Even in hindsight, the popularity of American Idol is difficult to explain, or at least to predict. Unlike the Swedish Expedition Robinson, which spawned the hugely successful Survivor, Britain’s Pop Idol entered the American market with little advance buzz. In fact, according to Simon Cowell in his memoir- cum-guide to stardom, I Don’t Mean to Be Rude, But , U.S. networks worried the show would be “another Popstars,” a previous British import that had been “a failure” for the WB. After repeated rejections AI finally debuted on Fox in summer 2002—at which point, to the surprise of everyone, it quickly became the most popular program on the air. “People kept telling us that we shouldn’t expect the success of the first season,” Cowell reports, but despite the nay-saying the numbers have only continued to grow, until what started as a mid-season replacement is now a “billion-dollar brand.” A super-chipper Paula Abdul elaborates: American Idol isn’t just a television show, it’s a phenomenon” that has sold 17 million CDs, generated 2 million concert ticket sales, moved $50 million in merchandise, and spawned 15 million text messages on top of hundreds of millions of telephone votes. During the fifth-season finale, a gleeful Ryan Seacrest announced that the single episode had received in excess of 63 million votes—“more than any president in the history of our country.” Since some individuals vote “up to 200 times” (a feat even Karl Rove would have a hard time engineering, with or without the help of Diebold voting machines), Seacrest’s comparison should be taken with a grain of salt. More quantifiable are the 28 million viewers who tune in to each season’s forty or so episodes, generating advertising revenues that surely dwarf the figures just cited. On top of this, dozens of spin-offs run concurrently around the globe: yea, verily, the sun never sets on the Idol empire.
These numbers seem even more remarkable when you compare AI to the competition: it lacks the dramatically grueling conditions under which contestants on Survivor or The Amazing Race labor, and, with the exception of a few hotel antics early in the season, eschews the risqué exhibitionism of The Bachelor or Temptation Island. But: “Who doesn’t love a good old-fashioned talent show, after all?” Terry Piper, Ph.D., asks in The Invisible Revolution: Clay Aiken and the Fans Who Made Him a Star, apparently not realizing that the answer, as Simon Cowell discovered when he shopped AI around, was American television audiences. Dr. Piper attributes the show’s appeal to “a general yearning” in the wake of 9/11 “for simpler times when more traditional values prevailed,” an assessment that seems a tad reductive, if not simply reactionary, given that almost every reality show to achieve success in the post-9/11 era proffers a straight‑ forward mix of sex and greed. Once AI was picked up, however, a few factors did work in its favor. For a start, reality TV had become the hot topic by 2002, and any new offering profited from intense industry and amateur scrutiny. Viewers responded particularly well to host Ryan Seacrest, AIs answer to Dorian Gray, and Simon Cowell, AIs so-called “nasty man,” perhaps the most popular figure television audiences have loved to hate since J. R. Ewing (or at least since Richard Hatch won the first season of Survivor).
But still, none of these factors—not even the pink-cheeked appeal of the show’s contestants, about which more later—explains such Malthusian success. In one sense, Paula nailed it when she called AI a “phenomenon—a happy confluence of circumstances sustained by the same banal yet powerful complex of mythologizing misperceptions that saddled the world with Star Wars and Harry Potter. Though hardly exempt from traditional exegesis, any analysis of such “phenomena” should be taken with the caveat that they’re stubbornly resistant to rational discussion. Nevertheless, before there was a “phenomenon” there was a television show, and that show is still being produced: still auditioned for by tens of thousands, edited to achieve certain effects, and watched by millions. Although not terribly interesting in and of itself, this show is part of the aforementioned wave of reality TV, a genre that has grown more amorphous as it’s grown more pervasive, until it encompasses everything from the hidden-camera shenanigans of Jamie Kennedy and Tom Green, the No Exit quarantines of Survivor and Big Brother, the in situ celebritas emplacements of The Osbournes and Newlyweds, and the game-show-by-any-other-name varietals of The Apprentice, Project Runway, and, of course, American Idol. As Mark Andrejevic points out in his comprehensive and insightful study, RealityTV: The Work of Being Watched, such shows “allow the audience to participate by proxy,” from which the genre derives a quasi-governmental legitimacy: just as politicians are drawn from the people they are said to represent, so too were the players in the first generation of reality TV culled from the general populace, and, on the most “democratic” of these shows—American Idol, the first season of Big Brother—could also be removed by audience voting. If, as they say, art holds up a mirror to life, then what could be more real than a one-way glass behind which a camera records a set of players who look remarkably like the audience at home?
