences were just beginning to realize how much we revel in the pain of others. (To paraphrase Dominick Dunne, "You couldn't cut the schadenfreude with a chainsaw.") It masqueraded as a pop-star-making talent show, but its primary appeal was watching aspiring young singers have their confidence sliced to rib tips by the judge Simon Cowell, a no-holds-barred asshole.
But then Fantasia Barrino happened.
A 19-year-old single mom from High Point, North Carolina who sings with incredibly warm depth and emotive range, Fantasia was the first contestant with talent that transcended the flimsy, flashy, Branson-style gong show. And that talent did something neither Ruben nor Clay (and definitely not Kelly Clarkson), with their Rolling Stone covers and bestselling albums, were able to do: lent real legitimacy to American Idol as a voice in pop music.
Sure, Barrino's backstory helped, but it was her sincerity and expressive melisma that was the real winner (especially up against the overly manicured, Up With People stylings of Diana DeGarmo, who couldn't sing her way out of a paper bag at CC Slaughter's). Were it not for American Idol, it is possible Barrino's voice would have toiled unheard for eternity.
Watching Fantasia slay it on the final episode of Idol, and weep as she subsequently sang her heart out to the AI theme song, "I Believe," was a momentous, beautifully spine-chilling experience, and possibly the best live music televised in the 21st Century. Even the Beyonce/Prince coupling on the Grammys, which was terrific, didn't convey this sort of raw emotion. It was so good, Fantasia didn't just validate American Idol; she validated the entire existence of television. It was the heart and passion of one single woman imbuing a morally bankrupt medium with purpose--a mass dispension of tangible emotion on a tube that traffics in the unraveling of humanness and the willful disconnection of humanity. Fantasia Barrino is, truly, an American Idol.