The Popular Vote: 'American Idol' Puts a New Spin on Democracy

Isthmus | May 10, 2007
It's the most popular show on television. In fact, it's the most popular show in television history, routinely crushing whatever the other networks put in its path. The Olympics? No contest. Among mega-sporting events, only the Super Bowl attracts more viewers, but the Super Bowl's never gone head to head with American Idol, Fox's biweekly, sometimes tri-weekly, juggernaut. And when President Bush almost did, it wasn't pretty. The combined viewership, on all the broadcast networks, for this year's State of the Union address was easily surpassed by that week's episode of American Idol. Perhaps if the president had sung a few bars of "Hail to the Chief".

American Idol isn't just a big hit, it's a broad hit, appealing to both young and old, rich and poor, black and white, red state and blue. Its audience, especially the part that participates in the weekly voting, is a reflection, however distorted, of the country from which it is drawn. Not for nothing does Ryan Seacrest, the show's unflappable master of ceremonies, reveal the fate of an on-the-block contestant by saying, "America has voted, Sanjaya, and you are safe." In numbers Uncle Sam would kill for, America has indeed voted -- early and often, as they say in Chicago. There's no need to Rock the Vote. Employing Golden Oldies from the Hit Parades of yesteryear, the vote is already sufficiently rocked.

How to explain the show's unprecedented popularity? Because, let's face it, Ted Mack's Amateur Hour never racked up these kind of numbers. Nor, more recently, did Star Search. One thing that American Idol has added is shame. Contestants are expected not just to display humility but to endure humiliation, usually at the hands of Simon Cowell, whose fatwas would send a chill up Salman Rushdie's spine. Another thing the show has added is stories. We don't just vote for singers, we vote for embodiments of the American way of life, residents of A Town Called Hope who, like Bill Clinton, have dreamed of bigger and better things. If you can get David Hasselhoff to shed a tear, it doesn't matter whether you're a little pitchy.

What really sets American Idol apart, however, is its voting apparatus, an elaborate system of teletronic gears and levers that, as a side effect, has revolutionized the way America communicates with itself. Before the show began, we were lagging behind Europe and Asia in the use of text-messaging. Now, you can't leave teenagers alone for five seconds without them text-messaging all their friends about how lonely they feel. Last year, American Idol received 65 million text messages, most of which were counted among the 570 million votes that were cast. (There are also text-message chats, etc.) Meanwhile,, the program's website, logged 40 million unique hits. As Advertising Age put it, "That's a ridiculous amount of interactivity."

Ridiculous or sublime, American Idol has done what political campaigns have been unable to do in a while, if they were ever able to do it. It has made people feel like they have both an important role in the process and an effect on the outcome. They're interested. They're downright excited. They want to vote. In fact, some of them are prepared to pay for the privilege -- i.e., those text-messagers, who don't take advantage of the show's toll-free phone numbers. What does it say about an election where the voters impose a poll tax on themselves? And why can't our presidential elections, even that infamous Bush-Gore smackdown, get our juices flowing so bubblingly? Jay Leno said politics is show business for ugly people. Has show business become politics for good-looking people?

Put another way, has a singing competition become the Voice of America?

The parallels are striking. Think of a season of American Idol as a primary campaign, followed by a general election, complete with red, white and blue inaugural confetti. Individual episodes are akin to debates, the candidates -- excuse me, the contestants -- judged not only on how well they perform but on how well they spin those performances afterwards. "They know they're instant politicians from the moment they begin to speak," Seacrest told Time magazine. "I've felt the energy change in the auditorium when they say something humble or take the criticism in a clever way." As it does in the political realm: Where would Dan Quayle be today if he'd summoned up with a decent comeback to Lloyd Bentsen's "and you're no Jack Kennedy" quip?

Speaking of Jack Kennedy, it was he who brought star appeal to the realm of the ugly people. Nobody used to get all hot and bothered over President Eisenhower, that ol' chrome dome. But Kennedy, with his full head of hair and youthful vigor, ushered in a new era of telegenic candidates. Suddenly, they weren't so ugly anymore, and the campaigns started to feel like casting calls, auditions and selections of who would play the lead in that long-running production called American history. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were throwbacks, behind-the-scenes manipulators, but name a president since Jimmy Carter who didn't look good on TV -- tall, often lean, always well coiffed. Ronald Reagan even came out of TV and movies.

