American Idol, now in it’s ninth season, continues to remain a media phenomenon. The premise of the show is known by everyone. Wanna-be pop stars audition to a panel of judges who critique and rank, building toward a finale where auditionees face-off in a voting-off competition based on viewer votes. The winner obtains fame and a record deal.
Sure enough, a major aspect of the show is the vote. The concept of the vote appeared co-currently with the advent of ‘reality tv.’ I believe it was Survivor that spearheaded the ‘reality’ principle with the ‘vote’ principle. According to the American Idol website, “television’s No. 1 hit series empowers contestants and viewers to share their voices in deciding who will be America’s next singing superstar.” Such rhetoric of empowerment, voice, vote leads to an easy conclusion: American Idol is democracy.
But let’s throw a little historical analysis into the picture. Let’s take the case of Elvis. Elvis was in many ways an early American idol. Whether you counted his fame by album sales or by his widespread adoration there was little denying him a number one status for a time. Elvis became number one, but not by a formal vote. But was it democracy? If not democracy, then what?
Let’s play a game with the second question. Perhaps Elvis’ status as the King came about through a decidedly non-democratic means, take the antithesis of totalitarianism. Was Elvis a pop culture dictator? Well, only if the people (rock n’ roll lovers) couldn’t have willed otherwise. And surely they could of, there were no consequences. No, Elvis became popular because people, en masse, collectively raised him from amateur performer to iconic legend.
In essence there is absolutely nothing revolutionary about American Idol. Americans have been choosing their own pop icons since the beginning of pop culture. Beatlemania was the will of the people affirming the Beatles over others. What makes American Idol popular is not that it “empowers” but that it simulates empowerment. The anarchic democracy of Beatlemania is replaced by a formal, technocratic process. It gives “democracy” a time slot and commercial breaks.
American Idol exists as a contradiction. On one hand it enables viewers to directly affect the outcome of the competition. On the other hand it denies the viewer his/her own power over pop culture, empowerment is heavily mediated by a panel of experts, technology and producers. The contradiction is a seduction.
“Seduction is always more singular and sublime than sex and it commands the higher price.” -Jean Baudrillard
American Idol seduces by first lulling the viewer into a passive state. This is where performances, their criticisms and (most importantly for the network) commercials do their work of occupying attention. Then, finally, after the spectacle is put on the seducee is called to respond–no seduction is complete without the shock back to reality.
How much is our political system a simulation like American Idol?