Perhaps the biggest surprise on the show, however, was the “geek factor,” which entered the AI lexicon in season two, along with its paired concept, the “granny vote.” When Clay Aiken, a skinny redhead with protruding ears, first appeared on the show, judges were impressed by his voice but felt he didn’t look like a pop star. He was eventually cut, but during the wild-card round viewers voted him back in, and from there all the way to second place (in a close vote that may have been marred by technical glitches). The geek factor said something about American tastes (or at least about the tastes of the people who watch American Idol), but it also served as surprising proof that the winner of AI was in fact chosen by America, despite producers’ attempts to control the outcome through the amount of airtime early favorites are given, the finalists they pick, or clear tugs at viewers’ heartstrings (in season three, for example, apparently in reaction to fears that Diana DeGarmo might pull out an upset, Ryan Seacrest placed Fantasia’s daughter, Zion, in the singer’s arms after one of her performances). If the show’s makers can’t actually control who wins it, they have at least managed to engineer a slight stylistic eclecticism: in the first two seasons, the finalists were almost exclusively vanilla pop singers, from which came squeaky-clean Kelly Clarkson and “velvet teddy bear” Ruben Studdard (and of course Clay Aiken). Season three featured the so-called “Battle of the Divas,” resulting in a win for the gospelly Fantasia Barrino. In season four, AI actively courted country singers, giving us eventual winner Carrie Underwood. Producers also began featuring more rock-and-roll singers that year, which gave the show runner-up Bo Bice, as well as season-five winner Taylor Hicks (who also profited significantly from the geek factor).
But all of this only underscores the fact that American Idol, despite Simon Cowell’s many objections to the contrary, is less a talent show than a karaoke show. In his memoir, Cowell proudly reports he was labeled “the Antichrist of the music industry” early in his career for putting out records by the World Wrestling Federation, the Power Rangers, and a pair of popular television puppets called Zig and Zag. What he understood was that it’s not always about “song choice” or “the music,” as the AI judges so often say, but about the context that’s created for the person (or puppet, or action figure) singing—and American Idol, if not by design then by dint of its own success, has created one of the most powerful contexts for moving product the music industry has ever seen. Push too hard at any performance—even Kelly Clarkson’s Grammy-winning second album, which was widely said to have “distanced” the singer from her Idol origins—and you realize there is no there there. Nothing except an endlessly renewable resource of hopeful children, who, like the privileged recipients of a Golden Ticket in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, have been granted access to the sanctum sanctorum of their favorite thing in the world. If their youth doesn’t exactly render them blameless, it certainly excuses them from any real responsibility for the show and its effects. But if you can’t blame children, you can’t praise them, for the same reason; lacking full subjectivity, they can only merit emotional reactions, not moral ones. If we are being honest (to borrow another of Cowell’s catchphrases), we will admit that we can’t judge them: we can only judge ourselves.
“The position of the voyeur,” as Andrejevic reminds us, “enacts not the desire to see and control so much as the drive to ‘make oneself seen.’” Or, to shift the focus slightly, as Susan Sontag does in Regarding the Pain of Others, her essay on the history of war photography: “There is shame as well as shock in looking at the close-up of a real horror.” Although it seems inappropriate to compare war and, well, “a good old-fashioned talent show,” it is nevertheless this feeling of shame that best summarizes my reaction to the televised humiliations of deluded children who have placed all their hopes on a dream that, even if they did have talent, still has a one-in-a-million chance of coming true. The common rejoinder to this argument is that the contestants have placed themselves on display of their own free will. Many rejected auditioners claim that the experience itself has worth—only losers don’t try, as the old saw has it, and hey, in return for their public fall from grace, they get to be on TV. But it isn’t the images themselves that make one feel shame. It is, rather, the recognition that one is a member of a society that takes pleasure in such humiliations. Just as cinema anesthetized audiences from the traditional connection with live players, so did television further atomize audience members from each other. In the privacy of our own homes, we gawk at scenes that we couldn’t watch openly in public, and only after Nielsen has conferred its statistical, amoral legitimacy do we own up to the fact that we, like our neighbors, take pleasure in others’ pain. In essence, our one-way mirror has been reversed, as the activity of watching is revealed to be every bit as illicit as what is being watched.
Perhaps at this point it’s worth changing the channel to see what else is on. The one genre of “scripted programming” that seems not to have suffered in the wake of reality TV is the mystery in all its forms: cop shows, courtroom and forensic dramas, the quirky detective whose personality tics contribute to his increased powers of observation and deduction. If reality TV is in fact about watching a criminal activity, then it seems to be matched only by a fascination with seeing criminals brought to justice. So what crime do Americans secretly believe they’ve committed and want to have exposed? Is it the crime of inauthenticity, or that their authentic lives are base and greedy? Or is it the fear that the most talented society on earth can now do nothing more than imitate itself—that American life, like American Idol, has become a karaoke show (and an import at that)? If this is indeed the case, then American Idol represents both the failure of empathy and its inadequate balm, the crucifixion of a succession of deluded children smoothed over by the worship of a select few singled out for chance adoration. But in the midst of all this, it’s important to remember that something like AI is not cause but symptom: that watching TV, rather like voting, is one of those individual but cumulative experiences in which you can only respond to the choices placed before you. Given the fact that Americans have decided they don’t want their presidents to be real, why should we expect them to care about their pop stars?