The American Idol contestants may not always be fabulously good-looking -- that's part of the show's reverse-snobbery appeal -- but they're aglow with youthful vigor. To be elected president, you have to be at least 35 years old, but Idol doesn't trust anybody over 30, its age limit reaching from 16 to 28. And yet the show itself appeals to children of all ages, from gum-chomping girls to Geritol-swigging grannies. (Two-thirds of the voters are female, reportedly.) Not since Ed Sullivan's "rilly big shoo" have the various generations -- Greatest, Baby-Boom, X,Y and Z -- gathered so contentedly around the electronic hearth. And there's no sign of Elvis or the Beatles or their modern-day equivalent coming on and endangering the truce.

On the contrary, the finalists -- even the "edgy" ones -- have a clean-cut Mouseketeer vibe that jibes with those other Mouseketeers-turned-superstars, Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake. They have to. Otherwise, they couldn't reach out to those great cross-sections of the American electorate -- urban North, the rural South, the industrial East, the mountainous West, but mostly the rural South. For American Idol, to the extent anybody's been able to tell, skews south of the Mason-Dixon Line. All the winners and almost all the runners-up have come from down there. They said the South would rise again, but who knew they were referring to the record charts?

The trick, if you're a Southern-based contestant, is to expand beyond your base without alienating it. (Sound familiar, Jimmy Carter? Bill Clinton? Al Gore? George Bush?) And that's where the sincerity ploy comes in. "Sincerity is everything," Noel Coward once said. "If you can fake that, you've got it made." And the American Idol contestants are either the most sincere performers on the face of the Earth or the biggest fakes since Bill Clinton or George Bush, take your pick. Was last year's Kelly Pickler, whose very name suggested sitting at the kitchen table, canning vegetables, for real? That was up to America to decide. And if she happened to have a way with a song (she didn't), so much the better.

Like political candidates, Idol contestants can't stand still. They have to evolve over the course of the season, enlist the audience in their quest to be all they can be. At heart, it's yet another makeover show, most clearly demonstrated by Clay Aiken's amazing transformation, in mere weeks, from four-eyed, pale-skinned, carrot-topped geek to two-eyed, bronzer-toned, carrot-topped geek with a hell of a pair of lungs on him. But you can't just declare yourself a star, put your past behind you. That's America's job. As James Poniewizik astutely put it in Time, "You need to convince the audience members that you didn't change yourself to win, but that they helped you become a better version of yourself."

Toward that end, there's a lot of manipulation that goes on, both by the contestants and by the show's producers. Remember when single-mother Fantasia brought her daughter onto the stage? Who authorized that little photo opportunity? Politicians have long known the value of kissing babies, and American Idol doles out these occasions without explaining why some of the contestants get them and others don't. Likewise with the order in which the contestants perform: Going last is like having your name at the top of the ballot, good for any number of extra votes. And finally there are the judges, who are closer in spirit to lobbyists, pulling for personal favorites or for whoever might be considered in the show's best interests.

Would they really do that? Would Randy Jackson ever claim it was da bomb when in fact it was just all right for him, dawg? Well, let's just say we'll never know, because there's a veil of secrecy draped over the whole process of choosing the next American Idol. The election may be free, but it's hardly open, which can lead to controversy. When future Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson was thrown off the show, there were complaints of malfunctioning machines, stuffed ballot boxes, power outages, basically everything but hanging chads. And the show more or less asks for trouble by refusing to disclose anything about the vote except who lost and who won, how many votes were cast and, on rare occasions, what the margin of victory was.

The total number of votes cast is worn like a badge of honor, a kind of alternative Nielsen rating, but you have to wonder about those numbers. What exactly do they mean? Unlike every other democracy, from Athens to Iraq, American Idol allows viewers to vote as often as they want and are able to, given the two-hour window of opportunity. And there are rumors galore of rapid-redialing devices that allow those so inclined to place anywhere from 1,200 calls (using a land-line phone) to 125,000 calls (using a computer with a high-speed internet connection) per hour. The show claims to be on top of the problem, and maybe is. It also reserves the right to disqualify any votes it considers unfairly cast. Katherine Harris, eat your heart out.

