Sunday, March 09, 2008

American Idol 

I typically only watch American Idol in the beginning, to watch the car wrecks and insane people trying to get on TV. I love freaks, it's true.

And so I was doing a little reading over at Television Without Pity and found this wonderful rant about the whole show that I thought I'd pass along.


Simon Cowell speaks with the authority of dollars. It is not in Simon's interest to tell us that we are better, on the mean, than we are. When Simon says "people" will think something or "people" will assume something, he's not making a judgment on you or me, he's making an aggregate statement of fact. "People" means a specific self-identified group of people whose money talks. If you're reading this? You are not "people." He is not talking shit about you as an American, for example, if he says "people" will be confused by the fact that you're singing a classically Whitney song. He's not even really talking shit, he's just saying: "There are people who will be confused by the fact that you're singing a classically Whitney [or thus classically female] song. And those are the people that -- sorry, internet -- matter." There's no judgment in it: not for the singer, not for the song, not for the audience and not for us, here, talking now. There's a difference between thinking and feeling, and it really seems to trip us up when it comes to Simon. Simon doesn't care about truth or souls or spirits or the nature of our innate talent.

The music industry, and thus Simon's version of American Idol, does not follow The Harry Potter Model of Imaginary Folk Tales, in which a person's innate wonderfulness or secret gift is what gets them famous. Simon has never once uttered a qualitative opinion in the history of the show: he talks about quantitative facts, his opinion about marketing and salability. If you want to be famous and make lots of money, ask Simon. If you want to feel special and like the only magical girl in the world that can talk to dragons and unicorns, by all means talk to Paula.

But only one of them is going to tell you which rough edges to rub off in order to make boatloads of cash. If you're attempting this show -- or watching it -- in the hopes of playing out the Paula narrative ("some people wait a lifetime for a moment like this"), the show is going to do its best to sell you that vision: FANT ASIA will come back and perform, the hideous undead shade of Clay Aiken will stay a virgin forever, Elliott's melting teeth will get veneers and we'll all live happy ever after. The show needs you to believe the Paula narrative, because it's the reason we watch: we all secretly know that if Simon, Paula, and Randy were sitting in our bathrooms and heard us singing in the shower, they'd start spontaneously crying and give us a check. However, the show is duty bound by physics and the supply/demand curve to simultaneously follow the Simon narrative, which is: lose some weight, cut that hair, sing your heart out, walk the line between total cliché and total rebellion, be good enough but not too good, that you land in the middle group, where all the money is.

It's Super Tuesday all over again. Simon says the real world is full of hard choices and corporate imperatives: our duty is to stay fast to the straight, hard line of reality, even if it costs us, because victory depends on truth and not hope. Paula says the entire point of dreams is making them come true; that the real world results inexorably from the choices that we make, and that by positing unlimited potential, we can get better and better every second of every day.

Experience and change, change and experience. But what the show demands is not a smart median between those two narratives, but an impossible cataclysmic simultaneity of both; the journey from auditions to Chair to Semis to Finals to crowning is just a competition to see who can best embody both narratives simultaneously.

Every elimination and every weird moment is an expression of the tension between those two stories, and no less for the viewing audience, who is asked to constantly shuttle between those two viewpoints. Are we voting for Jason or David A. because they're implicitly, Harry Potter-ishly special? Or are we voting for the various Simon favorites because Simon's right, and they're what sells? And who do we fight with when we can't resolve those opposites except each other?

When the whole show comes down to Tyra Banks endlessly eating her own tail and being eaten, consumer-as-consumer-as-consumer, I don't know that we can really blame ourselves for the resulting craziness. It's too much responsibility at once, but it's also addictively no responsibility at all -- total power as a voter and fan, zero power as a consumer of product; having those competing visions sold and told to us again and again every single week -- which is why it's the biggest show on TV and probably always will be.

Luckily, this is just entertainment, and not politics, so either way we win. Because what a fucking circus.

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