One last Idol exit interview. Katharine's. There's nothing I can say to that. Doing the recap of the finale, I realized that for as good as that show was -- and it was, truly, almost legendary -- that my write-up would be pale compared to it. I'd lost the spark in my snark, the flash in my sass. If ever a show deserved an effusive, celebratory love/hate orgy of a review, that one did.
But I think I fell into the trap. I never had much desire to eviscerate Taylor throughout the whole season anyhow. But I also knew his thunder had already been stolen by some of the earlier proceedings. Certainly, he's what the media is focusing on, but let's face it, the buzz-worthy highlight of the show wasn't his confetti. And no, it wasn't the unexpected (but kinda expected) appearance of the purple one, either.
What ruled the day-after chatter was the Clay Aiken number. For a show that specializes and thrives on humiliation/glorifying segments, it most certainly hit the zenith when Clay came out and serenaded his squeeling, fan-boy doppleganger. Truly, pages could be written about this incident. It could be dissected and analyzed more thoroughly than the Zapruder film for years to come by reality TV aficionados. It was the single most surreal/sublime moment the show has ever produced in five seasons.
And this season was undeniably its most popular ever. This season, I dare say, American Idol moved beyond monster television hit and marketing juggernaut and became a pop-culture phenomenon. What is it about this silly show that it can so capture, shock, and surprise us?
Baseball used to be our national pastime, a unifying force everyone could use as a diversion from the divisiveness of politics and religion and as a respite from the daily grind to create a connecting tissue between us. Even within that microcosm, people would winnow down into sub-cultures as they picked their favorite teams and players to root for, but they still followed the full arc of the season. But baseball long ago got devoured by the multitude of other sports and even more recently started cannibalizing itself so that now its audience is smaller and less rapt than ever before.
But that leaves a hole, because as a society, we still have some underlying need to convene and connect with each other about something. And this year, American Idol stepped in and filled the water-cooler void. It makes sense. It's a perfect confluence of events. It's been building in popularity and it's positioned at a time of year when there's not much else to focus on. Television is the mass-entertainment candy in our lives, able to reach far more people than movies or books ever will. Combine that viewership potential with music -- a commodity/art that strikes directly at people's identity/heart/intellect/culture/opinions -- and you've got a winning formula.
But American Idol takes it a step further. It is silly, don't get me wrong. It's a silly show and yet it's ballooned in popularity and it bridges gender, cultural, and age gaps. I've talked a lot about the manipulations the show uses, both on the contestants and the audience. Even though we know we're being directed along a path, we allow it. Or, we take glee in believing that we've somehow stuck it to da man by bucking the cues and choosing differently. All of those things make it better, certainly. That's the straw that stirs the drink, those manipulations, because it's part of what builds the crescendo of the show and keeps us watching over the course of the season. It creates a storyline and character arcs, creates the suspense and helps us to identify and connect. But that's what makes it so good, but not what creates the initial spark.
That spark is a much more simplistic and a base response on our part. The basic premise of the show is to scour the nation and find an undiscovered talent and give them the American Dream. Funny, but once upon a time, I thought the American Dream was a little simpler. It was that you could work hard and build a better life for your family. But that kind of humble ideal was blown out of the water a long time ago, possibly because we've realized that it's not so much a promise as a mirage. Now, the American Dream is to rise up from that better life your parents worked so hard to give you and shake off the chains of suburbia and become a superstar. Because if you're going to have deluded dreams, might as well make them really fucking good ones.
So, the American Dream. That's the lure and bait of American Idol.
But the hook? It's even better. The hook that keeps us rapt with Idol is that it simultaneously feeds our passion for competition, celebration, and carnage.
I got lucky and picked up some astute, generous, and interesting readers this season. In an e-mail exchange with Jean White, she said it perfectly. "American Idol is a lot like a virtual Roman coliseum, with all the fun of the up and down thumb and sudden death."
Exactly. There's no way I could come up with a better analogy.
From the early round, intentionally humiliating audition process they broadcast in early to January to whet our appetites to Cowell's mid-season, nationally televised insults, AI caters to our most civilized bloodthirsty tendencies. But even in the early auditions, it also complements those nasty instincts by inserting glowing footage of the good auditions, making us feel like a part of the process from the start so we can sit up and in self-congratulatory manner pat our backs for being able to spot the McPhees, Daughtrys, Taylors, and Yamins. Just as that scintillation begins to dissipate, we're invited closer and asked to become a part of the process by voting. Simon may be the figurehead Caesar everyone turns to for the thumb up or down, but we're the de facto jury, getting a slightly better-than-vicarious thrill by democratically deciding the ultimate fate of the contestants.
And just like in any microcosm, we divide and shift and form allegiances, and sometimes even alliances, more often than not based as much on personality as performance. The producers aren't dummies. It's not hard to discern who can carry a tune. But the vetting process is based as much on filling archetypes as it is about talent. The bitch, the rebel, the slut, the innocent, the underdog, the idiot, the princess, ect. And one of these, decided by us, will be turned into the American version of royalty -- they'll be turned into a star.
Although we'll tolerate absurdly grotesque behavior from established celebrities, these contestants have to walk a fine line of singing in tune and keeping their egos/reactions/personalities in check. Because they may be on our TV every week and being talked about by 10 million people the next day, but they haven't earned their "certified" stamp quite yet. In the troublingly fascinating book Hollywood, Interrupted, the authors detail just how fabricated most celeb images are, and the work that goes into keeping these facades in place. (And yet some of them like Tom Cruise manage to fuck it all up anyhow.) But it's this incestuous system and layers of protection that the Idol hopefuls don't have access to yet. And although they're kept tethered on short leashes and protected inside the AI bubble while the contest is going on, they're presented to us raw and unfiltered for what amounts to about 5-10 minutes per contestant every week.
