OP-EDS

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September 11, 2003

Of Idolatry and international politics

It is a pop culture juggernaut that transcends nationality, race, gender, sexual orientation, and even good taste.

A show called Pop Idol debuted in the United Kingdom on August 9, 2001 and enjoyed instant success—the winner, and even the runners up, were given multi-million dollar contracts and spent weeks topping the charts.

Next, the concept hopped the pond and became the biggest British import since the Beatles. To the betterment of mankind everywhere, American Idol brought us new talents Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini, and resurrected the forlorn career Paula Abdul to an extent that would baffle Jesus- who, it would appear, gave up on her years ago. Indeed, the show inspired such a phenomenon that it has made its host, Ryan Seacrest, famous for actually being notably untalented.

And most recently, according to Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, an Arab version of a choose-a-mildly-talented-singer-from-other-slightly-less-talented-ones show nearly incited a war between Syria and Lebanon, not that these neighbors need much in the way of a push. The vote count in the finals was 4.5 million, says Friedman; the combined population of these two countries is only about 20 million.

There are several shows in the upper echelon of reality television lore—The Real World, Survivor, Say What Karaoke—not to mention hundreds of others that aspire to such greatness. Reality television is so prevalent, in fact, that it has to be divided into subsections: dating shows, adventure shows, bachelor/bachelorette shows, communal living shows, etc. With all these shows to choose from, singer shows seem to have drawn the biggest and most loyal following, not just in the U.S., but seemingly across the world. It begs the question: why does the Pop Idol concept, among all reality TV -- nay, among all TV in general - inspire and touch people so deeply across so many boundaries?

The show has a decent amount of politics and intrigue, and I suppose a snotty Englishman yelling at people could improve any show (just watch Parliament, it makes government fun…and educational). But the Idol series certainly does not rely on the back-stabbing and uber-drama that permeates similar shows. In the early days, it tried to play up petty feuds between singers or judges, but then abandoned this approach for a happy go lucky spin that creates the same gastrointestinal sensation as chugging milk.

Eliminating a singer each week adds a great element of suspense, though almost every reality concept involves someone being voted off of something by someone, whether it is an island or an altar. How nice it would be if real life worked that way—if we could, say, decide to vote a governor out of office, and then when that got old, use the tried and true method of inserting some famous actors and create, "Celebrity Governor." Oh well, if only reality could be more like reality TV.

The performances are fairly good—sometimes—and the musical aspect sets it apart from most other reality programs. But let's face it, American Idol reinforces the fact that these singers, while good, would not become famous on their own, and need a fabricated system of fame to compensate for their lack of God-given ability.

No, there is a far better reason for the Idol phenomenon. In a world where so many things are chosen for us, and the record industry shoves a limitless supply of singers in our face, people want to play a part in picking their idols. By choosing the winner, who will get an extra five minutes tacked on to the standard 15 of fame, the viewers share a small part in their success. People choose favorites, then stick by the side of that person every week, like they are in a real battle for the person's career because, frankly, they are.

On almost every other reality show, the participants within the show do the voting, conniving, secret-and-lie telling—in effect, cutting the viewer off from their reality. The Idol series brings the participants' reality into your home, where people can live vicariously through the singers. The onus falls on the viewers to make their candidate successful by voting and getting friends to vote with them. It's like being on a mini-campaign trail: you cheer in your party's victories, and cry in its defeats.

Earlier I alluded to an article by Thomas Friedman, who used the "Arab Idol" to demonstrate the possibility of democracy in the Muslim world. I think that the Idol phenomenon illustrates a further, even more general truth about human nature - people are natural competitors and always want to be a part of something great, and Idol shows, for any other failing, afford them the opportunity of this dream.