The centerpiece of popular culture and current bastion of pop music, American Idol, came to an end this week. By the time this column hits the stands, the second American Idol will have been chosen, and one lucky soon-to-be star--if only for 15 minutes--will be the latest random nobody with a contract and a record.
As I try to make deadline I don't know who that someone will be. As America punches in Ruben or Clay's text messaging code into their ATïœ|T wireless phones (someone in marketing surely got a promotion over that one), this paper may very well be running through our local printing press. Despite what happens, I am forced to admit I have been watching with intrigue and enjoyment the whole time. Whether it's because the show's appeal is reminiscent of a train wreck, the impossibility of actually peeling your eyes away, or because these people are genuinely talented, I'm hooked.
There are obvious problems with the basic concept of American Idol. First and foremost, the show represents everything "wrong" with the pop-music industry. It's manufactured and superficial, based on everything from who has the right look to who has the most charm to (as some conspiracy theorists have speculated) who has the US Marine community backing them. The winner is chosen specifically, and successfully, to be a star, letting everyone in on the sad fact that celebrity can be, and most certainly is, manufactured. Musical talent is reduced to vocal ability, and has no real link to instrumentation or actual song writing, a fact long championed by the anti-pop camp as the Achilles heel ohttpe industry. Finally, pop music is more about cross-marketing, branding and synergy than about music. Profits come less from record sales and more from advertising, syndication, sponsorship and spin-offs (From Justin to Kelly is due out in theatres next month). Worst of all, the show takes these qualities which the music industry once fervently shied away from and embraces them.
On the other hand, this unapologetic, up front approach to the pop industry, not pretending to be anything but an enormous cash grab, is what makes all these things unimportant, irrelevant, even condonable.
Before I, and others like me, are shunned for sitting down for three straight nights this week for the finale, or for singing along with and tapping our feet to Kelly Clarkson's new single (the winner of the first American Idol), something should be said in our defense. Despite everything wrong with this phenomenon (which will continue with Canadian Idol, American Idol Junior, Star Search and more), there is nothing wrong with a little guiltless indulgence--or a lot, for that matter.
The Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and N*Syncs of the world take themselves too seriously. Britney is innocent. She isn't a marketing tool, and certainly not a sex object. Backstreet Boys fans are outraged when the pop quintet's integrity or abilities as musicians are questioned--hey, every once in a while one of the boys brings out a guitar. How's that for legitimacy? Even N*Sync had a thing or two to say when people asked "What's the deal with this pop life/And when is it gonna fade out?"
American Idol, however, from the contestants right on up to the infamous Simon, has no pretenses about what this show is: a product, carefully molded and skillfully packaged and promoted. This isn't the music industry, it's just good television.
So before you start naming names or cry "victim of pop-culture," take this marvel of modern culture for what it is: a nice experiment, and an honest admission of what we knew all along.
Pop music is simply pop culture--fun, fake, and not to be taken seriously.