“You have just invented a new form of torture.” -Simon Cowell
I’m going to lower the bar a little bit here. I have a couple posts of germinating – the attorney general, the sub-prime mortgage and credit crises – but I think there might be one thing out there that takes precedence. An image of a bound and gagged Simon Cowell can only mean one thing: I’ve succumbed. I’m not sure why I’m letting people know this, but I’ve been a regular viewer of this season’s “American Idol.” I’ve never done it before, I’m not sure I’ll do it again, but it hasn’t been half bad. In light of this evening’s drawn-out, overdone finale (and the relatively surprising conclusion), I’d like to say one or two things about “American Idol” – what it’s been, what it is, and why, despite its ridiculousness, it might be worth watching.
Full disclosure: I’ve fallen victim to the magic of the Fuller/Cowell production team before. When I lived in England in 2005, I sometimes stayed home on Saturday nights to watch “Idol”‘s British counterpart, “The X Factor.” If you lived in the U.K. a few years ago, you might remember Chico, the talentless-hack-turned-pop-culture-sensation and his bloody awful catch-phrase, “It’s Chico Time!” You’ll also know the joy of having a smart, articulate female judge (no skintight gowns and vacant, cracked out expressions for Sharon Osborne).
“Idol” is old news; a quick search of Salon, Slate, and The New York Times found few, if any, current articles examining the show and and all those things people used to talk about, like branding and vertical integration and the woeful disparities between voting totals in the season finales and the recent presidential elections. So I was surprised to see this article in last week’s issue of The New Yorker: a thoughtful overview of the forces that keep the show running – and consistently pulling in twice as many viewers as any other show on television. “Whatever objections you may have to “Idol”’s mechanics or style, it asks singers to learn material they may not know, and sometimes even to listen to the people who wrote the songs explain them. This is something that no other content-delivery platform does right now,” writes Sasha Frere-Jones, the magazine’s regular pop music critic. He adds, “Any enterprise that lets Dolly Parton expand on her work for an hour is adding to the common good.”
He also says the show is “a recurring event that almost everybody talks about at almost the same time,” and I think that’s what I, a relative latecomer to the “Idol” franchise, find so odd about this season and its media coverage, or lack thereof. Does everybody watch “American Idol?” It seems like it; I feel infinitely more tuned-in to pop culture because I can discuss the (vast) differences between David(s) Archuleta and Cook. There are a lot of news articles out there, but they aren’t really saying much. David Archuleta’s father is terrifying, David Cook’s showmanship is arrogant and unwarrented, OMG who’s going to win, Paula really blew it this time (that last one made the New York Times most e-mailed list, by the way). Why have we given up talking about how bizarre the entire enterprise is, or why, based on poor post-“Idol” record sales, we aren’t being a little more honest about the purpose of the show and the realities that will face its winners?
“American Idol” might define today’s American pop culture, but I don’t think there’s any way that we can say it defines American music culture. As far as I can tell, it hasn’t changed the record industry one bit. Perceptions have shifted: stardom seems accessible, even though the odds of beating out 100,000 other hopefuls just might be worse than pushing your musical talent the old-fashioned way. And can we talk about musical talent for a moment? Here’s the spoiler: David Cook, the “rocker,” walked away with the title and an apology from Simon Cowell for predicting an Archuleta victory the night before. And the important thing to know about David Cook? He’s not the world’s best singer. He has stage presence, he can reinterpret songs in an interesting way, and, maybe most importantly, he can cock one eyebrow, but he sings from his throat, sometimes shouting and missing a fair number of notes. Will he sell records? I have absolutely no idea. He’s not super hot and he’s not super talented, and the publicity wave “Idol” winners ride seems to get smaller with each passing season. But 52 million votes were cast in his favor. That’s got to count for something.
Why is “American Idol” worth watching? It’s entertaining: the embarrassing first rounds, the caricatures that the judges have become, the comedy gold (asked to sing “Memory” from Cats, likely stoner Jason Castro exclaims, “I didn’t know a cat was singing it!”). It’s cultural capital, sometimes interesting, sometimes excruciating, and somehow always topical. Are they going through the motions? Probably. Does it really matter? Not a bit. But don’t worry, America’s in luck: the new season of “So You Think You Can Dance” starts tomorrow evening.