A few nights ago I overheard one friend questioning another’s obsession with American Idol. There was no judgement being passed, just a simple inquiry into a phenomenon she'd yet to discover. Had I not been exhausted and trying to pay attention to the unfolding plot of the four hour movie we were watching, I may have joined the conversation. As it was, the explanation my friend offered was brief and the conversation ended without too much discussion. However, once the movie had come to an end and I was lying sleepless in the comfort of my own bed that night, I couldn’t help but ponder the question that had been posed earlier that evening. Just what exactly is it that I and so many other viewers love about American Idol?
After all, I am a grown woman (yes, that’s a euphemism for “middle aged,” but I couldn’t bring myself to use it here). I grew up watching Gilligan’s Island, The Price is Right, and never missed an episode of The Love Boat. Until now, no reality series has even come close to luring me into its time-sucking trap, but every Tuesday night for the past, I don’t know how many, years I have found myself in front of the TV,tuning in to see the performances of America’s latest wannabes.
Perhaps therein lies the draw. A show of wannabes. Certainly, we all can relate to a group of people striving for a fast-track to success in what they deem their profession of choice, and the entertainment industry provides the perfect forum for such a spectacle. (Let’s face it, who would want to tune in every week to see a group of tomorrow’s hopeful teachers battle it out in the classroom, wielding nothing less than their best anticipatory sets and most clever uses of the latest graphic organizers, all in an attempt to win a salary which often pales in comparison to that of any local plumber found in the Yellow Pages?)
I have always been a fan of documentaries which highlight the ups and downs of various artists’ careers and the roads that led them to their fame, or in some cases, notoriety. I suppose American Idol provides me the opportunity to ride along and view the documentary of success as it unfolds. Better yet, I can even feel a part of the journey by casting my vote when I feel so inclined. But somehow, I don’t think the power of the vote is what attracts me to the show so much as the vulnerability of the contestants themselves.
We live in a culture that professes equality and often frowns upon openly putting one person above another. Judgement and criticism connote negativity–so much so that both have nearly been eliminated from the public school system. As a teacher, I am often counseled to use a positive approach to discipline, ask open-ended questions, avoid the use of the ever-critical red pen, and never question a child’s behavior openly in front of his peers. All of this is done in an effort to protect “Johnny” and his ever-increasing false sense of self esteem–-a term foreign to generations prior to baby boomers. In some cases, even parents have gone from being authoritative advisors for their children to becoming neutral consultants as their children self-navigate the world in a way they think best suits them. In our attempt to become judgement-free, we have, in many ways, become a society without judgement. Rules are bent, exceptions are made, and limits seem to know no bounds in much of our current culture. In contrast, many of us middle-agers (there, I said it) remember a time when not every hardworking student got A’s, parents told their children “no” more than “yes” and not every girl who tried out expected to make the cheerleading squad.
I think this is what draws me to American Idol. Amidst a culture that promotes equality, and sometimes mediocrity, contestants take the stage every week knowing they will be openly criticized, even scrutinized, in front of the entire nation and eventually eliminated in a contest where there can be only one winner.
Assuming that this demotic talent show appeals to others for the same reasons it appeals to me gives me hope. Hope that we haven’t forgotten the value of fierce competition. Hope that we can still appreciate the beauty of criticism. Hope that we can recognize that as we are watching others strive for their dreams under stressful circumstances, we understand that the fruition of the dream is only part of what delivers happiness. And yet, while it is true that the journey itself can bring much fulfillment and joy, being deemed the best at what you do whether you are the plumber, the teacher, or the next American Idol, is enough to make anyone’s heart sing.