American Idolatry

Carl Trueman Articles
I start with a shameful confession. I belong to a family which regularly watches the frightful drivel called American Idol. All I can plead in mitigation is that my children are avid followers of the program; and both sons compensate for this failing by having otherwise impeccable music taste, involving generous helpings of The Who, the Stones, Aerosmith, Hendrix and Zeppelin.

Yet American Idol does have a certain fascination even for a classic rock snob such as myself. As the concept was put together by one of my fellow countrymen, I cannot play my usual sneering cultural superiority card; all I can perhaps do is apologise on behalf of the British people for such a monumentally vacuous program, while perhaps taking some quiet satisfaction in the idea that it is some small national payback for the US imposing Friends upon the world (apparently, this program is supposed to be a comedy; and if you believe that, give me a call -- I can do you a great deal on the Brooklyn Bridge). Yet the show has proved remarkably successful: most reality TV shows go into steep decline after the third series; Idol has continued to increase its share of network audience well into its fifth season. Obviously, the mix of crass popular culture, the smorgasbord of variable karaoke, and the opportunity to witness the potential creation of a star, have proved an irresistible combination.

The Evils of the English

Of course, Idol conforms to various canons of American popular entertainment, the most obvious being the line-up of judges. There is Paula Abdul, an attractive American lady who always aims to be as nice as possible about the performers. I suspect you could have Ozzy Osbourne (from my home town, by the way) with a sore throat singing On Moonlight Bay while gargling sulphuric acid and Ms Abdul would still regard it as "wonderfully sensitive and moving." Then there is a chap called Randy, whose jive talking vocabulary is simply beyond my middle class English comprehension but who seems (I think) to be generally positive about the contestants, though not to the same unconditional extent as Ms Abdul. Finally, the third judge is someone called Simon. He's English. Need I say more? The nationality gives it away: he's the hard man, the one who calls it as he sees it, the one who reduces contestants to tears. In other words, in the American context, he's the bad guy.

This is, of course, standard fare in American popular culture. The ethnic group which American popular culture most consistently portrays in terms of negative stereotypes is undoubtedly the English. From George Sanders as Shere Khan in The Jungle Book to Jeremy Irons as Scar in The Lion King to the latest villain in 24 (who's meant to be Russian, but still has a cut-glass Anglo accent. What a surprise!) to Sean Bean and Clive Lloyd in just about anything, the English guy is always the evil one. Not evil in the chainsaw-wielding psycho way; rather, evil in the "I have an inscrutably devious and malicious plan to take over the whole world" sense of the word. It rather spoils whodunits over here - as soon as you hear the English accent, you know exactly whodunit, even if "it" hasn't been `dun' yet. If ever the ACLU were to file a class action, English exiles in the US such as myself would rake in a small fortune for the emotional damage and social disadvantage that such persistent media prejudice has produced. Until that day of justice, however, my own philosophy is that of the Roman emperor, Caligula: let them hate us, so long as they fear us.

This Simon character is significant in other ways, however, beyond that of the token English hate figure. For a start, he's about as interested in engaging in "aesthetic conversation" as Moses, Jeremiah, or the apostle Paul were in "theological conversation." Love him or hate him, he knows what middle America will buy when it comes to easy listening pop and what it will leave on the shelf. The majority of sub-Shatnerian cover versions which form the staple of Idol get the rough edge of his tongue; the occasionally technically good but bland performance can expect the merest of passes. Americans may wince at the bluntness of his assessments, but their subsequent voting patterns indicate that they generally agree with his analyses.

The Secrets of Idol's Success

I suspect there are two aspects of Idol which have served to make it such a success. The first is that it points very clearly to the cult of fame and celebrity that so fascinates the modern West. In the televised interviews with the contestants a couple of points emerge as particularly striking. First, the contestants want to be famous; and, second, almost all of them feel they are especially destined to be so. This second point, I think, accounts for the fact that they rarely offer any profound rationale for the first. None of them ever seems to ask why they want to be famous, why fame is such a desirable thing. Money might be the obvious answer; but, of course, one can make money, lots of money, without being famous, and in so doing have none of the problems which fame brings in its wake. So money can, I think, be discounted as the primary motivation, however much of a collateral bonus it might be. Instead, I would argue that their ambition is the the result of them having been raised in a culture where fame and celebrity are unquestioned values, self-evidently desirable in and of themselves. Then, the contestants have also grown up in a world where personal value, purpose and self-worth are increasingly understood in solipsistic terms. The whole rationale of libertarian consumerism, upon which our Western economies basically depend, focuses on the centrality of the individual, and his or her needs, as the primary locus of value and meaning. The end result of this is narcissism, the notion that I am singularly important in the grand scheme of things; and consequently anyone who attempts to relativise me, my abilities, or my needs, is blaspheming the god-like importance my narcissism leads me to ascribe to myself. In the context of Idol, this narcissism comes to public fruition. American Idol is, in other words, a wonderful context for observing American idolatry, the idolatry of the self.

