How I learned to love (and hate) "American Idol"

For seven years I ignored the world's biggest pop culture spectacle. But thanks to my daughter -- and the stunningly original Adam Lambert -- I finally caved.

Published April 19, 2009 11:24AM (EDT)

Until this year, I have never watched "American Idol." Not one episode, not one song, not one hemisemidemiquaver. How did I manage to miss the No. 1 rated show on TV for seven years? It was easy. Pretty much the only things I watch on TV are sports, old movies and the occasional episode of "SpongeBob Squarepants." Moreover, I am ignorant of and have almost zero interest in most contemporary pop music, certainly pop music of the Britney Spears/Mariah Carey/Kelly Clarkson variety. And finally, I suspected that "American Idol" was the biggest, slickest, most-sold-out, most vulgar, most sentimental, most prepackaged chunk of American cheesiness in our great cultural Costco. And I tend to avoid that aisle.

This year, however, I found myself dragged before the set in mid-season by my 12-year-old daughter, who discovered "American Idol" and got hooked. I figured I would never have a better person to watch it with: Celeste not only loves pop music, she's a trained singer who has been performing since she was 7 with the San Francisco Girls Chorus, a nationally recognized chorus whose top level performed at Obama's inauguration. It's more fun screaming "he was flat!" at someone who has an ear.

The family that watches "American Idol" together may stay together, but that doesn't mean that the show isn't a big, fat portent of cultural doom. (NBC Universal head Jeff Zucker said it might be "the most impactful show in the history of television," and whenever studio execs say things like that, it is wise to prepare for the End of Days.) The show may have a chewy, heartwarming center, but it's unbelievably creepy around the edges. You want the most blatant, unapologetic product placement of all time? The recent Ford "Magic Show" video shoot segment (complete with "arty" Hollywood director) made me feel like I was watching a YouTube video of the Visigoths approaching the walls of Rome. The show prostitutes itself before anything that will sell, from Ford to Coca-Cola and iTunes. "AI" stands for both "American Idol" and "artificial intelligence," and there couldn't be anything more artificial -- or, from a capitalist standpoint, intelligent -- than the way the show manufactures cultural widgets. The show's producers carefully select a group of contestants who drive the show's insanely large (25 million people) viewership, which allows the show to sell 30-second ads for $623,000, the highest rate on TV. It then throws bones back to the sponsors with product placement, and turns the winners, whose contracts "AI" owns, into yet another herd of cash cows. If vertical integration went any further, we'd be in David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest," where the months are named after products.

 But as with all reality TV, all this marketing and moneymaking is driven by an irreducible and addictive kernel: real people competing. And that's the part that pulled me, and 24,999,999 other people, in. It's weird, finding yourself passionately arguing about who is best at a genre you don't even like. It's a little bit like comparing different models of Hummers. But the secret of reality TV's success is that just about any human competition can be made interesting: Get the right group of people and shoot them in the right way, and you can turn a game of tiddlywinks into the second coming of World War II. The truth is that TV has been working this vein since the medium was born.

And the show has another trump card: music. OK, it's pop music, but that's such a huge mansion that it contains some rooms everyone is going to like. That may be the ultimate draw of "American Idol": Pop music is so deep in our cultural DNA that we're all experts. We may not all know how to write or produce a hit song, like the judges, but we all have an almost infinite resource of pop-music memories to draw on. 

And that knowledge includes not just music, but that ineffable thing called style -- which is where it gets interesting. For pop music is about both musical talent and image, and the distinction between them is a blurred no-man's-land.

"American Idol" offers a strange, and in some ways subversive, perspective on pop music. Because it features amateurs who lack the seamless, produced polish of pop pros (although one or two ringers have apparently sneaked in), it actually deconstructs the very medium that its contestants aspire to conquer. Maybe the weirdest and most compelling thing about the show is watching real people who, for perfectly good reasons, desperately aspire to be devoured by the great plastic machinery of pop stardom -- but who, in order to seize that gold ring, have to tap into their own naive, mundane talent, have to be themselves. It's a paradox as old as America, and it drives the show. When Ryan Seacrest tells contestants who have been voted off that they have to sing for their lives, it's hokey -- but it's irresistible.

 And because the contestants actually need to be talented, there are fewer of the synthetic hard-body pretty boys and girls who pop up in shows like "Survivor." Whether by the Machiavellian wiles of the producers in charge of the selection process, or more likely just because that's who they are, the finalists are refreshingly unstylish and nondescript. They're basically a bunch of schmoes who can sing.

For its part, the vast audience serves as a kind of Greek chorus, whose job it is to balance all the diverse and sometimes contradictory attributes that go into making a pop star, and deliver its judgment. Sometimes it rewards pure musical talent, sometimes style, sometimes something else altogether. It isn't predictable. And one of the things that makes the show watchable is the sense that the audience might choose someone for reasons that are less synthetic, Machiavellian and coldly knowing than the reasons why a studio exec might choose them.

 What makes the show fascinating is that the criteria the audience uses to determine who will win are uncertain and up for grabs. Pop music is fashion. But good music is also good music, even if it's sung by a dork. Neil Diamond is about as unhip as you can get, but "Solitary Man" is a great song.

