Best in Show

Learning to love American Idol—the greatest popularity contest on earth

Illustration by Anita Kunz

Ten years ago in Tokyo on business, I was taken by my hosts, including a prominent young Japanese novelist, to one of the city’s karaoke emporiums, where you rent the sort of private room in which anyplace else on earth you’d expect a lap dance. That’s kid stuff to the Japanese, of course; with the lyrics projected on the walls, these randy revelers partied hearty to Monkees tunes, local hits like “Osaka Girl,” and what felt like 70 or 80 other songs as I gazed dimly at the screen in a sake-and-codeine stupor after having been sick for a week. Finally someone in the bar put on the Doors’ “Light My Fire.” “This is your song!” the Japanese novelist beseeched me. As anyone who knows me can tell you, sore throat or not, the chance of my singing a karaoke version of “Light My Fire” or anything else couldn’t be found with the Hubble Telescope. But since that night in Tokyo I’ve sung “Light My Fire” a hundred times in my head, and a few weeks ago, in the kitchen washing dishes, I heard my version coming back to me. Except it wasn’t in my head—it was from the family TV, which my ten-year-old son duly commandeered a couple of years back.

“Light My Fire” was a song I grew up on, having discovered it at 16 on my buddy Jeff ’s stereo. So as far as I was concerned, it wasn’t a song to mess with, many subsequent versions notwithstanding. Mid-groan, however, I noticed that the version coming from the TV was pretty good; investigating further, I was surprised to find it was the Michael Johns Australia-by-way-of-Georgia rendition in this season’s opening round of American Idol, where chestnuts by the Zombies are as radical as things usually get. What next? Dewy blonds from Oklahoma trilling “Anarchy in the U.K.”? I should confess that my kid Miles is the only reason the talent contest phenomenon, based on a British counterpart, infiltrated the house in the first place. The show was a phenomenon I found eminently resistible for five seasons, during which neighbors regaled me with the travails of Fantasia and Carrie and some guy who kept going on about his “soul patrol,” and professors at the college where I teach openly brooded over the existential dilemma of Kelly or Justin, a choice I gather is more clear-cut in retrospect. Hunkering down with my Preston Sturges DVDs, I waited for this hysteria to pass like all the other hysterias, like the one where Regis bestowed a million bucks on you or your worth as a human being was assessed by Donald Trump. But as you no doubt have predicted, the sickness took hold, and by the middle of last season I was sneaking online before the show aired on the West Coast to see if LaKisha had survived the latest purge.

In part this was to spare myself the most horrific ritual of Idol, the weekly eliminations—cruel cuts rendered all the more excruciating by host Ryan Seacrest’s making the victims wait through commercial breaks before learning that the hopes of a lifetime have been dashed. “I hate to do this to you,” Ryan always says beforehand, one corner of his mouth curling to conspire with his eyes in a way that admits I love it, like George C. Scott in Patton surveying the carnage of battle. At that moment a line from a Frank Sinatra song—“Some people get their kicks / Stompin’ on a dream”—always comes to me, and I have to leave the room. Apparently it’s human nature to forget that if you’re among two dozen contestants competing for a singular triumph, the odds are 23 out of 24 that your devastating Ryan Seacrest Moment will arrive sooner or later. This year those moments are a kind of prelude for what follows Idol, a snuff film of a “reality” game show called The Moment of Truth where, for hundreds of thousands of dollars, people wreak untold emotional damage on other people they allegedly care about. Moment of Truth is the ultimate manifestation of author Gore Vidal’s maxim that one should never miss a chance to have sex or be on TV, or better yet, in a fashion that presumably boggles even Vidal’s mind, never miss a chance to be on TV talking about having never missed the chance to have sex with your wife’s or husband’s best friend. In comparison, Idol’s sadisms are small potatoes, the most merciless of which came last season when the ax was poised over teenage Jordin Sparks, only for her to find out at the last minute that in the spirit of charity that suffused that week’s episode (devoted to helping children in Africa), no one was being eliminated and Sparks was “safe” along with everyone else.