This is most acutely obvious, of course, in the hilariously self-important no-hopers in the early auditions whose singing is as tuneless as it is loud, and yet who earnestly believe that they are the next Elvis Presley, primarily, it seems, because their tone-deaf mothers told them so. The self-delusion is often positively scary; but it is entirely consistent with the narcissistic world we have created, where criticism is always deemed oppressive, nobody ever seems to grow up, and the difference between good and bad becomes merely a matter of personal preference. To say otherwise, to `do a Simon,' so to speak, to call rubbish by its proper name, is to opt out of the conversation, to exhibit dogmatic arrogance, to make oneself a reactionary curmudgeon. Yet idols, being dumb creations of the human mind, are never very good conversation partners; and one cannot therefore solve the problem by having a chat with them; one can only solve the problem by smashing them, whether with sticks, stones, or, deadliest of all, words.

The Seductive Nature of Sadism

Yet if what I have said so far explains the attraction of Idol to the contestants and their families, what of the second point which explains its attractiveness? How is one to account for its spectacular viewing figures? The viewer, after all, gains nothing from watching. Of course, some are probably attracted by the vicarious thrills of seeing others fulfill their dreams, but I have a darker explanation: I think it is the pleasure of watching others fail, of having their dreams torn down, of being crushed by the cutting comments of the English hardman on the panel, that exerts the attraction. It was George Orwell who said that all human beings are either masochists or sadists; and I have a sneaking suspicion that most of us incline strongly to the latter rather than the former. It is the weekly spectacle of seeing more wannabes biting the dust which keeps everyone tuning in, episode after episode. Indeed, I confess it: I like nothing more than seeing the fresh faced Jessica or Mary-Lou or Brad or Chad having their hopes of stardom ripped from their hands and then being dispatched back to supermarket checkout from whence they came. Nasty, but true. To quote two sayings of the cynic's cynic, Gore Vidal: it is not enough to succeed; others must fail; and (perhaps even more horribly honest) every time I hear of the success of a friend, a little piece of me dies. Idol plays unashamedly to such basic instincts, instincts found in all of us.

Seen in this light, Idol, both for contestants and for viewers, is a kind of trivial microcosm of the world as we now live in it, a world where the harmony between Creator and creation, and between one creature and another, has been severely disrupted. That's why it is so successful; and why reflection upon it is so instructive. Torn between wanting to be gods ourselves, and desiring to see all other pretenders to the throne cast down from their pedestals, we see in Idol the way the world is as we would wish it to be, played out in the comfort of our living rooms for our own entertainment. If you want to understand the modern West, watch the program and observe the overwheening narcissism of the contestants (particularly in the early rounds!); and if you want to understand what makes you tick, reflect upon what exactly it is in the program which is so attractive. Is it Buzz from Omaha dismembering Aerosmith's Dream On? Is it Dionna from Detroit trying her best at R-E-S-P-E-C-T? Or is it something deeper, darker, much more pleasurable but far more sinister, within your own heart?

Double the Idolatry

The idolatry embodied in American Idol is thus twofold. First, that of the contestants, who want fame as if fame was something worth the effort. Yet fame is only so to the extent that it deceives us into thinking we are indispensable and important, as it allows us to realize our latent idolatry of self. Second, that of the viewer, who rejoices at the sight of others being told, in no uncertain terms, that they are talentless, dispensable laughing-stocks, that they are not, in short, gods. Not as good as being god yourself, of course, but seeing others denied divinity is probably the next best thing.

I have said it many times in class, and now I write it in my column: the key to understanding and critiquing so much of human culture is total depravity. The drive to be like God is that which brought Adam to grief in the Garden of Eden; the desperation engendered by the success of a sibling was what drove Cain to murder. We might be more polite and superficially respectable than these two, but so many aspects of our culture, even trivia like American Idol, indicate that the central concerns of fallen human nature remain stubbornly intact, even in our most apparently harmless pursuits.

So what can we learn from this? Two things: behold the darkness of the unredeemed human heart, even in the small things. And, if you really want to make money in America, invent a TV program which capitalizes on idolatry. Oh, and if you decide on the latter and want some nasty English type to play the hate figure, just give me a call.