So, perhaps we should take it with a grain (or an entire shaker's worth) of salt that 63 million votes were cast in last year's finale, "more than any president in the history of our country [has ever received]," as Seacrest told the television audience that night. But whatever the actual numbers were, the show's contestants can be credited with creating an excitement about voting that our political candidates would be hard-pressed to match. Voter turnout in the United States has been on a downward trend since the 1960s, hovering around 50 percent of the eligible population. That puts us last among the world's major democracies, most of which have suffered declines of their own. Perhaps we're too busing exporting democracy to practice it at home.

Actually, there's a lot of disagreement among scholars over why so many of us can't be bothered to vote. There's even disagreement over what it means. Some see it as a sign of indifference, even alienation. Others see it as a sign of contentment. We don't vote, the argument goes, because we don't have to. Things are pretty good, so why bother? For the indifference/alienation crowd, Vietnam and Watergate, those two great disillusionments of the 60s and 70s, come in for their share of the blame. So does television, the one-eyed monster that has gobbled up all our spare time and left us Bowling Alone. But whatever the reasons, there are a lot of people who feel like their one little vote won't make much of a difference.

But what if they weren't limited to just one little vote? And what if they were allowed to vote over the phone? Or on the internet? What if we abolished the Electoral College, which nobody ever seems to graduate from, anyway? Better yet, what if we turned the presidential election into a nationwide lottery, each of us holding on to a corner of our ballot in the hopes of winning -- oh, I don't know -- $25 million? That's a pittance compared to what gets spent these days to drag people to the polls. Or what if we added a talent component? Each candidate would have to go before the Supreme Court and plead his or her case -- in song and dance. As absurd as that sounds, it would sure beat the hell out of sitting through another convention speech.

And it might get kids interested in politics. Historically, young people have been the least likely to vote, and they're even less likely to do it these days. But American Idol may be changing that. Young people are its core demographic -- early-teen girls, in particular. This is just a guess, but I suspect the average American Idol voter looks like the Olsen Twins. She may not know who her congressional representative is, but she knows who Blake Lewis is, having voted for him any number of times. And maybe all those votes she's cast are a rehearsal -- a training bra, if you will -- for when she one day takes the stage as Jane Q. Public. In its own self-aggrandizing way, American Idol may be putting the "participatory" back in "participatory democracy."

That's what they're afraid of in China, where a television show called Mangnin Sour Yoghurt Super Voice Girl has given the People's Republic a very bad case of Idol fever. (Four hundred million people watched the 2005 finale.) Under the headline "Is Super Girl a Force for Democracy?" the state-run newspaper Beijing Today worried that the show had caused Chinese intellectuals to "fantasize about arrangements for democratic elections and notice the awakening of democratic consciousness among the younger generation." Noticeable or not, imagine if only a small percentage of those 400 million people gathered in Tiananmen Square to discuss last night's show. China would have another Cultural Revolution on its hands.

And maybe we have one on ours. Voting is, among other things, a symbolic act, like pledging allegiance to the flag or singing the national anthem. It reaffirms our faith in government of the people, by the people and for the people. And if American Idol contributes to that feeling in some small way, who are we to stick up our noses at the messy process by which it chooses its winners? It's not like we haven't seen some messy processes before. Perhaps more than anything out there right now, American Idol brings us together, gives us something to talk about over our bottled waters at the office the next day. As Sports Illustrated recently pointed out, with more than a twinge of rue, "It's become the national pastime."

All I can say is, there are a lot worse ways for a nation to pass the time.


Isthmus is Madison, Wisconsin's alternative newspaper. Since 1976, Isthmus has built a foundation of fearless reporting, forthright opinion, excellent arts coverage, and innovative perspective. These efforts have been rewarded by numerous sources including the Milwaukee Press Club's statewide Excellence in...
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