Which brings us to the current crop of seven contestants. The odds-on favorite to win, and deservedly so, is Adam Lambert. Adam has towered above the other singers for weeks, to the point where it seems almost unfair. His fellow contestants are all talented, but they're not in his league. He attacks his songs with the fiery assurance of a seasoned artist. His interpretation of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" a few weeks ago was stunningly original. He's a screamer with a killer falsetto, but his rendition of "Tracks of My Tears" on Motown Week demonstrated that he can sing under control, and that song also showed off his near-perfect pitch. This week he rocketed his way through Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild," showing off his outrageous heavy-metal upper register. Plus, the man can move -- in fact, he's the only one of the contestants who seems to have a working body. He looks good: His black hair and fleshy cheeks recall Elvis, always a good pop predecessor to have. Finally, he passes the all-important imagination test: You can imagine paying money to see him performing on a real stage right now.

So I'm a big Adam fan. I'm still expecting him to take it all. But this week, for the first time it entered my mind that someone else might win if Adam stumbled, and that I might not even mind that much. Before we get to who that is, though, let us pause, in schlocky, suspense-building, Ryan Seacrest-like fashion, to review the rest of the field.

At this point, there are four serious contestants and three doomed souls. Doomed soul No. 1 is Anoop Desai. Anoop has a fine voice, like all of the contestants at this stage. He did an almost uncannily exact cover of Smokey Robinson's "Ooo Baby Baby." But he sounded like a tape recorder. There's something smoothly empty about his singing. It's a little too easy to imagine him crooning in a Las Vegas ballroom.

Doomed soul No. 2, Lil Rounds, has a strong gospel/soul voice, but has struggled to make the transition to singing pop. She does not seem to inhabit her songs, but only visit them: It's hard to get a read on who she is. After her last song, Bette Midler's "The Rose," she complained that the judges had told her she wasn't artistic enough, but then didn't reward her for trying to give her own imprint to the song by adding an R&B middle. Basically, she was saying she'd been jerked around, and that no matter what she did, they didn't like it. There was some justice to her charge, but ultimately the problem is hers. Lil just hasn't figured out how to negotiate her way to her musical persona. Her singing, while better than Anoop's, isn't extraordinary enough to overcome that problem.

Doomed soul No. 3, Matt Giraud, was saved by the judges, who appear to like him more than they like Anoop or Lil. Matt is a solid R&B belter, but probably doesn't have the breeding to finish in the money.

That leaves the four who could still win. The most intriguing of them is Allison Iraheta. Allison has a stunning alto voice, throaty and deep and smoky, almost freakishly mature for someone 16 years old. She killed doing Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me" a week ago. No other singer left has pipes like hers, which gives her a legit dark-horse shot. But she may run afoul of her vague and amorphous image, which is reflected in her less than impressive wardrobe choices: She comes across as a confused combination of thrift-store gamine, aspiring punker and girl next door. The fact that she's just a kid and can't be expected to have figured this stuff out, alas, will not help her: There are no handicaps given for youth on this show.

Kris Allen is an extremely solid performer -- he's good-looking in a boyish way, with a fine voice, excellent phrasing and an attractive, slightly vulnerable intensity as a performer. He also plays a nice guitar. If he kills every song from here on out and Adam stumbles, he could sneak in. But that's unlikely.

And that brings up the one contestant besides Adam, and possibly Allison, who has a chance to win it all: Danny Gokey. It was only Tuesday night that it struck me that Danny could have an outside shot to beat Adam, and that if he did, he would have earned it. A church choir director whose wife just died, Danny has been strong all along, but somehow I never took him seriously. Maybe it was his material, or his appearance. He's a stocky man with a likable disposition, but no one's idea of a pop star. On Tuesday, performing Lionel Ritchie's "Endless Love," he started out slowly, hampered by clunky harp chords that got in his way. But then he came to the chorus and hit the big note, nailed it with his gorgeous rough-rich voice, showing tonal quality that Adam, for all his skill and swagger, doesn't have. I don't think Danny has the chops to overtake the Adam juggernaut, but if everything falls perfectly into place, he could.

Which brings up the elephant in the room: Adam's gayness. (He has not actually come out, but pictures of him kissing men and a video of him saying that women are not his preference are all over the Internet.) No gay man has ever won "Idol," which raises the sociopolitical stakes of the show's finale considerably. If Adam loses, will it be because of homophobia?

Since we don't know how the contestants will perform, there's no way to say. It's not impossible, sadly, that bigotry could play a role. But if Danny or Allison, or somehow Kris, sing the songs of their lives, and Adam is off, it is at least conceivable that the long shots could win fair and square, simply because more people decided that the sounds coming out of their mouths were more beautiful than the ones coming out of Adam's.

 Adam also has a great voice, but he excels at the other side of pop music -- the stylish, the theatrical. He's a performer. In this light, a final showdown between Adam, Danny and Allison would be rich with cultural ironies. Adam, the outsider, the gay man, is actually the one riding our dominant cultural wave, the one dreamed up in the dream factories in L.A. and New York. He's the maestro of spectacle, the flashy performer. All Danny and Allison offer, by contrast, are great voices. They represent the values of the heartland, but the heartland does not stoke what Joni Mitchell called "the starmaker machinery behind the popular song."

Who is the master here, who the slave? Who is the favorite and who the underdog? Who will America reward? And why?

True cultural democracy, on four! One, two, three...


By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

MORE FROM Gary Kamiya

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Adam Lambert American Idol Music Reality Tv Television