American Idol: minerva taking wing at dusk

Media_week_chart Mark Berman of Mediaweek notes that American Idol helped Fox beat all the other networks combined, last night

Mr. Berman has a prediction to make:

Chris Daughtry is the definite favorite, while talent-less Bucky Covington is the most likely to bid adieu tonight. Potentially joining Bucky in the bottom three: Lisa Tucker and, unfortunately, energetic Taylor Hicks in place of oddball teen Kevin Covais. Did you ever, meanwhile, see a contestant more in love with himself than Ace Young?

I am surprised to see how easy it is to make predictions.  Everyone seems to know exactly who will win.  And there is surprising agreement.  Clearly, Kevin Covais will have to go just as surely (and for the opposite reason) that Santino Rice had to leave Project Runway.  Kevin was too nice and Santino not nearly nice enough.  (We want our icons, in music as in design, a combination of the two.)

But if we are truly a post modernist society, buzzing with variety and novelty, surely the American Idol confidence and consensus should be impossible.  Surely, the whole thing should be playing itself out as a great mystery, with, say, performances of emo that shock and puzzle.

That there is confidence and consensus tells us a) we are mostly wrong when we talk about the new structural properties of contemporary culture, or b) there is something about American Idol that smooths the way for our confidence and our consensus.  I am prepared to be talking into "A" but I have a feeling that the answer is "B."

After all, there are moments when watching AI where I find myself wondering what decade this is. No one has chosen a song penned in the 21st century.  Indeed, as Randy, Paula, and Simon are often moved to observe, clothing and makeup choices often seem to harken back to another time. This is my way of saying that American Idol is a lie and perhaps even a conspiracy.  It appears to be crafted to give the impression that American culture remains a mass culture, that happy time when every thing was known to everyone (see Monday’s post on the "death of destination television").

This is the "big brand" approach to contemporary music.  Covington is an Eagles imitator.  Daughtry is a road house rocker.  Ace does Motown.  My favorite, Elliott Yamin, a guy who looks endearingly like George C. Scott, covers Stevie.  The girls, generally, are anyone anyone wants them to be as long as it obliges them to dress in clothing that no one has worn for several decades.

As we have noted here before, the great fluorescence of cultural invention that is taking place at the moment has certain structural effects, some of them predictable, some not.  Predictably, it drives a plenitude of musical production, a fragmentation of consumer taste, and profusion of long tail markets.  Unpredictably, it creates a flight to the higher ground of broader choice. 

So much for the notion that the center will not hold.  The fluorescence of our culture at one end is forcing a new coherence at the other.  There are several benefits of this development.  One of these is that we are left with an impression that really this a mass society, that nothing has changed. And it’s a very veritable impression.  Forty million viewers.  God in heaven. 

I can think of several institutions that will buy the lie.  The business schools will say, "listen, American Idol is proof that we do not have to let contemporary culture into the curriculum.It is business (school) as usual."  Several brands, famous for the cluelessness, will also insist that American Idol is a license for complacency. 

Too bad.  For this appearance of cohesion is, I think, being driven by its opposite. 


Berman, Marc.  Programming Inside.  Mediaweek.  March 22, 2006.  By subscription.  Sorry, I don’t have an url.  I get the Programming Insider by email. 

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8 thoughts on “American Idol: minerva taking wing at dusk

  1. Tom Guarriello

    AI is one of the last bastions of “watercooler culture,” those events that we all participate in and talked about together the next morning. And we know it. I don’t just anyone if they watched the latest video on YouTube, or read a funny post on GoFugYourself or OverheardInNewYork, but I DO feel like I’m on pretty solid ground asking if it’s gonna be Bucky or Lisa going tonight (it’s Bucky, by the way.) And I think it’s the show’s retrocity (sorry) that makes it so…no incomprehensible rap lyrics, no ultra-gamey interface, no red/blue animosity, not even any po-mo leadership/religion lessons played out on the surface of New Caprica. Just dumbed down rock, soul and country; 21st century citizens singing in three 20th century dialects. Very comforting.

    Now, the startling development would be Mandisa winning with all that junk inside her trunk! That would be cause for pause!

  2. Christian Prophet

    Over on the Christian Prophecy blog the Holy Spirit’s message is that anyone can win (I guess everyone DOES win if viewed correctly). I guess the final message for all of us is we really don’t know what is going on, but miracles are possible.

  3. Patricia

    Its 21st century Solid Gold, with a smidge of the Gong Show and more sex appeal. American Idol is prepackaged nostalgia; the songs, clothing, etc. is all carefully chosen to look like its accidental. AI has more in common with The Long Tail than you might think. How many people buy the Eagles’ single on iTunes after they see it on AI? Or a Stevie Wonder tune? Or Motown? Back catalogs are profitable and fit into the Long Tail. AI is the lowest common denominator of mediocrity, but somehow Fox has hit a nostalgia, curiousity, and watercooler conversation nerve all at once. Geniuses.

  4. jane

    If I’m not mistaken, AI uses the old songs because they can be used for free. There are legal strings attached to using new songs.

  5. Grant

    Tom, well said, you should be writing this thing, Thanks, Grant

    CP, it will take a a miracle for Bucky, who is the next to go. Thanks, Grant

    Patricia, great point, one I missed completely, and shame on me. So it’s official, you and Tom should be writing this thing. Best, Grant

    Jane, this is a very interesting point, and it never occurred to me, ok, so its official…

    Tom, wouldn’t it be interesting to know how and why Covais was abandoned by his peeps. Best, Grant

  6. Auto

    everyone i know who watches it watches as though he’s a judge in keynes’s beauty pageant, trying to guess who the average judge thinks will win.

  7. Grant

    Auto, thanks, we are not choosing but guessing how other choosers will chose. Hmmm, why is this? Do we look down on the exercise as something designed for other people? We only participate, we claim, because this is a social phenomenon. We only care about it because other people do? Really? This is weird. This migh explain watching it once or twice. But do watch it often enough even to guess how others would guess…hmm, this is weird. Thanks, Grant

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