It’s a cult. It must be. How else could you explain a karaoke competition consistently drawing in more than 25 million viewers each week, rescuing the Fox network from the ratings basement. “American Idol” first aired during the reality TV explosion a few years ago. While other shows have completely disappeared or have seen their ratings dwindle to the point of cancellation, “Idol” just won’t go away. Now in its fourth season, the show is stronger than ever, leading Fox to an important sweeps victory. I just can’t understand why.

Beth Dykstra

How did this begin? The idea is simple enough: a singing competition based on the “Star Search” model. But “Star Search” never had numbers like these. The personalities on “Idol” aren’t special, either. Ryan Seacrest manages to be more annoying than he is manicured. With his California tan, teeth whitened beyond belief and purposefully messy hair, Seacrest is the face of the manufactured, soulless entertainment industry.

Paula Abdul won a Grammy in a Milli Vanilli-like coup but is best remembered for a video duet with an animated cat — she can’t be considered a serious judge of talent. Randy Jackson has an affable personality but is boring nonetheless. And then there’s Simon. Dubbed the asshole of “American Idol,” Cowell imitates Anne Robinson, the caustic British host of the thankfully cancelled “The Weakest Link.” He seems to get off from the audience’s hatred toward him and stretches to make “harsh” comments such as “That was extraordinary! Unfortunately, it was extraordinarily bad.” For some reason these elicit boos from the insipid studio audience, feeding his already inflated ego. He’s not so much witty as deluded: just another desperate character trying to become a star.

The contestants have nothing to offer either. “Idol” winners might have great voices, but their music is devoid of any creativity or personality. Kelly Clarkson’s songs have ripped off Christina Aguilera’s sound and even reached out for the guitar solo of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps.” Rather than search for songwriters or producers, the show throws out “artists” whose creativity is limited to selecting the right covers to sing.

Season two supposedly featured two artists great enough to both be considered the American Idol. The Ruben vs. Clay showdown became the television equivalent of the 2000 Presidential election with only a small percentage of the vote making a difference. 25 million votes were cast, all in an attempt to determine which mediocre singer would get a better record deal. Ruben won by a slight margin, but his career was surpassed by runner-up Clay Aiken’s masterpiece, “Invisible.” With such lyrics as “If I was invisible / Then I could just watch you in your room,” Aiken should be eager to point out that he doesn’t write any of his songs. He just sings what his label gives him, whether it be grammatically incorrect, creepy or both.

And who can forget the true star of season three, William Hung? His annoying persona and rendition of “She Bangs” refused to disappear, threatening the “credibility” of the show. Once again, however, a clever marketing trick managed to make this guy rich while other, more deserving artists were stuck with buyers’ excuse of too expensive CDs.

Even scandals have failed to slow “Idol” down. After less deserving acts in season three were able to continue to the show’s later rounds, allegations of voting problems surfaced. Sides were taken, votes were checked and “Idol” refused to admit to any error. Broadcast & Cable magazine looked into the incidents and found that, while each text message vote from sponsor AT&T’s phones was counted, many people calling in were unable to get through because of overburdened phone lines. As a result of the crowded phone lines across continental America, Hawaiians were able to get through with a disproportionately high success rate, allowing a sub-par native to stay on the show. Even with these allegations that seem to undermine the entire concept of the competition, people tuned in and accepted the producers’ statements that nothing was wrong.

So what can be done to stop “American Idol?” Another scandal? Unlikely. Someone leaving? No, too much money is tied up in the show. No singers with star potential? Hasn’t really stopped them yet.

But there is hope. Music fans had to deal with America’s pop fascination with Britney, *NSYNC and all the imitators, but eventually everyone grew up. Every empire must come to end — now it’s “Idol’s” turn. It’s just a matter of time before its viewers come to their senses.

— Punit owns three copies of “From Justin to Kelly” on DVD. Sing along with him at mattoop@umich.edu.


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