Window on Reality: American Idol and the Search for Identity. (Television)

By Showalter, Eliane | The American Prospect, July-August 2003 | Go to article overview

Window on Reality: American Idol and the Search for Identity. (Television)


Showalter, Eliane, The American Prospect


"REALITY" TELEVISION IS GENERALLY scorned as mindless, vulgar, exploitatire and contrived. So is it ever sociology, is it ever real? Yes, if it's American Idol, the FOX show that recently wrapped up its blockbuster second season. The program, for the uninitiated, pitted 12 young performers against one another for a chance at a $1 million recording contract. True, American Idol was adapted from a British series, Pop Idol, which had attracted a record 14 million voters and made an instant celebrity of a colorless boy singer. True, the program's producers were motivated by only the slickest of intentions: to manufacture a lucrative audience for a recording star before even one CD had been released. True, the twice-weekly programs, with their drawn-out commercial breaks and clumsily staged group numbers, were not the material of art.

And yet, in its shape and timing, American Idol has provided a fascinating snapshot of American youth culture in the 21st century. At once a competition, a talent show, a soap opera, a make-over fest, a patriotic celebration and an election. American Idol showed how the postmillennial United States is changing with regard to race, class, national identity and politics. As its affiliate Fox News was cheering on the Iraq War, the FOX network's American Idol--one of the top-rated TV shows of the period leading up to, during and after the Iraq invasion--offered both a mirror image and a contradictory view of the nation's mind-set. Appealing simultaneously to Marines, Mormons, gays, blacks and Latinos, and to every region of the country, American Idol has a legitimate claim to its label of reality TV.

PLAYING THE RACE CHORD

American Idol promoted multiculturalism with an ease missing from most network television, and quite distinct from its precursor. Although the British show began with a wide range of candidates, black and Indian aspirants were quickly eliminated; despite the influence of Asian styles from Bollywood and Bhangra, and black styles from the Caribbean, Africa and American hip-hop, the British pop scene is still white. In contrast, American Idol showed a youth culture and a young generation past the tipping point of racial harmony. Sociologically the program has been what one critic called "the Ellis Island of talent shows." In order to achieve this particular American dream of fame, 70,000 aspirants dressed in everything from yellow pimp suits to preppy khakis, then flew, drove and hitchhiked to grueling auditions in seven iconic American cities--New York, Detroit, Miami, Atlanta, Nashville, Austin and Los Angeles--for the second season.

Vying for only a dozen finalists' slots, an astonishing mix of blond Asians, yodeling twins, inner-city tappers, hopeful ex-convicts and desperate single mothers slept on the sidewalks and endured the blunt dismissals of multicultural judges Randy Jackson (a black music-company executive), Paula Abdul (a Brazilian/French-Canadian recording star and choreographer) and Simon Cowell (a white British music producer whose merciless insults and fearless observations as a Pop Idol judge had delighted U.K. audiences). The American Idol finalists included several black candidates plus two from biracial families. Despite the fears of some critics that no black candidate could win, Ruben Studdard, the soulful "velvet teddy bear" from Birmingham, Ala., who proudly displayed his 205 area code on his size XXXL T-shirt, took home the prize. Imagine a black singer as a Birmingham booster in the '60s! Ruben's distance from the racist history of the city where Martin Luther King Jr. began the civil-rights movement is a statement of how far this country has come.

In a vote so close that it recalled the 2000 presidential election, Clay Aiken, a white college student from North Carolina who worked with autistic teens and had become Ruben's best friend, came in second. At his audition, one reviewer recalled, Clay looked "like Alfred E.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Window on Reality: American Idol and the Search for Identity. (Television)
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.