On American Idol, complacently average Americans can cast cathartic votes for their favorite dork contestant to heal their inner ugly duckling. But don't mistake the winners for actual artists.
If the logic of contemporary fame is any measure of the hobbling evolution of the American dream, then it's time to take the poor dear out to the barn and deliver mercy in a single hot lead load. Reality-television achievement has become the second lottery, where hard work and talent are trumped by self-exploitation and displays of creativity so oatmeal gray that even Goldilocks herself would cry, "This porridge is just shit." American Idol replaces the idea of the artist toiling in obscurity, driven by unquenchable passion to create something lasting and meaningful, with the plucky karaoke drive-by. In its maudlin straining for packaged uplift, American Idol offers something for everyone. It's the television equivalent of the velvet paintings sold from the back of roadside pickups: Hipsters love the kitsch value of aesthetic slumming and true believers think that the fuzzy sunset will be absolutely inspiring next to the framed copy of the Footprints poem. Kelly Clarkson, you are a plastic dashboard Jesus.
Considering American Idol in an artistic context would really be a petty bit of cruelty. No one truly believes that the next John Lennon or Billie Holiday is waiting in line at a local mall with visions of Barry Manilow covers stage-diving in her head. Were such a uniquely gifted soul to make the tragic mistake of auditioning, no doubt they would be acid-bathed by Simon Cowell, the queen of pop fascism, who would make short, quippy work of their massive talent with eye-rolling, arm-crossing, and insults caked in Downtown Julie Brown Britishness. Oh dear, what a naughty bitch! Can you believe he told some poor soul that they sucked, given the show's larger commitment to spreading a mildly higher grade of suck?
Far more central to the show than whichever sap gets chosen to be the winning product is the catharsis American Idol provides for its cell-phone-voting viewers. Even our plastic saviors can provide insight into all the hopes, dreams and desires we project onto our inanimate talismans. What's worth salvaging in the American Idol underverse is the voice it gives to the viewer's impulse against corporate-radio image conformity, an unconscious aversion to the idea that only the immaculately beautiful should hock pop pap. Clay Aiken's rise has as much to do with old high school wounds as it does his show-tune gas leak of a voice. Dorkmaster Clay, concave, zitty, pasty and stumblingly gender-bent, represents the person most of us have had to be, surrounded by those we believe to be untroubled, beautiful and unjustly privileged. When Clay made it all the way to the runner-up slot, you could almost hear everyone stabbing the X-Acto knife into the photo of their senior-year nemeses. Ugly gay-accused virgins shall inherit the world, you perfect fucking bastards! It was like watching a brat-pack movie makeover montage, where suddenly even the cool kids notice Molly Ringwald's tits.
Though black contestants, who insufficiently mirror the wounds of Red State dialers, tend to get shafted in Idol's preliminary voting, Ruben Studdard certainly represented a victory for plus-sized people of soul everywhere. That the fat one and the geek were chosen in tandem shows how much viewers, when jostling the levers of fame, hunger for their own validation. Even easy-on-the-eyes Kelly Clarkson does not fit the heroin-whore model of celebrity beauty. Moreover, Clarkson has churchy goody-goody-gumdrop-osity; she practically floods the space around her with toothy spores of prairie-dress positivity. Even I unconsciously root for her as the anti-Paris Hilton, an unpampered public figure who appreciates her luck and privilege and makes me want to shepherd the elderly across crosswalks and save ants drowning in drops of rain. Talent before superficial attractiveness, we cry, in a contest decidedly bereft of either.
Of course, American Idol, like those ugly-duckling Molly Ringwald movies, are more about a reversal in the order of cool than destroying the hierarchies of cool themselves, otherwise Clay wouldn't have had to ditch the bad clothes, the bedhead, and the garage-sale glasses. But there's something right in the fumbling stab at rebellion, something that says, If this isn't about the music, then it should be about my self-esteem. Who can fault people for wanting to take a sack of oranges to the slavemasters of junk culture? After all, pop culture and corporate sadism sleep in the same blood puddle: Most pop culture images are designed to create gnawing emptiness that can only be filled by rampant consuming the in the pursuit of an unattainable illusion of perfection. People, we've got CEOs that need new private planes, so don't ease up on the self-hate that funds their expense accounts.
So why do Idol viewers abandon their beloved winners at the cash register? Few Idol records have sold well; they're underperformed only by the corresponding tours, which of course still float high above the appalling Justin and Kelly movie, which still has another decade before festering into camp. Perhaps it's because secretly we know that a game show is no way to pick a musician or find an artist. Art, for the people who do it well, is as much a vocation as the priesthood, and there's not a boardroom brown bag in America that will ever be able to tinker-toy their way into a formula for it. If Justin Guarini wants to make a lasting artistic imprint in the world, then he needs to dig deep beneath his pubic locks and tap into the savage geography of the human heart.
In the end, we don't owe Clay Aiken anything. Pop culture is a mutual manipulation society and once you've gotten cell phone vote revenge for that missed prom, dodge ball fiasco or schoolyard bully, there's no reason let your inner demons launch a cheapshot of an artistic career. Save your money and save the world from suffering through more bad pop Xeroxes from the show with telephone plebiscites instead of a gong. Hating the prettiest, slickest and skinniest myna birds on Idol makes for great catharsis that can be enjoyed from deep within the warm dent of your couch. Just remember to love and leave your false idols before they become tiny tyrannical gods in their own right.