Idol makes the most of such drama, because above and beyond any commitment to discovering talent, it’s entertainment, which is fair enough. The judges—Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson, and Simon Cowell—all came out of the MTV era as performers or producers or would-be tycoons, and they still embody a sensibility that defiantly exalts the synthetic and cheesy. They nailed their roles in season one, replicating as best as three people can civilization’s full spectrum, from Abdul’s Mother Teresa to Cowell’s Hermann Göring: “If I’m being honest,” Cowell begins, and a nation cowers in anticipation of the barbaric flourish to come, “…it was fantastic!” and the crowd wildly cheers, the recipient of the compliment reduced to a gratitude outstripped only by pathos. Cowell has called performances “revolting” and advised one failed applicant, when she said her voice was a gift from God, “Does He have a return department? …I’d give it back.” The truth is, for someone whose taste officially stinks (he hates Bob Dylan, loves Christina Aguilera), Cowell has an ear and understands that pop music is about personality. His blind (or I should say deaf) spots probably are the public’s, too: Anything before Duran Duran is primordial, so ancient as to inspire awe that there was electricity at the time, and his most withering critique, nearly as perennial as Jackson’s complaint (though he seems finally to have retired it this season) that every performance is “pitchy,” is that someone sounds or looks “old-fashioned.” In Cowell’s brutal appraisal of Gina Glocksen’s “Paint It Black” last season, it seemed he didn’t know the Rolling Stones song at all, and it occurs to me that many perfectly intelligent, even erudite people reading this may not either. But the point, other than how old-fashioned I am, is that Cowell mistook the vaguely Middle Eastern tonality of the melody for tunelessness, to the detriment of the singer, whose rendition actually was rather good.

Last season was an object lesson in how you can’t assume anything. Unlike Carrie Underwood, who sailed through season four as the front-runner and crossed the finish line first exactly as expected, prohibitive favorite Melinda Doolittle staggered in at third, perhaps, many speculated, because she was considered such a shoo-in that people stopped bothering to vote for her. After her near death experience, poor Sparks not only rallied but went on to become the youngest winner ever, which can’t help but make you wonder if the producers, privy to the actual number of people across the country phoning in their votes, suspected her eventual triumph—so what fun to toy with her! There is about American Idol the same common denominator-ism there is about popular culture in general. The last time the best and the most popular were the same thing was the Beatles, and I have doubts the naked and openhearted Dusty Springfield, for instance, would have made it to the final 12, not to mention the rawer and more uncompromising Billie Holiday. If the most distinctive of this season’s women—tattooed chick Carly Smithson—gets even as far as rocker dude Chris Daughtry did (fourth) a couple years back, it would be a first. But although both the process and the ethic of the show aggressively discourage the edgy, it may be a mark of Idol’s evolution that on recent episodes dedicated to the songs of Lennon and McCartney, about as sacrosanct a songbook as exists, risk taking abounded: Ireland-by-way-of-San Diego Smithson did a fairly scorching “Come Together,” airport baggage handler Chikezie let it rip with a “She’s a Woman” that began as Appalachian blues before shifting into something bordering on funk, and bartender David Cook’s perfectly bonkers “Eleanor Rigby” was the Beatles’ chamber piece as if played by Metallica and the single most audacious performance I’ve seen on the show yet.

Idol is aimed mostly at an audience just a bit older than Miles, for whom novelty value can never be overrated. This is to say that until a kazoo-playing castrato sawing a lady in half comes along, Sanjaya will have to do. Flukishly, this year the novel has coincided with the remarkable in the form of Miles’s new main man, David Archuleta, 17 years old—the age I was when discovering the Doors, I’m astonished to realize—and every bit as gawky as 17-year-olds are until he opens his mouth and out comes something so beyond his years, it’s as unsettling as it is exceptional. Perhaps preternatural to a fault, Archuleta was being urged by the judges to lighten up even before the ranks were reduced to the final dozen; like last year’s Doolittle, he may have nowhere to go but down. By general consensus last season was the weakest in the show’s history, and some thought Idol was in trouble. Then there was a strike that revealed just how superfluous writing is to television, and in the vacuum the program exploded all over again, with a new batch of competitors many consider the strongest ever, though I can’t be sure because my attention hasn’t been all there. Especially on Tuesday nights I’ve been shuttling like a diplomat between TVs downstairs and up, where I’m obsessed with another election you may have heard about.

American Idol, of course, ultimately supposes Mick Jagger got it right when he sang 40 years ago that it’s the singer, not the song. If so, it’s only because the singer brings something to the song that wasn’t there before. More of Idol’s winners and also-rans than I once would have imagined have gone on to serious careers: Underwood, Daughtry, and Kelly Clarkson have had hit records; Jennifer Hudson won an Oscar for Dreamgirls; Fantasia Barrino followed up a successful run on Broadway in The Color Purple with a number one single—but it remains to be seen if someday they invest the songs they sing with something more than showmanship, the thing Idol most prizes. Talent contests by their nature engender the bland and sanitized, which always was the basis of my resistance to the show and remains the basis of my skepticism, even as I’ve succumbed. It’s also true that the winner of the American Idol of the mid-’30s, a radio program called the Major Bowes Amateur Hour, was Sinatra himself, 19 years old and part of a vocal group called the Hoboken Four, and not yet so knowing of people who get their kicks stomping on a dream. At the time he wasn’t any more impressive than Clarkson or Daughtry are now—if anything, less than David Archuleta. He was a crooner, already on the verge of great success but nearly two decades away from becoming an artist, when, as it happened, his voice began to fray and he found great singing was not so much about the instrument but more about character, which only the passage of time can measure.