Guys hesitate to admit they actually watch American Idol. In a crowd, it usually takes one man with the courage to stand up and say “I like David Archuleta,” before the rest of the cowards will grudgingly concede they too have been following the competition. The Nielsen ratings are simply too high for the audience to be limited to one gender. And, despite my aversion to the oppressive Coca-Cola and Ford advertisements, I watch it too.
Although I have never voted for a contestant, and over the course of the season my interest ebbs and flows, after watching Wednesday night’s finale, I find myself weirdly comforted.
In our nation, entertainment is increasingly directed at narrow, niche markets (a lesson no one learns harder than the print journalist.) But in a republic of chubby people clicking their computers in dark bedrooms, there is something nostalgic and unifying about a show that celebrates American music, from Andrew Lloyd Webber to Dolly Parton – even if it is cheesy.
And with television rapidly devolving into a wasteland of reality shows whose central premise consists of watching unintelligent, insecure people injure themselves, American Idol, like a handful of other reality shows, actually manages to make you feel positive. The performers are mostly earnest, decent (often delusional) young people. And some of this year’s finalists were immigrants or first-generation Americans, a reminder of how most of us ended up here in the first place.
Even the judges are respectful and encouraging of the contestants. Any time Simon Cowell seems overly harsh, and I rarely think he is, I imagine what an actual record company executive might have said if the same performer had played in a closed audition, and I guarantee Cowell is tender-hearted by comparison.
Nor do I even feel bad for the Idol runner-up anymore. Most everyone who finishes in the top three scores a record deal in some form or another. At the very least, they get a free Ford SUV or a lifetime supply of leather pants or something.
And so another season comes and goes in the second best, quintessential American contest there is, unrelated to sports. The favored winner was upset by something like 12 million votes. The crowd screamed. The plastic TV people cried. The curtain came down on American Idol for another year.
Hopefully the 32 million people who watched the talent competition will turn their attention to another contest working its way through the country. Its preliminary round hits Montana June 3, and unlike American Idol, casting your vote is free.
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