American Midol

Had American Idol been a proper talent competition, Taylor Hicks would not have finished in the final 12, never mind emerged from the show’s 5th season victorious. The husky Alabaman’s vocal range is limited, his dress code is borderline tacky, his versatility is wanting (in fact he only performed strongly on those pseudo soul tracks that match his Blues Brothers wannabe persona) and his dancing … well you saw it didn’t you? The English language is unfit to describe the arrhythmic gyrations that only seemed to excite Hicks’ unconditionally supportive audience. In fact, you probably know 3 or more amateur singers who outshine Taylor Hicks in every meaningful way, to say nothing of the truly strong performances by fellow contestants Chris Daughtry and Paris Bennett (who were voted out by the audience during prior weeks).

Taylor Hicks

So why was an unremarkable Karaoke-grade singer like Taylor Hicks able to beat so many superior performers? The answer lies in the show’s title: American Idol. The premise of the show is not so much to choose a great singer or performer as to choose an “idol” – an icon for the modern ages. One must be able to relate to a icon, and see his or her own aspirations in the icon’s qualities.

Keeping America’s traditional frontier ethic in mind, nearly every season of American Idol has been a rehash of the underdog-overcomes-the-odds story that long ago written off as cliché in the world of fiction but still manages to captivate audiences in the “reality TV” sphere. The underdog element is central to the American dream, which espouses the idea that the common man can achieve stardom and success through nothing more than hard work and a dream.

More often than not this notion proves to be false in everyday life. The sports world -once a major source for inspiring rags-to-riches tales- has been irreversibly tarred by endless doping scandals (fans continue to jeer steroid-laden Barry Bonds even as he surpasses Babe Ruth’s old record for career home runs) and illegal recruiting practices. Plagiarism and outright cheating in institutions of higher education have reduced the once admirable academic to mere mortal status. The recent financial scandals involving Enron, WorldCom and other major corporations resulted in instant public suspicion towards successful businessmen. Even in politics there is a growing public backlash against intellectual “elites”, with their condescending attitude towards regular people (the latter has spawned a cottage industry of angry Conservative commentary about the omnipotent “liberal media” – irony notwithstanding).

In other words, Joe Q Public fears (perhaps rightly) that in most areas of life the odds are insurmountably stacked against him. Hard work and a dream are no longer enough to achieve prosperity; one has to be connected, unscrupulous and endowed with resources above that of his competition. Conversely, American Idol provides a forum where viewers can select the entertainer that most reflects their values and aspirations. Payola, provocative dance routines and glitzy promotion are non-starters when middle America plays the A&R role. In this sense, American Idol becomes a Choose Your Own Adventure – a subtle form of escapism aimed not at the contestants so much as the audience.

Taylor Hicks represents middle America’s ambitions and ideals. He’s not a particularly gifted singer like Paris Bennett nor does he have the Hollywood-ready look of his last round opponent Katharine McPhee. Instead, Hicks is an everyday man from everyday origins, and although his career will be likely be confined to the show’s sphere of influence (to date, only AI Season 1 victor Kelly Clarkson has shown any long-term vitality as a standalone performer), much of the public will feel vindicated by the fact that the underdog won … with a little help from his friends.

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