In the future, everybody will be famous for fifteen minutes.
Poor George Orwell--all his bleak, monochromatic visions of a future epitomized by a jackboot stamping you in the face forever were made even more horrible by the real 1984--beginning with Apple's legendary Superbowl commercial wherein at least the proles won, thanks in no small part to the introduction of the Macintosh for the masses. That fooled us momentarily, but then came the onslaught of big hair, which begat glam hair bands, which begat spandex as de rigeur apparel for every mall rat in America, which begat, as a counterstrike, alligator polo shirts, which begat Urkel, which begat Tiffany, the first mall pop superstar, which fulfilled Andy Warhol's prophecy.
The future turned out to be not Winston Smith, but Madonna.
Okay--we did get newspeak and black helicopters, but the world, at least superficially, turned out to be not Orwellian, but Warholian. And Warhol's vision was every bit as grim as Orwell's. Warhol saw a future where fame was manufactured, and consequently meant nothing, as evidenced by his Marilyn Monroe series.
All of which brings me to American Idol...
At its core, Idol is a singing competition--not exactly an earth-shattering concept--in fact, it's been a mainstay of entertainment from Day One, albeit usually relegated to second or third tier syndication. But Idol is light years removed from Star Search. American Idol is a paean to flash and glitz disguised as an earnest search to find America's next sensation.
Make that America's next fifteen minute diversion.
What makes it the phenomenon it has become is that it preys on our baser instincts, such as, say...rubbernecking as we whiz by the scene of a horrible automobile accident and the subconscious superiority we feel that we weren't part of the carnage. The instinct to survive is a powerful one, made even more palatable if we don't have to get actively involved. Of course, Ryan Seacrest will scold us if we con't vote for our favorite contestant, to remind us that it's our fault that the voted-off contestant is fated to return to a life of drudgery in heartland honky tonks when he or she was soooo close to becoming the embodiment of all that is good and just in the world.
Truth be told, they were just too mediocre to take the time to call or spend the dime to text our support. Besides, I couldn't live with myself if I had been responsible for nipping Bob Dylan's career in the bud because he was "a little pitchy", as Randy Jackson would say. Not that I would need to feel guilty-- Paula Abdul would absolve me of any guilt by reassuring Bob and me that he made every performance his own. None of that would matter, though, because Simon Cowell would reassure me that the reason he lost was because he just didn't have what it takes to be an American Idol so it wouldn't have mattered anyway.
And therein lies the fallacy of American Idol.
You simply cannot manufacture art--it's just not a democratic process. Any artist has to heed his inner voice, not put his soul to a popular vote. Sure, most of the contestants can actually sing, but so can millions of other people. That does not in and of itself make one a pop star. In the end, there has to be that voice that speaks to all people--Sinatra had it. So did Johnny Cash, as does Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen-- and more recently, Bono and Leela James. The list goes on...
But what separates the artists from the American Idols is not that they can sing, but that they believe in themselves enough to not need validation from the great unwashed before they pay their dues and ultimately force themselves into our collective soul.
Fess up, folks---the real reason we love American Idol is the same reason we love The Sopranos---
We just have to know who gets offed this week.