"Apparently," Gore Vidal wrote (unless Penn Jillette made that one up, too), "a democracy is a place where numerous elections are held at great cost without issues and with interchangeable candidates."
When the confetti comes down in the Nokia Theater on Wednesday, three things will be certain: the new American Idol will be a teenager, Southern, and a country singer. We’ve had all of those qualities before in individual finalists, but Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina are the first Top Two since Season One to offer American voters an outright non-choice. Usually, the finale sees a certain polarity of genre, identity, and, most importantly, of competitive demographic (think Soul vs. Adult Contemporary via Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken, or Guy Next Door vs. Guyliner with Kris Allen and Adam Lambert). In 2011, though, the Idol two-party system has yielded to a new order as uniform as the 2012 Republican race, underlining the kind of industry homogeneity of which critics have long pegged Idol as both symptom and carrier. And the triumph of family-friendly country music here is no accident, but speaks of a reaction against the past three rock-oriented seasons (and maybe against the casting of bad-boy rock god Steven Tyler), and echoes the intense conservative backlash in recent elections and policy-making. Country is also, of course, the genre of Carrie Underwood, who recently surpassed Kelly Clarkson as Idol’s greatest success.
Scotty’s Top Four performance, "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" says it all. Scotty has been a (literally) unwavering voice this year—a straight-toned, preternatural bass with a cross pendant, a steadfast devotion to country and a blushing aversion to Lady Gaga, and a shrewd mind for song choice. Scotty sang "Where Were You," originally Alan Jackson’s response to 9/11, the week after President Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden. American Idol’s tenth year is, not entirely coincidentally, also the tenth anniversary of the attacks; the show premiered exactly nine months later, and, I think, became what it is largely because of this timing and producers' perceptive awareness of American identity—and electoral—politics. Scotty’s performance called back to the shaky years after "that September day" when religion colored America’s every word and every decision, and also the songs that topped the charts. For me, Scotty is a reminder that there’s no such thing as a "simple singer of songs" when politics and entertainment meet.