The show is predicated on the old fashioned idea that there is such a thing as excellence.
What makes American Idol such a national phenomenon? The show, well into its juggernaut seventh season on FOX, seems at first glace to be a cross between a high-school popularity contest and a season-long commercial for an artificially manufactured singer. It’s easy to be cynical. Yet, when you strip away the drama, the songs we’ve heard before, and the bantering judges, there’s something pure at the core: The idea that excellence exists and matters.
A PhD student could write a dissertation on the voting patterns in American Idol. While people won’t vote for truly bad singers, they will sometimes surprise us with their choices. Other factors mix with talent: musical style, race, and who wears leather mini skirts. There’s also that indefinable X-factor that boils down to connecting with an audience. The wild, unpredictable result of these cross-currents is something known as Sanjaya Fever.
Although AI exposes divisions in the American psyche, just like football, traffic jams, and Hannah Montana, you just can’t get away from it. It regularly gains enough viewers that it becomes a national phenomenon. These days, Starbucks and blogs have replaced water cooler conversations, but American Idol creates increasingly rare common ground. Two people, one of whom watches Charlie Rose and the other World Wrestling, can at least have a conversation about David versus Syesha, and whatever happened to Taylor Hicks.
The essence of American Idol is a rejection of this era of self-esteem mantras, kids’ softball games with unlimited swings, and partial credit for incorrect answers. AI presumes that excellence exists. Spine-jarring ineptitude also exists. Simon Cowell is the sharp tongued prophet of this ethos. While Paula tries to be encouraging and Randy tries to let them down easy, Simon doesn’t suffer deluded fools or mediocre talent. And he’s right. It’s better to be disabused of a fantasy than to waste time chasing something that is not possible. Some people got it. Most don’t.
People still instinctively prefer excellence to mediocrity. There’s something in the human makeup that seeks excellence in others and wants to achieve excellence in oneself. It might be singing, or it might be creating the perfect omelet, bowling the perfect game, or skating the wheels off the competition in a roller derby. We don’t want baseless self-esteem. We want to be truly good at something.
We keep coming to American Idol for those moments when ordinary people awe us, like last season when shy Lakisha rose up and rocked the house with a soulful rendition of “You’re gonna love me.” Or in this video, from the UK’s Britain’s Got Talent, in which a frumpy Paul Potts, car phone salesman, amazes the audience and demonstrates that talent and passion can come from the most unlikely of packages. Like the audience and judges, we have to stop and say “Wow.”
We’re not, as a society, amazed much any more. We’ve lost the sense of awe that comes easily to a child, or to those without the world just a Wifi card away. And so that’s why we watch, to laugh at the losers, yes, but also for that tingling of the spine, goose-pimple, hair raising up, tears in the eyes moment that is one of God’s greatest gifts to mankind.
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