I know I’m not supposed to like it. I’m supposed to be snarky and somewhat hip about quality. But here it is: I unabashedly love American Idol.
Let’s be honest, though—the show isn’t about talent. This year’s finalists were a parody of a ‘70s rocker and the most vapid, mechanical performer of the year. While I’ve got no problem with Carrie’s voice, I couldn’t stand to watch her move, or her always expressionless face. Early on, I laughed at Bo’s performances—he’s just a parody of a rock star. The crowd loved his efforts to look like an Allman Brother, but that says more about the audience’s lack of experience with rock and roll than it does about Bo’s ability to get it on. Maybe I’m just an old cracker, but I’ve seen more original and less comical frontman acts from many a JD-swilling karaoke-er. Beard and cocaine bust or not, Bo ain’t the real thing.
A world weary music critic admits his guilt-free love of AI.
The judges? Paula: utterly clueless, but fortunately she adds an element of love to the show that’s sweet. I like to believe that she really did sleep with a contestant (or several), and at the end of each conjoining, she raised her hands and said, “That was incredible. I don’t even know what to say, you’re an amazing performer.” I like to think her “straight up” men believed her. Randy: I don’t think his ears work. Putting the word “pitchy” into the vernacular of our times certainly doesn’t mean he’s capable of hearing it. Dog, you need to get one of those back-of-a-magazine perfect-pitch courses. Simon: I love him; he’s a self-mocking, highly entertaining commentator, and his ridiculous analogies are far more often spot on than the crowd’s revved-up booing would suggest.
So why do I love a show that doesn’t reward talent and features mostly worthless commentary? First of all, I like to hate, to feel smug and to feel like I’m not really being an elitist because, heck, at least I’m watching. I’m trying to get over hating. ( I’m keeping the smugness because I’m smart and have been well-learnt in the arts of music). Every time there’s a results show, I get to sit in judgment not only of the contestants, but of all of America (or at least the millions and millions who vote). Every time someone I like gets voted off, it’s further proof that I have better taste than the general populace. The more I disagree, the better I feel; the better I feel, the more encouragement I have to disagree. Give me a few seasons and I’ll be applying for my own show.
Admit it with me: it’s good TV. There’s drama, there’s confusion, there are heroes who lose and underdogs who rise up, bad fashion, rad hair, people whose families are crying and week-to-week plotlines and I have to watch. The two-hour season finale went so far over the top that it came back around to good again. I’m reminded of Umberto Eco’s explanation that Casablanca succeeded as a film because it piled up cliches and archetypes so incessantly that it became a new, great thing. That’s what happens when Idol adds red carpets and confetti.
The quality of the television viewing has nothing to do with the show’s creators, performers, executives, or anyone. It happens in spite of all that, which probably adds to the pleasure of it all. To criticize the show for being goofy or stupid or unmusical is to complain that a comedy was funny, but not in the right places. Who cares, as long as you’re having fun?
Sure, there are levels of enjoyment—I won’t pretend otherwise. Some people like the music (really, they do, they must!), while others only find the cheesiness entertaining. Some people are swept up in the carefully-revealed and -developed narratives. I’ve zero interest in claiming that only shows that work on a certain level are good.AI is a show that simply entertains; whether it does so in the way intended or not, is immaterial.
And if you people are so sure that the contestants aren’t any good, prove it. These people aren’t about being musicians, but about being stars. If people like the contestants (whether they’re technically good or not), they’ve succeeded. They don’t need to write songs or play instruments (we can do this Brill-Building style if we have to), they just have to make people want to see them. It’s like Paris Hilton without the night vision and morning-after itch. Nothing could be more American than an idol whose fame is based only on his or her ability to establish fame.
Of course, some of these idols can perform, and don’t forget it. Kelly Clarkson just dropped a single—“Since U Been Gone”—that’s making even the indie kids stop and listen. Okay, critics, I’ll give you that the song’s strength lies in its production, but Clarkson lends a talented vocal.
Don’t forget this one, either: Fantasia singing “Summertime.”
It’s moments like that one where millions of people don’t just hear the same song, but see and hear the same performance simultaneously that make AI such a powerful phenomenon. These shared experiences mean that we have a thing—a text, an event, an artifact—to make talking about music more inclusive and socially useful. What makes a performance good? If I see Bo waving his mic stand around and laugh at the spectacle, reminded of too many bar bands and major acts I’ve seen do this (and neither with any greater or lesser amount of effectiveness), than didn’t Bo just connect? Is he relying on cliche or is he referencing well-known codes of rockdom? Is it real, a simulation, or the simulacrum? And shouldn’t anyone who would ask questions like those be banned from talking about pop music?
American Idol, in all its component parts, pretty much blows. But put together, it’s this giant, entertaining spectacle that opens up a world of conversation among any people with access to a television and an Interweb. It’s stupid, it’s fascinatingly boring, and it’s a cultural dream, like Ryan Seacrest’s fauxhawk.