"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. …