What is the secret to American Idol? The 2000’s were the years of media fragmentation, and television was one of the first victims. But Idol tore through the decade like a freight train, regularly drawing ratings double or triple anything else on TV. It also, until recently, produced pop music stars on a fairly consistent basis, which perhaps defies the conventions of artistic success as much as, or more so, than the ratings defy demographic trends.
Well, anyone who has watched the show knows that the secret is that there is no secret: the show is hokey and honest and wears its heart on its sleeve, and we respond to it on the level it is presented to us. It’s important, when considering Idol, to distinguish between dual American fascinations—that of celebrity, and that of aspiration. Fascination with celebrity is usually considered an unhealthy thing. There is an element of guilt, usually openly professed, to peeping into the lives of the Kardashians or the Jersey Shore cast. We think they’re trashy; we think we’re trashy for caring.
Idol really has very little to do with celebrity, although those who make it far become one, for as little or as long as the public’s tastes dictate. The show is all about the American Dream, and try as those of us who like to deconstruct these kinds of things might, there isn’t much subtext to be found. Within the show, the American Dream really is alive and kicking, and there’s no reason to question it.
In relation to aspirations and the Dream, the audition weeks are actually more interesting than the competition itself. For all of these tens of thousands of young people waiting for hours or days in packed arenas, celebrity is obviously something they want. But watch the reactions, both to success and failure, and you quickly realize that desire for fame is secondary to a more primal need. The most repeated trope among both contestants and judges is the desire to validate what’s “inside of them.” This is a nebulous concept, true, but it is ultimately what causes the contestants to scream for joy or burst into tears. It’s also the most relatable emotion on earth. What happens in the unbearably tense moments between a contestant’s eight seconds of singing and the first words to come out of a judge’s mouth is repeated millions of times by us every day: in school, at PowerPoint briefings, on dates, in comedy clubs.
Of all possible contests, singing comes closest to a physical realization of bringing out what’s “inside” a person. The actual act is exactly that—producing a sound from within the body, giving it life in our shared reality. You can watch hundreds, or thousands, of people repeat the performance, and somehow the act doesn’t lose its significance.
During the competition, when contestants have been winnowed to a handful of people who might actually have chance to win the whole thing, the American Dream is at a level of fantasy. In that world, everyone is talented, everyone gets a shot. But the fascinating thing about the audition shows is that we get to see the reality of those kinds of aspirations laid bare. Most people are terrible. Many of the bad ones are clueless to the point of exasperation, and of those many express their innermost desires in a manner as poignant and true as the talented ones. They bring their extended families along, they march into the room brimming with confidence, and the millisecond they start singing you want to press a pillow over your face and disappear, because the world seems so cruel and hateful. And behind even the successful ones is another level of reality: yes, they’re good at singing, but there’s a whole bunch of people who are good at singing. The odds are largely impervious to our aspirations—almost none of them are going to achieve what they really want.
But, they keep coming, packing those stadiums, waving around those golden tickets. Ratings have declined the last couple of years, but they’re still way ahead of anything else on t.v.
The revamped judging panel looks okay to me. I don’t miss Simon Cowell as much as I thought I might—Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez both come off as too nice, but Tyler occasionally hints he might have an inner Cowell in him. In the New Jersey segment, they were not really specific enough in their criticism to be useful, I thought. Most of it was just–hey you can sing, have a little more pizzazz, etc. They occasionally criticized the contestants’ plain wardrobe.
It feels kind of unreal that we’ve reached Season 10 of the show. But the replicability of its success is stunning. It’s so simple! A televised singing competition. But watching New Jersey audition week, and revisiting the exact same feelings you had watching during Season 2, or Season 5, you begin to wonder if we should actually be way past even a tenth season by now. This could’ve worked in 1950. Or 1850. People may complain that they’ve tired of it, but I suspect most of those people just don’t bother to watch the actual show. No more Cowell, no more Paula, no more theme weeks, no more celebrity tutors. But the beat goes on. Idol is dead. Long live Idol.
Devin Rush, NY—she sang “God Bless the Child,” in an impressively arranged version, with a lot less syncopation than you’d expect from a gospel tune.
Travis Orlando, NY— “Eleanor Rigby” was kind of a cool choice, and I loved when they asked for something else and he went with Jason Mraz, noting, “yeah, kind of obvious, I know.” Cultural self-awareness in someone that young? Maybe it’s more common today, but it’s definitely something an Idol contestant can use to his advantage.
Robbie Rosen, NY