Why we worship 'American Idol'

'Performance heroes' are, in the end, all about us.

When the ratings numbers came in after last week's Grammy Awards, the news wasn't good for the professionals. A show that features amateurs had attracted a far bigger audience than had one with the likes of Madonna, Coldplay, and U2.

"American Idol," now in the fifth week of its fifth season, drew almost twice as many viewers as the awards show. What's going on here? Why does this reality show consistently attract the weekly attention of close to 35 million viewers?

It's a nexus of factors shaping the "virtual revolution" unfolding all around us, on so many fronts. Think chat rooms, MySpace.com, blogs, life journals illustrated with photos snapped by cellphones, flash-mobbing, marathon running, focus groups, talk radio, e-mails to news shows, camcorders, sponsored sports teams for tots - and every garage band in town with its own CD.

What do all these platforms have in common? They are all devoted to otherwise anonymous people who don't want to be mere spectators. In this virtual revolution, it's not workers against capitalists - that's so 19th century. In our mediated world, it's spectators against celebrities, with spectators demanding a share of the last scarce resource in the overdeveloped world - attention.

The "American Idol" format combines essential elements of this revolution.

Have you followed the ruckus over why people don't have heroes anymore - in the old-fashioned statesman, warrior, genius, artist kind of way? People concerned with education are especially alarmed. They invest a lot of energy in trying to rekindle an aura of greatness around the Founding Fathers. But it's hopeless. Ask natural-born citizens of the mediated world who their heroes are, and their answers fall into one of two categories: somebody in their personal lives or performers - above all, pop music performers.

The "everyday hero" answer reflects the virtual revolution, but what about performers? Why are they so important to their fans?

Because, in concert especially, these new kind of heroes create an experience of belonging that their fans would otherwise never know, living as they do in a marketplace of lifestyles that can make one's existence feel optional. That's why there's a religious quality to a concert when the star meets the audience's awesome expectations and creates, in song and persona, a moment in which each individual feels personally understood and, at the same time, fused with other fans in a larger common identity.

"Performer heroes" are, in the end, all about us. They don't summon us to serve a cause - other than the one of being who we are. So, naturally, they have been leaders of the virtual revolution. From their perch on high, they make us the focus of attention.

"American Idol" takes the next step. It unites both aspects of the relationship - in the climactic final rounds, a fan becomes an idol; the ultimate dream of our age comes true before our eyes and in our hearts.

That's mediational magic.

And don't forget the power of music. "American Idol" wouldn't be what it is if, say, amateur actors were auditioning. You can disagree with someone about movie stars and TV shows and still be friends. But you can't be friends with someone who loves the latest boy band, in a totally unironic way, if you are into Gillian Welch. That's because tastes in pop music go right to the core of who you are, with a depth and immediacy no other art form can match. Music takes hold of you on levels deeper than articulated meaning. That's why words, sustained by music, have such power. There is nothing like a song for expressing who we are.

That brings us to the early rounds of "American Idol," in which contestants are chosen for the final competition in Hollywood. The conventional wisdom is that they're an exercise in public humiliation, long a staple of reality TV. That's not wrong, as far as it goes, but it isn't just any old humiliation exercise - it is the most excruciating form of voluntary personal humiliation the human condition allows for because it involves the most revealing kind of performance there is, this side of pornography.

During this phase of the show, the audience, knowing it will eventually fuse in a positive way with a finalist idol, gets to be in the most popular clique on the planet, rendering snarky judgments on one of the most embarrassing pool of losers ever assembled.

"American Idol" gives you so many ways to feel good about yourself.

No wonder it's a hit.

Thomas de Zengotita, a contributing editor at Harper's Magazine, is the author of "Mediated: The Hidden Effects of Media on People, Places, and Things." © 2006 Los Angeles Times.

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