The point of American Idol isn’t the music. If viewers just wanted to hear good singers, they have any number of options that waste less time and brain cells than watching Idol once a week: that is, albums, YouTube videos, concert footage, etc.
Why do people watch it, then? For the bad music. That’s why it’s amusing: we can watch people like Alexis Cohen (RIP), William Hung, or Sanjaya. Yeah, we love Jennifer Hudson (speaking of Motown style) and Adam Lambert because they can actually sing. But we buy their albums and see their films regardless of American Idol–that is to say, they have appeal that can carry them beyond their 15 minutes of novelty fame. But the other ones would never come to public attention without the show.
Better entertainment than some of the truly horrific performances, though, are the judges. I’m not talking about Randy and Kara. I mean Simon Cowell’s snark and Paula Abdul’s absurdity. This last is what Salon writers hated on a few weeks ago:
…Paula Abdul is a disaster in slow motion. Every time the camera turns its focus to her, she smiles weakly and looks embarrassed, then searches wildly for something to say. She stumbles on her words, giggles nervously, and trails off halfway mid-sentence, or is interrupted by an impatient Cowell. It’s like handing a 2-year-old a Mr. Microphone.
From the few times I’ve seen the show (and from my little brother Donovan’s testimony, who loves it so much that he once told me to call him back in an hour when I called him inadvertently during Idol to say happy birthday), this is more or less an accurate description.
Americans by and large don’t watch TV for competence (with the notable exception of successful shows like Mad Men, et al.). We watch the talking heads spewing what we know to be inaccuracies (i.e. Lou Dobbs and the Obama birther conspiracy), reality shows that make a point of sleep-depriving and inebriating their contestants for maximum argument potential, etc. I’m not judging; I’m just telling it like it is.
And we don’t watch American Idol to see good music. We watch it to see Paula make a train wreck of herself, hope at least a few contestants do the same, listen to Simon tear both apart, and when all that’s over with, perhaps hear a decent singer or two.
That’s why I’m actually sad that Paula’s leaving, unlike Salon’s TV staff. The pop-music phenomenon that is American Idol is, in the end, much more dependent on Americans’ taste for spectacular failure and the rare burst of success against steep odds: that is, more dependent on our ideas about the music business than on our ideas about the aesthetics of music itself. Without the quirks of the many personalities involved in making it, Idol producers won’t have a show, even if they keep sifting through the chaff of the American quest for fame and finding decent performers.
UPDATE: Speaking of Obama birthers…Salon thinks Orly Taitz should be the next Paula Abdul. Orly Taitz is indeed an amusing nutjob, but I’m more partial to their suggestion of Sarah Palin. It’s perfect for all involved: America loves to watch Palin self-immolate (the fake America, that is–the real America loves her non-ironically); Palin loves America’s attention; Palin will need a job once she realizes that she has no chance in the next election cycle. Courtney Love is potentially also a good choice, but she seems less pugilistic than Sarah Palin, which means she wouldn’t be as funny.