But weirdest of all and I'm betraying my professional bias here it celebrates critics. It's not just that more than 30 million people watch judges Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson dispense music criticism (if "Dawg, that was all over the place for me" counts as criticism). The show also turns even nonvoting viewers into critics, arguing who deserves success and what makes a "good" performance. Week after week, a society that is not terribly self-reflective asks itself, through Idol, what it likes and why.
The process works: Idol is the most reliable hit-launching platform in show biz. It dominates TV; rival networks refer to it as a "tsunami." Idol Season 1 champ Kelly Clarkson has sold more than 8 million albums; Season 4 winner Carrie Underwood, 5 million; and even Season 2 runner-up Clay Aiken, more than 4 million. Its alumni have won Grammys (Clarkson), Country Music Awards (Underwood) and even an Academy Award (Jennifer Hudson). To paraphrase Hudson's Oscar-winning lyric, Idol is telling you it is not going. And anyone in the hitmaking business should be listening to what it says about our national tastes. America does not yet know who will win American Idol. But we know as tested, argued and ratified over five-plus seasons what we like.
We Like to Hear a Story
American Idol, its judges are fond of repeating, is a singing competition. Anyone who wants to win it needs to learn quickly that that is a huge lie. Yes, singing is the price of admission ask Kevin (Chicken Little) Covais how far you can get on cuteness. But calling the show a singing contest implies that you can run any given performance through the Divatron 3000 and get an objective score, from 0 to 100 nothing personal.
The fact is, performance is nothing but personal. You get on Idol by singing; you win Idol by telling a story. Some do it through the songs: last year's winner, Taylor Hicks, was a master of that forlorn genre, the cornball story-song (In the Ghetto, Levon). Some make a story arc of their performances, like Clarkson, who grew over Season 1 from wallflower to leather-lunged sensation. Others make themselves the narrative. Season 3 winner Fantasia Barrino, for instance, had the story of teen baby-mamma who made good and subtly underscored it with performances like the soulful lullaby Summertime. "The stories are really key in connecting to the people they were before Idol," says host Ryan Seacrest. "You say, 'Hey, she used to work in a bank! I work in a bank. I can relate to that.'"
In a way, Idol is a makeover show. The audience likes to see nerds turned cool, frumps turned glam and awkward kids finding their legs onstage. And it likes to see itself as the invisible hand guiding the changes. A narrative makes the audience feel invested, the same way movie fans do in Brad and Angelina. "The journey of seeing the same people coming back week on weekyou have a relationship with them," says creator Simon Fuller. "You don't know what's going to happen. Sanjaya walks out with his crazy hairdo. It's a living soap opera." Season 6 contestant Chris Sligh called the job of getting the audience to identify with you "mak[ing] David Hasselhoff cry," referring to the Baywatch star tearing up when Hicks won last year's crown. Which brings us to point No. 2 ...
We Like to See the Good Guys Win Up to a Point
America is a country caught between meritocracy and morality. We are raised on fairy tales and movies that tell us nice guys finish first. Then we grow up and go into a job market that tells us it is not just O.K. but also necessary to richly reward the best and cut the laggards, however kind or hardworking they are.
Idol voting plays out this tension. The show is both sadistic see the hugely popular audition rounds, in which Cowell mocks the worst singers and sentimental. Voters have proved to be surprisingly ruthless bosses, firing the likes of cherub John Stevens, good kids who end up outmatched. But the voters are also willing to put a thumb on the scales for contestants who've paid their dues or have affecting personal stories. Ideally, Idol indulges the idea that the nicest people are the most talented, promising karmic justice in a pop world of Ashlee Simpsons and Paris Hiltons. "There are a lot of people who are not great singers who are selling a lot of records," Jackson puts it diplomatically. And voters will take points off for arrogance. Justin Guarini was Season 1's early favorite but lost steam when he started to seem as if he believed he was as good as everyone else said he was.