|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 events 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 Murdochs minions know it, too. Even as Fox News portrays Saddams ouster as being only marginally less heroic than World War II (and with much cooler visuals), Foxs American Idol 2 doesnt merely grab millions of viewers it keeps reassuring them that theyre 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 wasnt 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 years 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 dont flourish in a vacuum, and its no surprise that todays 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 cant 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 arent 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 dont need to be a music whiz to understand this. You need merely listen to Joshua Gracin, one of the four remaining finalists, whos been hailed in Entertainment Weekly for his Garth Brooks twang. Wrong. Theres only one striking thing about the 22-year-old Josh: He cant sing a lick. Yet week after week, the public votes to keep him on the show, even as affable panelist Randy Jackson declares that Joshs pitch was too sharp and fussy Simon Cowell gripes that a singer so rotten wasnt 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. Hes a Marine and this is wartime. And evidently thats enough in the current climate. When Josh crooned the first few lines in the groups God Bless the U.S.A. performance, wrote E.W., he left no doubt that hes 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 hes got a uniform to prove hes American.
So are the other contestants, of course, but some Americans are more equal than others. After the April 30 show, a friend whod 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 Idols scariest features is watching this countrys 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 competitions 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.
This isnt to say that last weeks vote was an overt racist attempt to knock black singers off the show, though such feelings are doubtless part of it. At my parents lily-white retirement home in the Midwest, all the golfers root against one guy. Guess who? Still, the shows skewed balloting probably has more to do with an insidiously casual racism based on familiarity and comfort. Just as NFL owners pass over promising black coaches in favor of white retreads with whom they feel socially at ease, so perhaps American Idol 2s viewers tend to vote for the contestants who somehow seem the most like themselves or their dreams of themselves. Which tells you something about the demographic for flag-waving event television. If this show were broadcast on wigger-happy MTV, both the music and the voting would have a different racial cast.
In the end, Ruben lived on to sing again, and Trenyce, who may now want to reclaim her real name, got the hook. But she didnt depart without doing her bit to fatten the Murdoch fortune. Its part of the diabolical genius of American Idol 2 that the contestants arent merely enlisted into commercials for the shows sponsors you know, Ruben and Clay crooning for Ford but are also used to cross-promote other Fox product. Last week, Josh, Ruben, Clay, Trenyce and Kimberley were filmed at the premiere of X2. Afterward, they told us how fab the movie was (could they have actually seen this dud?), and their praise was folded into the show. In Trenyces last hurrah, they even used digital effects to turn her eyes milky-white, just like Halle Berrys Storm. As she walked off the stage for the last time, leaving behind Americas most popular Marine to mangle more music, she may well have been pondering the cruel law that still underwrites American Idol and, for that matter, American Populist Social Darwinism: survival of the whitest.
Connoisseurs of schadenfreude have had a delightful week. Alabama fired its football coach, Mike Price, after it was revealed hed spent $1,000 on (and an unconscious night with) a stripper whose name, Destiny, proved all too uncannily true. Iowa States basketball coach, Larry Eustachy (the states highest-paid government employee!), was forced to resign after photos showed him at a post-game Mizzou party guzzling beer and nuzzling a coed. Dude, never kiss the chick whose boyfriend is holding the camera. While these Coaches Gone Wild moments allowed sportswriters to mount their high horses does anyone worship and loathe their subjects more intensely than these wannabe jocks? these stories gave me no pleasure. One shouldnt exult in another mans frailty. But I must confess that I hooted when Newsweek and The Washington Monthly reported that manatee-shaped Republican William Bennett, Americas former drug czar, exsecretary of education and tireless Clinton scold, has gambled away up to $8 million in casinos over the last decade.
To be fair, for all his well-paid sanctimony about Americas moral decline he gets 50 grand for a speech and made a small fortune from The Book of Virtues Bennett has done nothing illegal, nor has he ever spoken out against gambling. But it does seem convenient that the only victimless vice that he doesnt denounce just happens to be his own the guy seemed plenty happy to imprison poor drug addicts. Still, the most pathetic part of the story isnt that Bennett lost all that money but that he lost so much of it in the dehumanized realm of the slots and video poker. I dont know what grandiose fantasy Bill thinks hes living, but it aint exactly 007 at the chemin de fer table in Monte Carlo.