Okay, I admit it. I watch American Idol each week. I can probably name on less than one hand the TV series I’ve ever watched regularly as an adult: Roseanne, The Daily Show, American Idol. There, I did it with two fingers left to type with. I’m just not a big TV watcher. So why Idol?
This is my second season watching the show. The first season I remained oblivious that the show even existed. By the second season I’d heard about someone winning the first season and it gave me another reason to sneer at American popular culture. Mind you, I never tuned in to the show, not even through the third season when I started spotting articles about some of the contestants in newspapers and magazines. The whole thing just struck me as so banal, emphasizing the worst aspects of the music industry and the most boring kind of music on the airwaves today.
Last year, Jojo and I started watching during the audition trials. We became ironic fans of the show, feigning indignation at Simon Cowell, being shocked when one of our favorites got ousted, feeling heartfelt sympathy for the touching stories of the contestants. Every so often, though, a genuine comment would sneak in. There were some truly talented people on the show, and I felt I learned things about that type of music performance from watching the show.
Our friend Teresa Tudury started coming up to watch with us. Teresa and I, both singer-songwriters, would listen with a critical ear to both the performances and the critiques. Neither of us are pop stylists, and we kept commenting that most of the best musicians we knew would never stand a chance on the show. How reflective of anything real or meaningful could it be? On the other hand, you had millions of people watching a show about music in people’s lives. What’s not to love? The show was getting under my skin.
This year there are some incredible singers on the show. I have about 5 favorites, and it’s fantastic to see what they’re going to belt out each week. I only rarely vote, but apparently this week there were over 35 million votes cast. Even allowing for people voting for multiple contestants, that’s a lot of viewers for this show that basically stresses taking your art seriously, working hard at it, and doing what you love. Lately I’ve been wondering whether it’s possible that over time American Idol could have a more significant impact on American culture than we’ve imagined.
When I was 16 the youth orchestra I played in toured Germany. We spent a week in Berlin, where my friend Carolyn and I stayed with a couple and their two young girls in a small apartment. One of the most shocking things to me about the whole trip was watching the family gather around the television each night, turn on the singalong show, and just sing at the top of their lungs for the whole half-hour. They weren’t being ironic or self-conscious, they weren’t sneering at the polka band on the tube, they were just having fun singing together. That may have been the first time I understood what a different, and more central, role music plays in other cultures.
Sure, Idol is all about marketing. The commercial aspects of the show — like how they milk 12 songs into 2 hours of television — drive me crazy, and have more than once made me swear it off. Even the celebrity appearances by the likes of Stevie Wonder and Barry Manilow can be seen as no more than savvy career moves, though of course it’s all for the love of music, right? The infighting between the judges is almost assuredly a calculated publicity stunt, to keep drama in the show and also increase the show’s media hype. There is a lot of artifice in American Idol.
And yet, and yet. It is always interesting seeing what feedback the singers get from the judges (though I find Paula Abdul mostly worthless). You can see the development of talent as these young artists refine their skills, learn what song choices to make for their audience, and figure out how to be themselves while also being the best performers they can be. What if American Idol’s audience learned from this how to develop their own talent, and become better singers and artists themselves? What if it raised the bar across the board for music performance in this country, while simultaneously encouraging more young people to go into the arts and work hard at it? We could have a true musical renaissance in this country.
Anyway, that is the hope, the wild card possibility, that the American Idol phenomenon raises for me. That is why I continue to be sucked in by the show week after week. (By the way, scientific testing shows that the best snack food to eat while watching is strawberries and chocolate covered pretzels.) It makes me unreasonably happy to think of so many millions of Americans sitting in front of their televisions every week watching people sing. Maybe someday we’ll sing right along with them.