The Academic's Guide to American Idol

Columbia Free Times | August 13, 2004
The Academic’s Guide to **American Idol**

By Dan Cook

What does Marxism have to tell us about **American Idol**? Perhaps more than you might think.

As a virtually inescapable pop-culture phenomenon, **American Idol** has generated a cottage industry of academic papers examining the show in terms of the “political economy of cultural production,” to use the language of the tweed-wearing set. In English, that means scholars are looking at why such a show is being produced, why we’re consuming it and what it all means.

To name just a handful of the papers floating around, there are: “American Idol as Mythic Hero: The Creation of a Cultural Icon”; “American Idol(atry): Constructing a Discourse of Nation Through Talent Programs”; and “Too Hard to Say Goodbye: A Look at the Group Dynamics on American Idol.” And those represent just one panel at an upcoming conference — the “American Idol: The Search for Meaning” section of the National Communication Association’s convention in November.

Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that professors have turned their attention to **American Idol**. Ever since Matthew Arnold referred to the rising 19th century working classes as “those vast, miserable, unmanageable masses of sunken people,” the battle lines between “high” and “low” culture have been clear, and plenty of scholars have been ready to weigh in.

Though Arnold’s 1869 book **Culture and Anarchy** came down firmly on the side of traditionalist high culture — preserved and defended by a privileged elite against the dirty, uneducated masses — neither history nor scholarship has been kind to his wishes. These days, “high” culture has been relegated to being a niche market (classical music, for example, accounts for 3 percent of all music sales), and scholars are more likely to attack a show like **American Idol** for reinforcing our cultural status quo than for undermining it.

So, what’s a scholar to think of **American Idol**? Here’s a tongue-in-cheek look at the possibilities, depending on where you stand in the various cultural studies traditions.

Culture and Civilization

In the tradition of Arnold, **American Idol** should be seen as a clear sign of the decline of Western civilization. Instead of testing our singers through rigorous training in the country’s best music conservatories, we choose contestants from among the uncivilized masses and then parade them like freaks to be judged by that least capable body, the American public. “At worst, mass culture threatens not merely to cretinize our taste, but to brutalize our senses while paving the way to totalitarianism,” wrote Bernard Rosenberg in the ‘50s. Clearly, the co-existence of **American Idol** and the Bush presidency shows that Rosenberg was on to something.


Instead of just bitching about **American Idol**, maybe we should try to **understand** it. “It is hard to listen to a program of pop songs … without feeling a complex mixture of attraction and repulsion,” wrote Richard Hoggart in 1970. I think I can relate, considering that the top three songs of 1970 were Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” The Carpenters’ “Close to You” and The Beatles’ “Let it Be.”


The point is not whether **American Idol** is “good” or “bad” — what matters is what it **signifies**. We use the words “American Idol” to signify a TV show on which contestants compete to be crowned the victor by millions of viewers. But we could just as easily use the words “American Idol” to signify something else entirely, say, a triple-scoop ice-cream sundae with red, white and blue sprinkles.

Marxism I: The Old School

Pop culture, like all culture, is merely a superstructure emanating from an underlying structure — the economic order. **American Idol** is a powerful tool of our corporate overlords, an opiate of the masses to keep us from revolting.

Marxism II: Neo-Gramscian Studies

**American Idol** and shows of its ilk demonstrate the cultural hegemony of the West in general and the United States in particular. We needn’t control the world through **military** imperialism, because we can control it through **cultural** imperialism, hooking the world on Western visions of fame, fortune, beauty and materialism. Why send our soldiers overseas when we could just launch a Marshall Plan for the spread of cable TV?


**American Idol** throws feminist theory a curveball. On the one hand, the vacuous, ass-kissing Paula Abdul is a horrible role model for our country’s young women, teaching them that self-esteem is more important than hard work. Plus, having two male judges and only one female judge — not to mention a male host — shows that **American Idol** reinforces patriarchy. On the other hand, two of the three winners have been women. Go figure.


The heir to such forerunners as **The Gong Show** (1970s) and **Star Search** (‘80s), **American Idol** represents an invigorating hodgepodge of ideas past and present, combining elements of classic talent shows with newer ideas associated with reality TV. Instead of progressing from one historical stage to the next, we now live in a time of cultural free-for-all, in which ideas from throughout history can co-exist simultaneously, and every idea is fair game for being poached, copied and refashioned for a new generation. There is no “high” and “low” culture anymore, either, nor are there truly any original ideas. There’s also no point to asking whether **American Idol** accurately “reflects” reality, because not only have we seen the merger of high and low culture, but also the merger of reality and fantasy. **American Idol** creates its own reality, and we’re free to choose whether to live in it.

Columbia Free Times

Free Times serves South Carolina's capital city of Columbia as a fresh and independent voice covering news, politics, arts and entertainment. One of the two largest non-daily newspapers in South Carolina, Free Times enjoys a large and loyal following from...
More »
Contact for Reprint Rights
  • Market Served: Metropolitan Area
  • Address: 1534 Main Street, Columbia, SC 29201
  • Phone: (803) 765-0707