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On Watching "American Idol"

Factories of Fame

by SAM SMITH

Attempting to find some justification for my continued viewing of "American Idol," it finally dawned on me that I was actually watching a detailed exposition about the manufacturing of one of the last products made in any significant quantity in our country: fame.

I had initially assumed the show was about music but was soon disabused of that. After all, most of the contestants were adequate but unexceptional. If they had shown up at an audition for a Broadway musical it is unlikely that more than a handful would get past the first cut. I also noticed how much better the accompanying musicians often were than the singer contestants. Further, as with so many so-called concerts these days, the music was frequently driven into the back row in favor of color, lighting, random explosions, sexual manipulations, dancing, acrobatics, excruciating facial expressions, and over emotional screeching of utterly mundane lyrics. Finally, the audience, presumably there to hear the music, engaged in such pervasive screaming that it would have been hard for any sounds from the stage to have actually reached their ears.

Then I realized it wasn’t about music at all. It was a play by play demonstration of how to manufacture famous people in just a matter of weeks. Every move, every scene, every comment, every costume, and every step was calculated to make one think that something important was happening and for good reason. The judges and Ryan Seacrest engaged in endless promotion of the show and its contestants who were, however, the least important, least expensive, least carefully constructed element ? just young performers deliberately ordinary enough that millions of could relate to and fantasize about them. It was Hollywood and Madison Avenue reconstructing the American dream for a post-modern era.

American Idol is a living metaphor of everything that we are now supposed to desire, buy, cheer and vote for. While there are still real artists, heroines, singers, and leaders, their role in American society has been largely eclipsed by fame factories that transmogrify the ordinary into something we are finally convinced is grand.

Perhaps the most startling example can be found in our politics. Bearing in mind the process, culture and style of American Idol, consider again the rise of our two last Democratic presidents ? Clinton and Obama ? or the current crop of GOP contenders.

Neither Clinton or Obama had any particular qualifications to be president. But according to the media and the Randy Jacksons, Steve Tylers and Jennifer Lopez’s of their party they were incredibly magnificent (with a just few reservations for the sake of reality) . . . which is to say the contestants had the ambition while the American Political Idol show had the money, the moxie and the public relations manipulation to turn them into icons. And so on the same night that I watched Scott McCreery returning home to North Carolina and pitching to his old baseball buddies and Obama going to Ireland and playing ping pong with the British prime minister I felt like it was the same show.

Our political contestants have to prove themselves in the primaries just as Idol singers have to prove themselves in numerous weeks of competition, but in both cases the original choice of whom America will get to choose among has been made at the start of the season and largely out of sight of the public. Think of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as Scotty McCreary and Laura Alaina and you get the idea. The show’s producers would have been happy with either one, because they had created chosen and reconstructed both. And, while you’re at it, think of the trio of judges as panelists on Meet the Press and Ryan Seacrest as the show’s David Gregory, and it all begins to become clear.

Even this year’s undistinguished Republican crowd is reminiscent of the early season Idol shows. We know practically nothing about almost all of them, but months before the first actual primary, the inside selection process is already underway, witness the unexplained sudden departure of some.

The key part of the metaphor is that if you go back to the beginning of the season, you will find something much like that outlined in Wikipedia:

|Contestants go through three rigorous sets of cuts. The first is a brief audition with three other contestants in front of selectors which may include one of the show’s producers. The number of auditioners can exceed 10,000 people each city, but only about 100?200 contestants in each city may make it past this round of preliminary auditions. Successful contestants are sent through to audition in front of producers. More contestants are cut in the producers round before they can proceed to audition in front of the judges, which is the only audition stage shown on the show. Those selected by the judges are sent to Hollywood. Between 10?60 people in each city may make it to Hollywood. At the end of the Hollywood week, 24?36 contestants were selected to move on to the semifinal stage.

In other words, though the illusion is that the American Idol is picked by tens of millions of viewers, this is far from the case. It all started in seven cities with 10,000 or more contestants in each. This was winnowed down to 24 to 36 before the public was brought in. The fame factory eliminated some 70,000 in its own manner and of its own choosing, before the public had a damn thing to say about it.

In other words, a pretty good analogy to American national politics. And to how we get to choose a lot of things in this land. . .long after many important choices have already been made.

So don’t be surprised in the coming months if you hear Wolf Blitzer of Chris Matthews say of a presidential candidate, "His speech was a little pitchy but clearly he is in it to win." It’s just another season of American Idol.

Sam Smith edits Progressive Review.