"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.
Thank you for your insights,
Thank you for your insights, Katherine. You have provided some interesting food for thought as we begin our American Idol Season Ten Postmortem theme week. American Idol has been inextricably linked to patriotic fervor since Season 1. Just a week after Kelly Clarkson won the first Idol crown she was chosen to sing the National Anthem at the 9/11 attacks first anniversary memorial ceremony. While last night Season 8 winner, Kris Allen headlined the National Memorial Day Concert in Washington D.C.
I was struck by your comment regarding how this past season’s voting may be representative of the overall conservative backlash in recent political elections. The past winners have all been from “red states,” but as you stated the Season 10 finale match-up between Lauren Alaina vs. Scotty McCreery did not offer much choice. It was as if voters only had the option to vote Republican or Tea Party. And Season 10 marks the first time Idol contestants have been allowed to actively campaign for votes via social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
Up through season 8 as soon as contestants passed through to the semi-finals they were instructed to shut down their my-space pages or other such platforms. Starting in season 9 contestants uniformly posted canned Facebook and/or Twitter thanks to fans for their support. However this year, each of the contestants were able to actively tweet their personal thoughts. Scotty and Lauren both used Twitter to not only express their thanks to fans, but to also explicitly code themselves as Christians. On March 24 after Scotty secured a spot in the 10 Ten he tweeted, “wow, what a show! that was crazy! enjoying it tnight. The only way I've gotten this far tho is through Christ. he gets the glory! #iamsecond”
With the introduction of new singing based reality programs such as Simon Cowell’s new vehicle The X Factor or NBC’s The Voice (which has already proven to be more ideologically progressive by including four openly gay contestants in the competition) I predict American Idol will shore up its position as the “family values” option for home audiences. But, I guess we will have to wait till next season to find out.
I remain intrigued by the
I remain intrigued by the final two contestants. I can't recall a time when the final two were so stylistically similar. I had expected them to split some of the vote at the top 3 stage. I certainly think that there was something "produced" because Lauren was handled with kid gloves by judges. Also, I wonder how many people outside the genre stopped watching/voting when some of the other contestants were voted off (James, Casey, etc).
Overall, it clearly, as you note, reflects or manipulates something in the political horizon.
The Southern Strategy
I think one of the issues that you hit on is interesting... why is there seem to be a pre-disposition for the winner of American Idol to be from a state that is (or can be construed as) part of the American south? I believe all of the winners have been from the south with the exception of Lee Dewyze, who was from Illinois and happened to be up against a “dirty hippie” for the Idol crown. What’s also interesting is the notion that these contestants end up being historically written as commercial failures with the only two Idol winners actually making a mark on/in the marketplace (Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood). How, if at all, might that notion play within the God/Country paradigm?
ceding the territory?
It's my professional duty not to sneer at pop culture, but this season's AI finale made that especially difficult, for reasons you make clear in this post. I wonder if, post-Adam Lambert, the show's red state of mind is increasingly becoming a self-reinforcing phenomenon, as those with a broader pop pallete are simply tuning out, and ceding the territory. When actual global pop phenomena like Lady Gaga look like visiting foreign dignitaries on the show, might that be a sign that the jingoistic schmaltz McCreery is cooking up is only a recipe for the show's irrelevance?
an alien [or alienated] question
as someone who has never watched "american idol" -- yeah, i know, i know -- i find myself wondering if the show, and the phenomenon, have anything at all to do with the music itself . . . . or is it all identity politics? . . .
put it this way: if all these performers were judged entirely on the basis of audio only recordings of their work, would any of them have significant success, either with the general public or with musical mavens? . . . and in fact maybe the question should be posed in a way with larger resonances: is the world of pop music in general -- as evidenced repeatedly in this thread -- ultimately little more than a stage for playing out a rigid if somewhat defanged identity politics -- what tavia calls "jingoistic schmaltz"? . . . it sounds [to a foreigner to these territories] as if the difference between performer A and performer B is like the difference between two baseball teams: the game is essentially the same [and to that extent quite irrelevant]; all that matters are the uniforms
To me, Gaga was the perfect mentor for Idol, because she represents the entire ethos of the 19 Entertainment enterprise: manufactured, packaged, airbrushed inauthenticity.
Idol doesn't exist to find the next great singer. Its goal is to turn raw materials (i.e. a waitress from Texas) into a brightly-colored, cellophane-wrapped product it can fill the shelves with and sell to consumers as a fetishized commodity (i.e. KELLY CLARKSONtm). Authenticity actually works against the contestants in a variety of ways, because American popular culture is dominated by the commodity exchange in inauthenticity, and conforming as closely to that mold as possible is a recipe for success.
Who better than the most manufactured, most inauthentic woman in contemporary music ("Be yourself and don't care what anyone thinks, kids! But pay no attention to the fact that I'm wearing a dress made of light bulbs to ensure everyone LOOKS AT ME and that I'm desperate to be the center of everyone's attention!") to mentor the future 19 Entertainment commodities?
Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood have been huge commercial successes precisely for the reason Taylor Hicks, David Cook, Lee DeWyze and the like haven't been: they fit very neatly into pre-labeled boxes that are very, very easy to sell and very, very popular.
For this reason, I predict Scotty is going to have massive commercial success. "Deep-voiced country dudes who sing songs about God and Country" is a lucrative box to fit into, indeed.
My Response Is Too Long!
so I'm posting twice!
Thank you all so much for your excellent comments!
@Maria—great point about Twitter as a campaign tool this season, and the Christianness of the Top Two. Thanking God or Jesus, deflecting the “glory” to a higher power, has been of course a very common thing on Idol, as in other entertainment contexts. On a personal level for contestants, it’s the “spirit of capitalism,” and it helps artists with the difficulty of balancing the spiritual and the use of their voice (which many understand as a gift from God) toward a super-materialistic, capitalistic end. On an Idol level, it can be a campaign practice, the way it is in electoral politics, too. But that kind of rhetoric has fallen a little by the wayside in Idol the past couple of years. When Kris and Adam squared off, press set them up as the Christian husband vs. the wild young man (of unconfirmed sexual orientation—he was Jewish, too, but I think only other Jews, including myself, cared about that). Anyway, Kris insisted to the press that his faith would not and should not affect the voting. But we are back to religion this year. Also, right on about The Voice—I am sure the immediate and quadruple presentation of openly gay contestants was meant to prove that The Voice is definitely Not Idol.
@Tricia—I know several people who told me they stopped watching when James was voted off, and one who stopped when Casey made his exit! It does happen.
@Alfred—re: the issue of Southern winners—good call! There have only been 2 non-Southern winners out of 10 (the other one beside Lee was Jordin Sparks, who was from Arizona). For a while people were pinning this phenomenon on the fact that the mobile phone company (it was AT&T, then there was a merger and it was Cingular, then AT&T again) that sponsors Idol has had the most customers in Southern states. The idea was that, since the only way your vote could be guaranteed to go through was texting it, and you were only allowed to do that if you had an AT&T plan. This year things changed with the addition of Internet voting, so I’m not sure what that means yet…
@Tavia—it is absolutely possible that the issue is self-reinforcing. (In politics, too, right? Except in 2008, lots of cynical non-conservatives abstain…). And I love the idea of Lady Gaga as foreign dignitary. She has always seemed very European to me. I’m not quite convinced of the show’s impending irrelevance yet, but it could happen. If it does, well, 10 years is a pretty good run, in any case.
@Mike—Well, I’m an ethnomusicolgist, so on principle I have to say I’m not sure the music can be separated from the identity politics—but I get your point, for sure. You ask if all the performers were judged on audio recordings only, would they be successful? I will ask you a question in response to yours: Are any performers judged only on sound? DISCUSS. J
@Christopher—I like your take on authenticity as a liability on Idol. This is where genre politics get really complicated on the show, especially with Idol’s recent acceptance of rock. Back in the beginning of the show’s history, Cowell used to say rock singers would have to sell out if they were on the show, but now Steven Tyler is a judge!
I didn't follow the Tweets of the two finalists, but find it not at all surprising Scotty is a 'praise Christ' tweeter. I agree entirely with C. Bell when he writes, " I predict Scotty is going to have massive commercial success. "Deep-voiced country dudes who sing songs about God and Country" is a lucrative box to fit into, indeed." This box was already up there all packaged next to another country star in the finale... Let's just hope he can come up with something better than "Proud to be an American" and "cuz we will put a boot in your ass it's the american way." Let's also hope that this country turn is the darkest before the dawn -- both in terms of Idol going down, down hill and in terrms of what the popularity of god loving, america praising country music reveals about how far, far right we have turned as a nation. Left turn, people, left turn! At leas Gaga, though I agree with the points about her fame as ultimate commodity, offered some "monster" difference on the idol stage of commodified (countrified) sameness.
katherine at oberlin writes "
katherine at oberlin writes " — Well, I’m an ethnomusicolgist, so on principle I have to say I’m not sure the music can be separated from the identity politics—but I get your point, for sure. You ask if all the performers were judged on audio recordings only, would they be successful? I will ask you a question in response to yours: Are any performers judged only on sound?" . . . and the simple answer to her is "you bet" . . . i mention the oberlin connection because if katherine were to ask the voice students there she would find i suspect lots who think of musical success as a function of sound . . . in the period when radio was king many [most?] singers were known only thorugh their sound -- my mother never saw any of the singers whose pop songs made her cry . . . caruso became "the greatest tenor in the world" because his amazing records never revealed his roly-poly unpreposessing physiognomy . . .
no doubt these factors are of secondary interest to an ethnomusicologist, fair enough . . . but am i the only one who finds it noteworthy that in the world of "american idol" -- whose audience i imagine is largely free of ethnomuicologists -- identity politics seems to trump everything else, including talent
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