American Idol and the Myth of Democratic Taste

by Rob Horning

1 July 2005

American Idol exemplifies the illusory power of voting when the system's core values are rigged. See also, American elections.

Original Idol Kelly Clarkson has managed to survive the stigma of winning her music contract through a game show, not to mention the ignominy of making a film with Justin Guarini, to earn grudging respect from critics in such places as The New Yorker, where Sasha Frere-Jones recently praised Clarkson’s hit-making instincts and her stolid determination: “Anti-poppists will have a hard time holding the line against Kelly Clarkson,” Frere-Jones writes, “who currently has the best rock song on the charts.” With Clarkson edging toward respectability and evincing some surprising cultural longevity, does her success then represent a vindication of the American Idol method for manufacturing pop stars? Is the ability to withstand the media glare and remain interesting (or at least tolerable) to a fickle television public week after week ultimately more important than actual talent?

American Idol exemplifies the illusory power of voting when the system’s core values are rigged. See also, American elections.

The rigors of its season-long schedule, with all the audience pandering and carefully orchestrated indignities involved, make Idol akin to American presidential campaigns, where one’s mere ability to survive the inane scrutiny, endless repetition, meaningless questions and contrived face-offs with one’s competitors proves one has the fortitude necessary for the national stage while proving nothing about the victor’s actual abilities. Both American Idol, and our presidential elections function as celebrations of voting for its own sake, showcasing our ersatz democracy in which you, the wise viewer/citizen, are endlessly applauded for “exercising one’s rights” by choosing among the limited options offered without questioning why they are so pathetically inadequate in the first place.

No one thinks the performers on American Idol are the best the country has to offer any more than they think the customary presidential candidates represent our nation’s best and brightest. But voting isn’t an expression of one’s confidence in the choices. It’s an expression of self-satisfaction in one’s power to choose, and have the choice tallied. Awash in the ideology of democracy, of the sanctity of having a right to one’s own opinion, we believe we are fulfilling our most exalted spiritual duty whether we’re trekking to our polling place on Election Day or phoning American Idol to weigh in on whose Elton John cover sounded better. Content with being heard, people become complacent about their paltry choices. The voting booth becomes the best political pacification tool ever invented by making passivity seem like participation.

It’s easy to see why token voting has happened in the world of politics. Few Americans have the patience for policy details (typically dismissed as “wonkery” that only a geek would care about). They are content to let all the terms of all political debates be set by pundits, lobbyists and professional activists as long as they get that one moment of pretend power every four years. But it’s less clear why viewers would abdicate control over aesthetics, over the kind of entertainment that brings them pleasure, over the culture that furnishes their fantasies and aspirations. Why would anyone invest any time choosing between a few pop idols dredged up by a game show? Why would one limit oneself to those meager options, when one can exercise one’s cultural tastes at any time in a myriad ways from a virtually limitless array of possibilities?

American Idol rests upon a contradiction in the ideology of democracy; it attempts to resolve the conundrum of everyone having a perfectly valid point of view on the one hand, and the majority always being indubitably right on the other. Taste is held to be absolutely subjective and yet is subject to the leverage that mass popularity brings to bear. The show captures in miniature what is generally true of art in a capitalist consumer culture, that we are free to register our aesthetic opinion in a “marketplace of ideas” that is always already circumscribed by the lowest common denominator of the largest feasible marketing demographic.

In the magic reconciliation the show tries to pull off, these incompatible ideas synthesize into the utopian notion that everyone’s taste has equal value in the culture, which the voting process certifies and protects. But really, our tastes and our votes have virtually no efficacy. The people whose tastes and votes do matter wield their clout in rarefied, decidedly undemocratic arenas to which average Americans have no access, whether it’s the lobbying nexus on K Street or the corporate boardrooms of the consolidated media conglomerates or the editorial meetings where the content of the nation’s news programs and lifestyle magazines are slated. Few of us will ever know this power; in fact, few of us like to acknowledge it exists. It’s much preferable to imagine an entertainment industry and government that simply mirrors our own wishes back to us. So our eagerness to embrace American Idol and the bland talent it puts on offer—certified as democratic by its very mediocrity—reveals just how much we’re willing to sacrifice to wish away the reality of this kind of omnipresent power. Before we’d admit its reality, we’ll listen to Clay Aiken sing and even pretend to like it.

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//Mixed media