Idol's secret fan base is really parents pawning their love for the show on unimpressed children.
The crowds come from all over Los Angeles' plethora of suburbs, across the U.S., and abroad, but generally not from Hollywood itself, except for people like me with an open schedule and an appetite for spectacles. Most of them are visitors to Hollywood expecting glamour, startled to learn that Hollywood is a ghetto and the Kodak Theatre, home of the Oscars, is part of a tacky commercial development that also includes a mall and a hotel. The red carpet literally goes past the Mac cosmetics store and Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, and over such notable Hollywood Walk of Fame stars as Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, Britney Spears, and of course, Ryan Seacrest. Heading down the road to see the carpet rolled out for American Idol's finale was one of the most quintessentially American moments in my life, more so than seeing a Hummer with a "no blood for oil" bumper sticker.
I don't know where the AI producers pick up the busty 15-year-old girls that they prop up front during their live tapings because they sure weren't the ones screaming at Hall & Oates strutting down the red carpet. They also weren't the one's carrying around "Marry Me Constantine" signs or wearing sparkly AI t-shirts in front of the Kodak Theatre. The teenagers I saw were slumping behind their frighteningly zealous parents hoping to escape the many cameras scanning the crowd. One Midwestern mother elbowed me in the chest while trying to grab the camera from her un-cooperative teenage daughter so she could snap a picture of Randy Jackson. Parents tried to rile up their offspring by screaming, "Look! It's Paula Abdul, honey! Aren't you excited?" The kids weren't buying it. The teenagers' only role in AI is to be the scapegoat for their parents viewing, as in, "Our daughter sure loves that show so we watch it every week, and oh my GOD, was Constantine robbed! I voted fifteen times for him. There's no way he got the least votes."
The contestants who make it to the finals get there by jogging the memories of baby boomers. My parents, both in their 50s, are rabid AI fans. A Lynyrd Skynyrd addict since the '70s, my dad loves Bo Bice so much that he downloaded his AI performances off the Internet and made himself a mix CD. Curiously, since they have an empty nest and can't blame their viewing on kids anymore, my parents accuse each other of being the culprit behind the TiVo season pass. My mom dismissively said to me on the phone, "Well, you know how your dad feels about that show," but my dad called her bluff and put on an unseen episode on the TV. She quickly tried to get me off my phone so she could get her fix, but angry about competing for my parents' love with a friggin' TV show, I blurted, "Vonzell loses" before she could hang up on me. She didn't call me back for almost a week.
I'm sure for every pair of middle-aged rockers like my parents, there's a couple of country families begging for Carrie Underwood's western twang, and R&B parents loving Anwar Robinson's groove. Despite the genre wars, the voters do require contestants to manifest genuine talent consistently. Belting may not be the skill that all of us enjoy to see most, but it plays well through the TV in 90-second spurts and provides emotive throwbacks to Aretha Franklin, Dolly Parton, and Elton John that get those shriveled, but not yet liver spotted, fingers dialing in votes. Someday I hope to be an old bag pissing my kids off by pushing whoever sings "Smells Like Teen Spirit" to the next round with the re-dial button.
The older viewers are less interested in sexy girls with belly button rings, at least while viewing with the family, than they are a wholesome good-gal like Underwood. The adolescent boys who are transfixed by the hotness aren't voting because they're slinking off to their bedrooms at the end of the show to beat off in private, leaving their parents unsupervised with a list of toll-free numbers. In the most recent season of American Idol the teenyboppers -- Lindsey Cardinale, Mikalah Gordon, and Jessica Sierra -- were the first to go, because the frenzied text messaging of teenage girls around the country was drowned out by older people dialing up for their favorite reminder of lost youth.
The boomers don't enforce the recording industry's standards of beauty. Women like Kelly Clarkson and Underwood can get ahead as they are, while already skinny Jessica Simpson fades into what resembles a young boy dressed as Skeletor for Halloween at the request of her recording label. If AI ratings are any indicator, it appears that the industry overestimated America's superficiality when it comes to pop stars, so perhaps we can kick Brittany Spears and Jennifer Lopez off the stage and go back to having singers who can sing, instead of lip syncers who can dance.
The women that get ahead with AI aren't sexy, they're saving their goodies for Jesus. I estimate that contestants who thank God after their songs, male and female, get at least a 10 percentage point bump in the voting, 20 if the biographical footage shows their church. The voting spike for singing about America or freedom must be astronomical. AI has never had a winner that doesn't think God is great and reflect pro-American and Christian values consistently. There's also never been a winner that didn't come from the area of the United States commonly referred to as the Bible Belt. The votes weren't fixed against Constantine Maroulis, he's a sexy rock 'n' roller from New York City. Haven't the conspiracy theorists ever seen a Pace Picanté salsa commercial? Anyone who thinks that Queen wouldn't lose to Skynyrd in a popular vote probably hasn't seen an "AIDS kills fags dead" t-shirt or a Confederate flag on a belt buckle the size of a turkey platter, complete with bottle opener.
The great mystery of the season is Scott Savol. He's a convicted domestic abuser with a quality that actually makes me afraid to look when he's on TV, as if any moment he could snap and start shooting at the judges. He doesn't reflect good Christian values and is a terrible performer, yet he made it to the final five, which shockingly means that wife-beating is less offensive to the producers than posing nude to pay for college, for which season two contestant, Frenchie Davis, was kicked off the show. The only explanation I can fathom for Savol staying on as long as he did are the strangely obsessed folks over at www.votefortheworst.com, a website that campaigns for votes in favor of the worst singers. The website's creators believe both that all the voting is fixed and that they're actively affecting the outcome, despite the contradiction, but I'm inclined to believe only the latter because I just can't conceive of another reason why that creep made it so far.
As a country, we have to believe that hard work wins us rewards because that's the American Dream. In an economic climate that is yielding fewer and fewer success stories, AI gives us an effigy of fame earned with talent and perseverance that is satisfying to watch. The closer the winner is to each of our values and background, the more gratifying the victory. Ashley and Jessica Simpson come from a place of fame mongering that values publicity more than artistry, and even though our kids buy their CDs, we don't really respect that, especially not hard-working adults who need to get dinner on the table.