The last year of the old millennium is generally credited as the birth of the new format, with Survivor, Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, and, to a lesser extent, Big Brother dominating prime-time ratings in 2000, but the concept had in fact evolved through any number of experiments in unscripted programming, including The Tom Green Show (1994), The Real World (1992), America’s Funniest Home Videos (1990), COPS (1989), The People’s Court (1981), Real People (1979), and An American Family (1973), all of which take a cue from Candid Camera, Allen Funt’s fly-on-the-wall show that debuted on the small screen in 1948 (after a less euphonious run on the radio as Candid Microphone), and which is generally considered the forerunner of contemporary reality TV.
Clearly, the mechanisms for unscripted programming were well established; what was needed to turn it into a sustainable—profitable—genre was an ethos. In the early 1990s, with little fanfare (and less ethical examination), surveillance footage from both public and private security cameras became a staple of news programs, and soon spread to the rising tide of “infotainment” magazines. The true-crime footage proved so popular that producers began chasing it down themselves—hence COPS, and the now-ubiquitous helicopter shots of suspects fleeing police pursuit. But if pursuing the action produced better results than waiting for something to happen in front of a bracket-mounted camera, how much more exciting would the results be if you provided the players themselves, as well as the incentive to act out on-screen? In the transformation from security tape to reality TV, the very concept of surveillance changed: from being a tool to detect and (at least ostensibly) prevent crime, it became a means of soliciting, if not criminal activity, then at least behavior that falls outside the purview of polite society. This shouldn’t be surprising. Think of our earlier metaphor of the camera hidden behind a one-way mirror. The setup, of course, is the eternal conceit of the cop show. In its initial incarnation, the person in front of the mirror didn’t realize he was being watched, and unwittingly confessed, either verbally or through visual cues; later, as the trope became familiar, the suspect knew he was being watched, but came to disregard the watcher’s presence simply because he was aware of it, and even to act out for the invisible watcher, so that he still ended up confessing. It is precisely this confessional dynamic that dictates the content of virtually all reality programming, the player exposed in the criminal’s chair, the viewer safely concealed behind the glass of his or her TV screen.
In this context, O. J. Simpson’s televised low-speed flight from police in 1994, and the months of trial coverage that followed, may mark the real beginning of reality TV. The Simpson trial put the Juice back in the public eye; it also gave us Mark Fuhrman, Marcia Clark, Johnnie Cochran, Kato Kaelin, and of course Judge Lance Ito, many of whom wrote books about their experience, and became well-paid fixtures on the talk-show circuit (a cross-platform branding that seems eerily resonant with American Idols marketing strategy, among others). Although opinion was divided, it seems fair to say none of these figures was regarded particularly well, whether it was Fuhrman’s alleged racism, Clark’s incompetence, Cochran’s manipulation of the judicial system, or Kaelin’s opportunism (or simply the fact that Simpson was widely perceived to have gotten away with murder). This was precisely their appeal: not as moral signposts, but as figures of entertainment detached from genuine moral (let alone legal) culpability. Viewed retrospectively, the dramatic reenactments and archival footage intercut with talking heads indulging in confessional yet self-justifying speeches—not to mention the constant promise by a smarmy host that things would get only more sordid as the story progressed—looks remarkably like contemporary reality TV, in which life is depicted as a kind of courtroom game where the winners aren’t the best people, or even the best players, but the ones willing to lie, cheat, or otherwise debase themselves to earn the rewards of celebrity and cash. As a corollary, it’s worth noting that the families of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman were widely perceived to have received “justice” not through the criminal-court system, but through the settlement awarded in civil court, which is dishearteningly in concert with a reality-TV ethic in which profit and loss have replaced right and wrong as the primary motivating paradigm.
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).
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?
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