Original Idol Kelly Clarkson has managed to survive the stigma of winning her music contract through a game show, not to mention the ignominy of making a film with Justin Guarini, to earn grudging respect from critics in such places as The New Yorker, where Sasha Frere-Jones recently praised Clarkson’s hit-making instincts and her stolid determination: “Anti-poppists will have a hard time holding the line against Kelly Clarkson,” Frere-Jones writes, “who currently has the best rock song on the charts.” With Clarkson edging toward respectability and evincing some surprising cultural staying power, does her success then represent a vindication of the American Idol method for manufacturing pop stars? Is the ability to withstand the media glare and remain interesting (or at least tolerable) to watch to a stuporous yet fickle television public week after week ultimately more important than actual ability? Do the rigors of its season-long schedule, with all the audience pandering and carefully orchestrated indignities involved, make it akin to American presidential campaigns, where one’s mere ability to survive the inane scrutiny and the endless repetition and meaningless questions and the contrived face-offs with one’s competitors, proves one has the fortitude necessary for the national stage?
The comparison seems apt, because both American Idol, and our presidential elections function as celebrations of voting for its own sake, showcases for our ersatz democracy in which you, the wise viewer/citizen, are endlessly applauded for “exercising one’s rights” and choosing among the limited options offered without questioning why they are so pathetically inadequate and demanding better ones. No one thinks the performers on American Idol are the best the country has to offer any more than they think the customary presidential candidates represent our nation’s best and brightest. But voting isn’t an expression of one’s confidence in the choices. It’s an expression of self-satisfaction in one’s power to choose, and have one’s choice tallied. Awash in the ideology of democracy, of the sanctity of having a right to one’s own opinion and having one’s voice heard, we believe we are fulfilling our most exalted spiritual duty whether we’re trekking to our polling place on Election Day or we’re registering our whims in an Internet instapoll or phoning American Idol to weigh in on whose Elton John cover sounded better. Content that their voice is being heard, people can be complacent and apathetic about what they are choosing from and about. The voting booth becomes the best political pacification tool ever invented; it makes passivity seem like participation.
It’s easy to see why token voting has happened in the world of politics. Few Americans have the patience for policy details (typically dismissed as “wonkery” only a geek would care about), so they are content to let all the terms of all political debates be set by pundits, lobbyists and professional activists as long as thy get their moment to play-act the exercise of power every four years when everyone else seems to be paying attention. But it’s less clear why viewers would abdicate control over aesthetics, over the kind of entertainment that brings them pleasure, over the culture that furnishes our fantasies and aspirations. Why would anyone invest any time choosing between a few pop idols dredged up by a game show, why would one limit oneself to those meager options, when one can exercise one’s cultural tastes at any time in a myriad ways from a virtually limitless array of possibilities?
American Idol rests upon a contradiction in the ideology of democracy; it attempts to resolve the conundrum of everyone having a perfectly valid point of view on the one hand, and the majority always being indubitably right on the other. Taste is held to be absolutely subjective and yet is subject to the leverage that mass popularity brings to bear. The show captures in miniature what is generally true of art in a capitalist consumer culture, that we are free to register our aesthetic opinion in a “marketplace of ideas” that is always already circumscribed by the lowest common denominator of the largest feasible demographic. In the magic reconciliation the show tries to pull off, these incompatible ideas synthesize into the utopian notion that everyone's taste has equal value in the culture, which the voting process certifies and protects. But there are tastemakers in our society, and wielding certain kinds of elitist taste does manifest real power, drawing the shadowy lines of class that determine opportunity. So our eagerness to embrace the show and the bland talent it puts on offer reveals just how much we’re willing to sacrifice to wish away the reality of cultural capital. Before we'll admit the reality of snob power, we’ll listen to Clay Aiken sing and we’ll even pretend to like it.