By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Illustration by Peter Bennett|
When George Bush made his daredevil landing last week on the USS Abraham Lincoln — an aircraft carrier obviously chosen to give him some Great Emancipator mojo — the event’s iconography came straight from Top Gun, but its essence was worthy of Hot Shots! Everyone knew the whole thing had been choreographed to provide the president with big-dick footage for his 2004 re-election commercials. Reducing the sailors to extras in the war they actually fought, Bush wrapped himself up in the bright banner of their triumph. He knows that America likes winners.
Rupert Murdoch’s minions know it, too. Even as Fox News portrays Saddam’s ouster as being only marginally less heroic than World War II (and with much cooler visuals), Fox’s American Idol 2 doesn’t merely grab millions of viewers — it keeps reassuring them that they’re players in a hit show. A couple of weeks ago, smirking host Ryan Seacrest, who resembles a tree slug impersonating the MC in Cabaret, welcomed us with exciting news: American Idol 2 wasn’t just the highest-rated program, but a song by the contestants, “God Bless the U.S.A.,” was the number-one single, and the new album by last year’s winner, braying Kelly Clarkson, had reached the top of the charts. The studio audience roared, thrilled to feel itself at the center of — what? Bush culture?
By now, everyone is aware that America has become a two-tier society in which CEOs make 200 times more than their workers (it was only 40-1 in 1980) and political candidates woo wealthy contributors but scrupulously avoid even mentioning the poor. What makes the Bush administration distinctive is its embrace of a philosophy we might dub Populist Social Darwinism. It boasts of returning power to ordinary people (“we want to give you back your money”), then pursues policies that will produce a few highly visible winners and unravel the social safety net, leaving the majority of people to fend for themselves.
Naturally, such political values don’t flourish in a vacuum, and it’s no surprise that today’s most memorable TV shows are reality programs such as Joe Millionaire, The Bachelor and, of course, the aptly named Survivor, all of which are essentially Darwinian games of selection, extinction and survival. Supreme among them is the riveting American Idol 2, whose calculated junkiness is so transcendent that I can’t decide whether to be aghast or genuflect. The show succeeds in taking the hoariest of ideas — the old-fashioned talent contest — and transforming it into the mirror of our national life.
One must envy the cunning (or luck) that led its producers to scuttle the first word of the original British title — Pop Idol — and replace it with “American,” a depleted adjective suddenly reinvigorated by 9/11. As it turned out, the renewed patriotic flourish of this word could hardly have proved more fitting. The winners of American Idol aren’t so much genuine pop stars, who succeed through the mysterious workings of talent and mass taste, as they are manufactured American idols. In the end, success has far more to do with fulfilling cultural fantasies than knowing how to put across a song.
You don’t need to be a music whiz to understand this. You need merely listen to Joshua Gracin, one of the four remaining finalists, who’s been hailed in Entertainment Weekly for his “Garth Brooks twang.” Wrong. There’s only one striking thing about the 22-year-old Josh: He can’t sing a lick. Yet week after week, the public votes to keep him on the show, even as affable panelist Randy Jackson declares that Josh’s pitch was too sharp and fussy Simon Cowell gripes that a singer so rotten wasn’t kicked off the first week. (What a masterstroke of cliché to make the truth-telling villain a bitchy Brit!) But Josh does have two things going for him. He’s a Marine and this is wartime. And evidently that’s enough in the current climate. “When Josh crooned the first few lines in the group’s ‘God Bless the U.S.A.’ performance,” wrote E.W., “he left no doubt that he’s proud to be an American. And we should be proud to have him as an Idol.” Josh may not have the stuff of a real idol, but he’s got a uniform to prove he’s American.
So are the other contestants, of course, but some Americans are more equal than others. After the April 30 show, a friend who’d never seen the series called to ask, “Is it just me, or is that show blatantly racist?” Actually, neither. From the beginning, one of American Idol’s scariest features is watching this country’s invisible voters boot off accomplished black performers in favor of lousy white ones. This may have reached its nadir last week, when the talentless Josh was one of three “safe” contestants while the two dark-skinned African-Americans, single-named Trenyce and mountainous Ruben Studdard, were made to sweat — one of them had been voted off. The shocker was the possible elimination of Ruben (one comes to know them all by their first names), a Luther Vandross in waiting who is so clearly the competition’s best singer that the panelists were rolling their eyes and suggesting, not all that subtly, that the public needs to kinda, you know, vote honestly.