The American (Idol) Way

Pursuing dreams in a post-meltdown world

I have a theory about how a show like Survivor—and the endless parade of “vote-’em-off” reality TV shows that it spawned—can make it so long on television: Despite much evidence to the contrary—say, No Child Left Behind, or the continuation of unions—Americans can’t shake loose the love for a little old-fashioned, may-the-best-man-win, boot-strappy meritocracy. We just love ourselves a little survival of the fittest.

Recently, a colleague forwarded me a message from local menswear designer Seun Olubodun, who makes t-shirts under the brand Duke & Winston (so named for his bulldog, Duke, and the old “British bulldog”, Winston Churchill). He was branching out, going—aptly—into the pet-fashion market. And to raise cash for the endeavor he wasn’t throwing benefits, or hitting up banks, or searching for silent partners—he was launching a fundraising campaign on

Olubodun isn’t the only one. Over the past year or so, all sorts of local artists, charities, musicians and entrepreneurs have turned to Kickstarter for cash. The Brooklyn-based web business lets people all over the country post information about their projects, and beg for donations. In return, the donators get to follow the project they deemed worthy of funding, and often get an investor’s “perk”—maybe an early copy of the album they helped fund, maybe a t-shirt from the designer they’re bankrolling. There’s a catch, though: The fundraiser has to set a goal—a certain amount raised by a certain date—and if he doesn’t make the goal, the donations go back to the donator. (Read: He, and his project, are voted off the island.)

The projects deemed worthy by society get to happen. The ones that aren’t, don’t. The most successful project ever on Kickstarter raised just short of a million bucks. The most successful Philly project—a band raising cash for a new album—raised $23,882.

Among Philadelphia’s other successes:

  • Married in Spandex: A documentary film about a lesbian couple’s trek from Philly to Iowa to get married. 197 backers raised $10,339.
  • Zsa’s Gourmet Ice Cream: Artisanal ice cream made by a Philadelphian who started with her parents’ old hand-crank ice cream machine, and branched into dozens of preservative-free flavors. 32 backers raised $3,366.
  • A Comic of James Joyce’s Ulysses: Via the site: “With your support, Rob Berry can draw the comic full time over the next several months rather than interrupt his drawing with waiting tables.” 132 backers raised $8,996.

There are 50 or so projects in our city looking for funding right now—many on their way toward meeting their goal. It would seem that—even as loans dry up, even as arts funding shrinks perilously down—American ingenuity and drive and passion for a good idea and, yes, capitalistic spirit live on in a new generation: the Internet generation (a.k.a. the Survivor generation, the American Idol generation, and, alas, the Bridalplasty generation). Of course, I like to think more credit is due to the tenacity of the American dream than Jeff Probst. But who can say for sure.