Why Are We Still Obsessed With “American Idol”?

It’s late-January and you know what that means? America’s favorite train wreck of a singing competition is back with its band of merry dysfunctional talent and its even more dysfunctional cast of judges… and Ryan  Seacrest.

Ever since 2002, Americans have been glued to their phones and TVs, eager to select the music industry’s next one-hit wonder (Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson and Jennifer Hudson not included, though Hudson didn’t win). Viewers tune in and listen to random “industry insiders” wax poetic compliments on fresh talent or, in a more likely scenario, be mean and condescending.

American Idol is the only television show to have been number one in ratings for seven consecutive years (11 seasons). And not just out of reality shows, but out of every show ever in the history of American television. But why? It wasn’t the first reality TV show, and it certainly wasn’t the first televised talent show. (Star Search, anyone?)

I’d love to say American Idol’s rise to the top was a reaction to the 2000 presidential election, where the electoral college silenced a majority of Americans and the show gave them a sense of regaining their right to choose. But that’s probably not the case as, Idol’s fan base is largely made up of people below legal voting age.

The rise of American Idol is comparable to the rise of the Tamagatchi, or Pogs, or Beanie Babies. All useless things that don’t have any impact on your life, yet had a domino effect on popular culture because they are easily accessible – or an easy way to add a hobby to your online dating profile (though I wouldn’t condone doing that). American Idol is the Cabbage Patch kid of TV. And just like these fad toys, as Idol gets older, it wanes in popularity and eventually it’ll be gone all together.

Some thought Idol would die with Simon Cowell’s departure. After all, his caustic wit and sardonic nature was the main selling point of the first nine seasons. His ability to call someone “absolutely dreadful” on a weekly basis and still cause the contestants to respect him was something to be admired – and it was funny. Simon Cowell mercilessly beat down nine seasons of pop star hopefuls, and he did the same to Americans. But at least the contestants had a reason to listen; they wanted fame. What do we want? A one-hour break from the monotony of daily life?

And therein lies the more likely reason for Idol’s popularity. Americans are escapists by nature. We escaped into obsessions with Pogs and Beanie Babies just as we escape into an obsession with what has turned into a pre-packaged talent show. There’s always the rock guy, the Jesus fan, the southern belle, the hardknock childhood story and the “I’ve never been on a plane before they flew me to Hollywood” one. The only thing that’s changed are the judges.

And here we sit, still obsessed with American Idol in its eleventh season, but not enough to make it number one. It’s still around, we’re still eerily drawn to Steven Tyler’s semi-inappropriate comments towards teenage girls and Randy’s “dawgs” while J.Lo sits there and tries to look hot enough to resurrect her career.

American Idol is here to stay–at least for another few seasons. So enjoy Steven Tyler’s outbursts, the horrible early auditions and Ryan Seascrest’s hair gel while it lasts because eventually “Idol” will succumb to the fate of your Tamagatchi and drown in its own excrement–metaphorically speaking.

Caitlin Tremblay I work at Thomson Reuters in NYC and I'm a 2011 graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. I could live off of Ring Pops and cucumbers and I still pay for music. I think tattoos, Chuck Klosterman, Rolling Stone, red pens, day planners and Shakespeare are rad. You can find me on Twitter (@CTrembz).

View all posts by Caitlin Tremblay

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