The Appeal of "American Idol"

Recently, I've become a somewhat reluctant devotee of the hit TV show "American Idol". I say "reluctant" because, as with my very brief stint of watching "Desperate Housewives", I find the show clashing with some deeper-held values of mine, yet still having a magnetic attraction of some sort. I recently read somewhere that more Americans cast votes for Taylor, Elliot, and Katherine than they did for George W or John K. That says something, doesn't it? Something about the power of media in America and the pull of popular culture. I suspect that "American Idol" has the appeal it does because it captures the essence of the American Dream: that, in America, with enough hard work and talent, anyone can make it to the top. It seems to sprinkle in a blend of populism and the appearance of grass-roots democracy which tap our collective psyche. On a darker side, the show is brilliant marketing and unabashed capitalism. The cynic in me worries that the music industry is in cahoots with the network and producers to exploit the performers for skyrocketing sales ("exploit" or is it, "partner with"?). I'm not convinced that the winners of the competition are necessarily the most talented; I suspect that, instead, they may be those whose constituents and home-grown support are the most organized and willing to phone in their votes. The appeal of "American Idol" is a great snapshot into many aspects of our culture, including its less-appealing attributes: a tendency toward image, shallowness, and superficiality. At the end of the day, "American Idol" blends school-age popularity contests, campaigning for class president, and beauty pageants, which, come to think of it, are also products of our culture, aren't they? Could it be that the show's popularity is a sign of its conceptual savvy: it's an admixture of democracy, reality TV, entertainment, and American cultural values? What do you think?

3 comments:

Mitali Perkins said...

On the plus side, the show provides our teens and tweens with an intro to all kinds of American music -- not just their own generation's. And it teaches them about how to listen to performances or evaluate musicians with a bit more discernment than what's in at school.

Confessing that you enjoy American Idol in highbrow circles is akin to admitting that you read People magazine for fun (I do both!)

Carl Hofmann said...

Mitali,
I hear you on the broader exposure piece, but I'm not convinced that Randy, Paula, and Simon are great examples of evaluative listening (well, maybe Simon's Brit snit is...).

Read two recent issues of People mag yesterday at the barber "so I can keep in step with secular culture." Ri-i-ght.
CSH

john said...

i think it appeals to idolatry, plain and simple. but i don't say that in a judgemental way. i think it is part of the human condition to create idols.

all of these "reality" shows reflect our desire to transcend ourselves, whether through detached voyeurism, or projecting ourselves into the lives of the participants.