How to make an "American Idol"

Fox's sadomasochistic battle of the power ballads mercifully ends tonight, but it's been a jaded recording executive's ultimate summer fantasy.

Published September 4, 2002 8:00PM (EDT)

"American Idol," Fox's sadistic musical bake-off and baffling summer megahit, draws to a merciful close on Wednesday night with the second of two concluding two-hour "specials." You could watch, or you could make an evening of sticking bamboo shards under your nails. It doesn't matter.

By now, both Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini have received enough airtime, media coverage and professional grooming and styling services to grant them front-door entry into the pop pantheon -- or at least the pop VIP airport lounge -- for as long as anyone gets to hang out there these days. Ultimately, it makes no real difference how they got there. Winning a fame contest is not all that different from being kidnapped, reprogrammed and choreogaphed by Lou Pearlman. And anyway, it's too late. As of this writing, the judges have spoken, the votes have been cast, the phones have been phreaked and the single has been recorded.

The single, which competition judge, BMG producer and resident declawed meanie Simon Cowell has described as a Whitney Houston-type "power ballad," was recorded by all three finalists (now down to two) so that the winner's version would be ready to ship to stores by Sept. 17. A nationwide finalists' tour begins in October, and the winner's full-length album will be released in time for Christmas. But wait, there's more. How do a "chart topping visor," a "star key ring," a "Hollywood CD case," an "all-American jersey," a "super star tee" or a "celebrity sling case" sound? These items and more can be yours with a visit to the show's official Web site and a swipe of a credit card, as can the "American Idol" book, in stores now.

To say that the marketing cart was put in front of the talent horse with "American Idol" would make me sound unnecessarily Amish. I will only say that there was never any horse and the cart was always a Ferrari. As nice as it would be to believe that "American Idol" owed its popularity to our sophisticated taste for high-camp awfulness, it's pretty clear that this was not the case.

Of the 10 million-plus viewers per week that made "American Idol" such a success, those who tuned in to watch the televised carnage of the first few weeks probably tuned out long ago. (It's also probably safe to discount the enthusiasms of a large portion of the studio audience. How many teenage girls would spontaneously hold their arms aloft and sway together to the strains of "Before Your Love," unless under express orders to do so?) No, America, or at least the part of it that bothered to pick up the phone and dial-a-vote, really cared about the contestants -- and really didn't care about being used as the world's largest focus group.

This might have been more understandable if "American Idol" had even bothered to pass off its "search for a superstar" as anything other than a purely mercantile endeavor. But -- to its credit, actually -- "A.I." always made a point of flaunting its commercial objectives, to the exclusion of all others. (The Coca-Cola moments were so ubiquitous as to make you think time might stop if it weren't for the efforts of this heroic carbonated beverage.) As a show, it was little more than a drawn-out beauty-pageant talent competition. As an experiment in combining market-testing with marketing and promotion, it was masterful. "American Idol's" main product was sold long before it was even identified. It made a product that sold product. It was that good.

Part of the credit goes to the contestants, of course, who were only too eager to turn themselves into just the kind of manufactured celebrity goods the producers and sponsors were looking for right from the beginning, with no qualms and no questions asked. From their clothes to their song selections to the precision diva gestures flawlessly executed by boys and girls alike -- the accusatory point followed by the slow clenched-fist arm retraction, the flat-palmed sideways hand extension, the pained leftward nod, the extended left-to-right arm sweep -- every one of the contestants' choices was designed to please the man with the million-dollar contract.

And their efforts did not go unrewarded. Last night, Justin and Kelly were triumphant: a crass, unimaginative and jaded record producer's dream. Not only did they prove that they had what it takes to travel to New York and ride in limos, shop for the camera and chat with Carson Daly on "TRL," they promoted an upcoming teen movie, proved they could "handle the pressure of presenting at the VMA Awards" and, ultimately, outlasted all the the fatties, the uglies and the style-challenged of the first weeks. After finishing their final performances (their final renditions of such Gen-Y anthems as Aretha Franklin's "Respect" sounded cozily and reassuringly familiar), Kelly and Justin were lavishly praised by the judges, a.k.a. the music industry professionals.

Record producer Randy Jackson gushed, "Every aspiring singer that's in America watching this show should watch Kelly, because that's what it's all about." Record producer Simon Cowell ("the man with the BMG contract") added that after the "nightmare" experience of dealing with some of the artists at the VMA Awards -- artists, one assumes, whose contracts were obtained the old-fashioned way -- "these two are a credit to what pop stars are all about." Paula Abdul -- well, Paula Abdul doesn't count. But, if tomorrow's winner is very, very lucky, he or she may someday not count as famously and fabulously as Paula does today.

By Carina Chocano

Carina Chocano writes about TV for Salon. She is the author of "Do You Love Me or Am I Just Paranoid?" (Villard).

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