American Idol Is the Most Important Show on TV

Even with a tired format, the show still brings generations together to watch.

Tonight, the seven remaining contestants on American Idol will each belt out two tunes in their continuing quest for singing stardom, and tomorrow night one of them will go home. (The judges are able to “save” one contestant from elimination each season, and last week they elected to do just that, for teen diva Jessica Sanchez.) Next month, the last one standing will be showered with confetti as he or she predictably dissolves into disbelief and tears, and then move on to a recording career that may or may not make them popular artists on your radio dial.

This is all hardly new, of course. The American Idol assembly line has been churning out winners since 2002, each one hyped as the best undiscovered singer in the country. That is not true, for many reasons, not the least of which is that there are thousands of very talented artists playing in bars and dives and bar mitzvahs all around the country at any given moment who would consider subjecting themselves to the commercial “selling out” of the American Idol machine to be a soul-deadening deal with the devil.

And perhaps it is. It has become almost chic to disparage and dismiss the “Idol factory,” as it is now colloquially termed, with its endless product placements (Big Gulp-sized Coke cups on the judges’ table, the “Ford Music Video,” the relentless shilling for Idol tours and iTunes singles), banal judging commentary (“You look beautiful tonight” is now instantly known as otherwise meaning, “You sang dreadfully tonight”), and obsequious host, the cat-that-ate-the-canary grinning Ryan Seacrest. And the depth of the loss of the acidic Simon Cowell, the only dollop of realism ever plopped onto this tooth-achingly sweet confection, cannot be overstated. There are ample reasons why people say the show is over, as they increasingly do. But here’s the thing.

We need American Idol.


When I was a kid, we didn’t have annual communal viewings, like the Academy Awards or the Super Bowl, but rather daily ones: ritualistic, gather-round-the-tube dates with Gunsmoke or Sanford and Son. (Over the course of more than a decade my mother and I watched almost every episode of Knots Landing together, a quirky bond but, since she is 80 today, now a sepia-tinted memory nonetheless.) Try finding families that have those kinds of traditions now. Your kids watch iCarly, you watch House; when they become teenagers, you’re still watching House as they roll their eyes and tell you you’re lame while they sit in another room, absorbed in the world of their smart phones or video games. Television, once the tie that helped bind us together, doesn’t bind us anymore.

Except Idol does. And this is an achievement not to be dismissed lightly. In a fractured society where the generation gap seems to have never yawned wider, Idol paves a bridge—a forum for collective watching, critiquing, and debate. “Reality TV” changed the course of television, but only Idol probably for the better. Is anyone sitting with their kids commenting back and forth on those appalling Real Housewives, or the pathetic D-Listers fighting to be “the Celebrity Apprentice?”

But the real reason American Idol matters—why it has always mattered—actually goes deeper than even that. American Idol is one of the best proofs we have of democracy in action, even if that democracy is run by a congress of tween girls madly texting votes. To become a contestant on the show requires a tenacity and patience all too lacking in too many young people today, and teaches a valuable lesson that it takes patience, dedication and hard work to succeed, lessons all but lost in our “I want it, and I want it now” age. To successfully make it to the point where people can pick up a phone and vote for you means you showed up at some cavernous stadium, probably nowhere near where you live, stood in line for hours (or slept overnight in same), went through a series of quick sing-offs in front of producers, eventually made it to a call-back to sing in front of celebrity judges, conquered your nerves and impressed enough so they sent you for cattle call in Hollywood, survived that cattle call, which is nothing but a week of mind games and sleep deprivation, made it to a cut of 50 or so, performed again one last time and sang your guts out, and made it to a final culling of 24 or 25 people out of the 100,000 who started.

The takeaway from American Idol is as timeless as the republic itself: Everyone has a fair shot to make it, if you’re willing to give it everything you’ve got to do it. It is also, like the country, imperfect: Good singers are dismissed too early, marginal singers hang around too long. But Idol gets it right more than it gets it wrong, as the careers of Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Chris Daughtry, and Jennifer Hudson attest. Even if you don’t win the whole enchilada, the exposure and the hard work you put in to get it pay off. Even if you’re someone like Kellie Pickler, a country girl who came nowhere near winning, you have a shot at making a living … singing. Would that have happened had she not stood in line with thousands of other hopefuls in Greensboro, North Carolina in 2005?

Is American Idol getting a bit long in the tooth? Sure. Some of the theme nights (cough, Stevie Wonder, cough) are tired, and the results shows, with their painful “Up with People” group numbers and cheesy theatrics (“You … are … safe!”) can be outright slogs to watch. But there are very few enterprises left where people across generations can actually sit together, find common enjoyment in something, and actually discuss what they’re seeing. And there are even fewer enterprises that reinforce the notion of the American Dream so forcefully—a conclusion with which even crabby Simon Cowell might agree.