Confessions of a First-Time American Idol Viewer

Yes, that’s right—I’d never seen a full episode of American Idol before this week. Yet, by the end of Wednesday night’s results show, I had picked favorites, made up a couple of uncharitable nicknames for contestants, shrieked “What?!?” in complete disbelief, and considered several conspiracy theories to explain voting patterns. I believe there may also have been some kicking and fuming and muttering about “American insanity.”

In short, I got really involved.

It’s not that I’ve ever been opposed to watching American Idol, but I tend to like musicians who are skilled in a particular genre, rather than being “all things to all people,” as any AI winner pretty much has to be. But the lure of Andrew Lloyd Webber this week—not to mention Christ and Pop Culture’s announced theme week—drew me in. Say what you like about Lord Lloyd Webber (or, as he was dubbed on another reality competition, the “World Wide Webber”), but he does write music that takes some focused skill to perform.

If you watched the show Tuesday and Wednesday, you already know who sang what and who got booted off. I have to admit that I was shocked. I really expected Jason (he who, after meeting with Lord ALW for a master class on “Memory,” exclaimed, “I never knew that song was sung by a cat!” Um, seriously? It is from a musical called Cats, you know.) and Brooke (who, I admit, I had begun calling “Bambi,” perhaps unfairly) to be in the bottom two. I did not expect Syesha or Carly, who gave probably the best performances of Tuesday evening, to land there.

Insert rant about voters’ lack of taste here.

What I forgot, however, is that large contingents of people vote for their favorites, regardless of how well they perform. I may not have watched American Idol before, but I have heard of Sanjaya. This realization led me to some disdainful thoughts about teenage girls and how “they’re spoiling it for the rest of us” by voting for Jason. Yes, us. I momentarily forgot that they have as much right (if not more) to influence the show as I, the first-time viewer, do.

Then I got a little cynical and started to wonder about the effect of votefortheworst.com on Wednesday’s results. (In case you don’t know, votefortheworst.com is a site that encourages viewers to, well, vote for the worst American Idol contestant, in order to keep him or her on the show.) I went and checked it out. Yup, they were advocating for Brooke, which could at least be part of why she made it to the safe couch. It could also be due to efforts on the part of strategic voters, those who don’t think that Brooke is the best contestant but who vote for her anyway, either because they think she needs the most help or because they want to provide their true favorites with weak competition.

So it may be a little naïve of me to only just now realize that American Idol isn’t always about talent, but thinking about viewers’ voting patterns has raised some interesting questions for me. First of all, if I think that American Idol promotes bad taste and I want to subvert it, is it ethical for me, as a Christian, to vote for the contestant that votefortheworst.com has nominated? (Just to be clear, I have no plans to do so—I’m simply raising a hypothetical question.)

Votefortheworst.com claims to be helping American Idol fulfill its “true” goal of entertainment, rather than its stated goal of discovering talent. The site’s “About Us” page declares, “We think that the less-loved contestants are more entertaining than the producer favorites, and we want to acknowledge this fact by encouraging people to help vote for the amusing antagonists that annoy the judges. VFTW sees keeping these contestants around as a golden opportunity to make a more entertaining show.”

Fair enough. The only problem is that entertainment, according to this definition, consists of listening to bad performances and of watching judges get frustrated by bad performances. I, for one, don’t find that very entertaining. I also don’t find it honorable, just, excellent, praiseworthy, or any other adjective from Philippians 4:8. Like CAPC’s own David Dunham, I appreciate Simon Cowell’s acerbity in assessing the contestants’ performances; that acerbity loses its freshness, however, if Cowell is forced into a situation where he’s responding more out of “you again?” than out of a desire to tell it like it is to people who need to hear the truth. After watching AI this week, I found that I don’t want to subvert the judges—I thought their assessment was right on. I do, however, want to subvert the other voters.

That leads me to my second question. If I don’t believe that the voting results reflect true talent, then what should I do about it? I can cast my own vote, sure, but that doesn’t do much to change the big picture. If I’m so irritated by the unfairness of the results that I begin to judge other viewers harshly, have I stepped too far outside the bounds of Christian charity? Should I stop watching? Should I seek out some sort of proactive solution, rather than just complaining about it? If so, what?

If Christians are to be “wise as serpents, innocent as doves,” are there ways for us to participate in American Idol subversively and yet truthfully?

About Carrisa Smith

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