While that kind of exposure hardly qualifies us as experts on their overall talent or personality, it's what we work with. And it's by taking these ordinary people and placing them in the extraordinary situation of pressurized, commentaried, live television that we draw conclusions. Like with a poker player, a single telling expression can cost a contestant a fortune.
It's not fair. But it's riveting entertainment.
On top of all that, under all this weekly mounting pressure -- because it is pressure; we're not sending the loser off to be fed to the lions, it's actually much worse, we're going to cast them back into the obscurity of everyday, non-celebrity life -- we expect them to sing in tune for us. And to sing a song the vast majority of our deeply disparate tastes likes. Oh yeah, and to wow us with stage presence in that whole minute and a half of performance time.
That's where the bloodsport appeal comes back into play again. A non-contact competition this may be, but verbally violent it certainly is. I'm sure that after a season of my Daughtry barbs, you won't believe this, but generally speaking, I'm one of the nice ones. In my writers groups, I'm the one people turn to for encouragement and praise. And yet, this show has prompted me to write things that'd make Ambrose Bierce say, "Now that's bitchy." (<-- seriously, that was the last writerly reference of the year.) Why do I feel so free to attack a group of innocuous people who do nothing worse than potentially sing off-key and frown at inopportune moments? Because they willing signed up for it. And they signed up for it in the hopes of becoming a star.
That's the very definition of fame-mongering.
And it's that exact love-hate with celebrity that we embrace in our culture. We raise our celebs to royalty status when in reality they are the court jesters. We love to throw rotten fruit when the jester fails to entertain us. But established stars can rebound, because they have the machinery behind them to repair the damage. But with AI, the machinery is working against the contestants because they're playing a game of Last Man Standing. Besides, they aren't "real world" stars yet. They've entertained us within the structure of the show. But they haven't yet paid their dues to become full-fledged celebrities by taking the traditional route of the doing the hard work of either putting out a successful "unit" or by sleeping with someone egregiously distasteful who can further their career. (except Corey Clark)
It's said that cream rises to the top. However, in arts, entertainment, and celebrity, that's not always the case. In my field of writing, I have a friend who's proven the theory that cream rises. However, for all of Ellen's talent and deserved success, I also have another handful of talented friends whose cream has not risen.
I'm not trying to curdle Taylor's cream, because he earned the title this year. But it wasn't just his talent that got him there. It was his inscrutability and canny ability to pull the right move at the right time. Some of his toughest competition took tiny missteps and paid a heavy price. Certainly, all these contestants had some poor performances, but so did Taylor along the way.
Mandisa said the word "lifestyles" and gay hell rained down faster than you could cue up that old Weathergirls "lifestyles" anthem. Pickler became a one-note joke, and when that note, along with her singing, went flat, she had to go. Paris smiled and thanked the judges during criticism and got labeled the princess of smug. Ace was just too scandalously pretty, and entirely too straight to be so effeminate. Chris, he committed the most offensive sin for television -- he got boring. That's right. All my taunts about him amount to nothing. But over the course of the season, all the flaming backgrounds and brow-tweezing couldn't save him because he just got repetitive and boring. Out he went. Katharine was simply overpowered by Taylor. The only reason she survived as long as she did is because other people happened to fry up, fizzle down or flame out first, giving her a strategic insulation layer every week. Yeah, she made bitchy faces, but Paris was smug first. Yeah, she sang bad, but she gave us that beaver shot when Chris just kept shouting at us. Plus, she's pretty. And if you're pretty enough, people will forgive all kinds of bad shit about you because in our society beauty has become one of the most important virtues.
That said, if that's my theory, then why'd Elliott take the boot before Katharine? He seemed like a nice person and in-tune on his songs. Well. Maybe he was too nice. Because nice is good, but too nice is seen as some weak-ass shit. I think that perceived weakness hurt him in the voting. That, to me, is ironic, because instead of weak, I saw him as pretty strong. Who else had the balls to stand their ground with song choices, say they weren't a fan of a guest judge, or admit they loved their mom?
All that isn't to say that Taylor won by default. Because he didn't. If seen as a modern gladiator trial, Taylor didn't have the favor of Caesar. That gave us some of the best bloody barbs of the year and fed our thirst for rebellion against the empire. He was definitely the most adept at using all the weapons available: kicking, dancing, shouting, and crooning. But his best dancing was how he handled himself on stage during interviews and eliminations and critiques -- either cagily hiding any evidence of an engorged, entitled ego or truly lacking it.
And he couldn't be topped for water-cooler buzz (at least, not until Clay showed up again in all his asexual, prodigal son glory.) If AI filled the spot to bring a large mass of us together, serving as a connecting tissue to give our collective consciousness something to chat about and debate over, and made us feel included by putting some power in our Cingular-equipped hands, Taylor was the focal point of the season. He survived the carnage and won the competition. And for one night, at least, the reward promise was fulfilled and he got the big ass, effusive celebration -- as a new, certified and stamped bona-fide celebrity. The new American Dream realized.
Now that's satisfying. For his sake, I hope he rides the wave and makes it big, so that when he makes his pilgrimage back to the show in a couple of seasons, it'll still be buzz-worthy. And not in the Clay Aiken kind of way. Even if that does make for great American Idol television, silly as it is.