American Idolatry


It’s back, somehow seeming simultaneously like manna from heaven and a plague of fire descending to destroy us all.

My wife and I readied ourselves for last night’s premiere of American Idol‘s seventh season by cooking a delicious dinner and timing it so that we sat down to eat just as Ryan Seacrest appeared onscreen, accompanied by the chords of that theme song — so much like the revving of an enormous engine. That this engine has churned to life six times previously does not at all diminish its impact: on the contrary, its sweet electronic throb was a song of salvation, delivering us from our long trek through the dramaless desert of the writer’s strike.

OK, maybe that’s a bit strong: the last several months have certainly not been devoid of drama, whether in the kooky kaleidoscope of the presidential race or (ironically, tautologically) the writer’s strike itself, which has provided us all an opportunity to catch up on our viewing backlog as well as to reflect on what it means to have writers writing television at all. (Random observation: since new commercials keep coming out, does this mean that the creative content of advertising and marketing isn’t considered writing?) And as always, the concentric circles of collective fascination in the United States, with TV at the center of the conceptual bullseye, stop well short of encompassing the large and very real dramas experienced by the rest of the world; in other words, we should take a moment to remember that not everybody on Earth cares so passionately about what Simon, Paula, and Randy think, or about who will succeed Jordin Sparks.

For my wife and me, the excitement was multiplied by the fact that Idol‘s first round of auditions took place in Philadelphia, the city we now live a shocking 15 minutes away from. As the camera panned across the familiar skyline, it was hard not to succumb to Idol‘s implicit ideological address: I see you! Louis Althusser defined interpellation as the moment when, walking down a street, a cop calls out “Hey you!” and you turn around, believing yourself (mistakenly) to be the subject of the law’s address. For me, it’s all summed up in Ryan Seacrest’s direct gaze into the camera.


And then, of course, there are the crowds of hopefuls. Finally I see the point of high-def TV; the mass ornament of naked ambition, in all its variegated poppy-field glory, never looked so good as when rendered in HD. And at the other pole of specular mastery, the bad hair, flop sweat, and glazed eyeballs of the doomed auditioners has never seemed more squirm-inducingly intimate. Yes, the opening rounds of the new Idol promise to be as relentlessly mean as the previous seasons; nowhere is the long take used with more calculated cruelty than in the expertly extended coverage of contestants’ caterwauling, or the deadtime of waiting for the judges to drop the ax. Indeed, part of the pleasure of the coming months is knowing that out of this primordial, cannibalistic muck, we will ritualistically pull ourselves onto the shores of civilization, narrowing the field to the truly “worthy” singers, casting out the misfits until we arrive at the golden calf, er, One True Talent. On American Idol, cultural ontology recapitulates phylogeny; we replay, each season, the millennial-scale process by which our species learned to stop eating each other and got around to more important things, like popularity contests. (Come to think of it, Idol is also a lot like high school.)

The other nice thing about Idol is that there’s so freaking much of it; the two hours shown last night were but a skimming of the hundreds of hours of footage shot by the production. Assuming the brand continues its juggernaut profitability (and hey, now that TV is all reality n’ reruns, what’s to stop it?), we may someday see an entire channel devoted to nothing but Idol. That said, it was with something of a pop-culture hangover that I awoke this morning and realized that tonight brings yet more auditions, this time from Dallas.

My wife and I will be right there/here, watching. Will you?

5 thoughts on “American Idolatry

  1. I’ve just gotten tired of the show. I still love the early episodes, since they provide sadistic pleasures that give voice to my objections to the later rounds. At this point, I feel I’ve seen all the show can offer, since it’s really offered all it can offer. Endless comparisons of the supposedly democratic and wonderful American public to the evil that is that nasty foreigner, Simon Cowell (I used to see the show’s villification of him in comparison to the glorification of the American public as somewhat playful, but it now just seems more and more xenophobic); campaigns to vote for the worst; wonder and/or horror that bad people advance; normative body type being disciplined; yet more Barry Manilow specials; transformation of likeable people into plastic characters; yadda yadda yadda. And the theme song: please get out of my head 😉 Or, I guess worst of all is the feeling of entitlement from so many of its cast (hence my love of the early rounds when this is quashed). So, yeah, I’m a little tired of it, you could say

  2. I hear you, brother! Already the prospect of watching more auditions (and next week more, and the week after that …) feels like prepping for a burdensome task — getting out the snowshovels before a blizzard. On the other hand, as a card-carrying Lacanian, I’ve always believed that desire is rooted in the endless deferral of pleasure … a model neatly fitted to the chainlike structure of serial TV.

  3. I’m going with “a plague of fire descending to destroy us all.”


    You said:
    “We should take a moment to remember that not everybody on Earth cares so passionately about what Simon, Paula, and Randy think.”

    True. Over in the UK, they only care about what Simon, Sharon, and Danni Minogue think (on “X-Factor”, the UK equivalent).


    Then again, the UK *did* start it all with Simon and “Pop Idol” in 2001…

  4. “…the excitement was multiplied by the fact that Idol’s first round of auditions took place in Philadelphia”

    Apparently you didn’t have students asking you if they could miss class to pursue their once in a lifetime dream.

  5. Egad, no, I didn’t! I do know one person who tried out — she flew from Indiana to do so — but unfortunately we weren’t able to spot her among the televised crowds.

    For the record, I only got through about 50 minutes of Wednesday night’s edition of Idol, then switched to a recording of the new Terminator series (which I’m pretty impressed by). Judging from the ratings, the rest of the country is also less than enthralled by the new season.

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