Of course, it’s doubtful these factors mean much to the people who make American Idol, or any other reality show. For programmers, the most interesting aspects of the new format concern budgets and scheduling. Much has been made of the cheapness of reality TV, an assertion that centers … the fact that its players don’t command the escalating fees actors on successful series have pulled in for the past several years. These extraordinary sums (Ray Romano, for example, received around $2 million per thirty-minute episode for demonstrating that he still hadn’t lost his Queens accent) are eventually earned back in syndication, but for whatever reason networks have decided that most reality TV won’t work in syndication. Often, they even eschew repeats during the course of a season, and because it’s difficult to stretch a series composed only of first-run episodes over eight or nine months, many reality-TV programmers have opted to air two or three “mini-seasons” per year. At first it seemed American Idol would follow the new pattern, but after the enormous success of the debut season, producers decided to limit the show to one four-and-a-half-month run per year. This bestowed a cachet on AI as the most successful of all reality programs, but it also allowed time for the Idol concert tour (2 million tickets sold, $40 to $75 a pop) as well as the production and release of albums by that season’s winner and selected runners-up.
Such a programming schedule might suggest that Dr. Piper was right: that American Idol is simply the most successful “good old-fashioned talent show” of all time. Simon Cowell seems to be reinforcing this notion when he chastises a particularly gruesome auditioner: “You’ve wasted my time. You’ve wasted your own time. You’ve wasted everyone’s time.” But Cowell’s reaction to a singer named Keith Beukelaer, described in his memoir and featured in The Best & Worst of American Idol Seasons 14, tells a different story.
To say that he was awful was an understatement—I had never heard anyone sing this badly in my life. He was so bad that I heard a crash in the middle of the audition and looked to the back of the room to see that one of the security guys had actually collapsed in laughter … I could hardly keep a straight face … “In my opinion,” I said, “you are the worst singer in the world.” What shocked me was how shocked he was. This guy had just murdered Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” and he was standing there amazed that I hadn’t praised his vocal.
Rather than scold Beukelaer off the stage, however, Cowell instead asked him to sing another song, during which he and fellow judge Randy Jackson made little attempt to hide their laughter. Let’s give Cowell and Jackson the benefit of the doubt and say they allowed Beukelaer to sing again in order to milk the joke (they’ve got enough to answer for with the singers they praise). But to focus on the humor inherent to bad singing is to miss AIs unique appeal (America’s Funniest Home Videos has featured such warblers for years, after all, and it’s a staple of the sitcom as well): namely, the moment when a deluded auditioner’s dream of fame and fortune is shattered before an audience—which is why, after Beukelaer finished his second song, Ryan Seacrest asked him over and over again how he was going to cope with the news that everything he’d pinned his hopes on was now gone. Indeed, after learning how much viewers enjoyed watching people receive these rudest of awakenings, producers added nearly a dozen audition episodes to capitalize on the spectacle.
But whereas most reality contests get nastier as they progress, AI takes a different turn: it gets nicer. The bad singers depart, the good singers begin to build a connection with the audience, and even with each other; the victors seem genuinely remorseful when one of the AI “family” is voted off each week. The last three months of American Idol are less a singing contest than a kind of litmus test of American tastes—not so much in music, since the finalists (and their singing styles) have been selected by the judges, but in people. Perhaps the first thing one notices is that all five of the show’s winners (and four runners-up) have come from the South, and from middle- or working-class backgrounds as well. Trailer homes and churches, rusted-out cars and blue Wal-Mart vests feature prominently on bio reels, further proof (as if W. weren’t enough) that anyone who uses a southern accent to invoke the tropes of southern charm and simplicity will have that claim taken at face value. On the one hand, there’s the inspiring story of season three’s winner, Fantasia Barrino, just nineteen at the time, and the single parent of a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. During the audition process, the self-described “baby mama” declared: “My lips are big but my talent is bigger,” a statement that practically became the season’s catchphrase, only to reveal in her memoir Life Is Not a Fairy Tale that she draws a picture of those famous lips in lieu of an autograph because she is a “functionin’ illiterate” who has to have lyrics read or sung to her so she can memorize them. On the other, there’s Kellie Pickler, also nineteen, whose pronunciation of the words “sal-mon” and “cal-a-MAR-i,” which grew broader in every iteration, became the running gag of season five. Naiveté? Or just playing dumb? It’s hard to say, just as many were left scratching their heads by Pickler’s apparently earnest rendition of Bobbie Gentry’s “Fancy,” a song about a mother who whores out her “white trash” daughter so the latter can have a better life. If, as Dr. Piper suggests, the appeal of this kind of innocence is in fact a reaction to September 11, it would seem to have less to do with a return to “traditional values” than with the quintessentially American belief in the moral purity of ignorance (of which, sadly, our president is again the most apt example).