What do we like about American Idol? I struggle to answer this, because the responses are quite varied. David Dunham and my high school students enjoy Simon tearing down (sorry: constructively criticising in a British sort of way) hopeless hopefuls. Rich likes awkward silences. My wife likes beautiful voices. Apparently, America likes sob stories and youth. Me? I like watching the Detroit Tigers on a different channel.
But as far as I can tell, enjoyment of American Idol tends to stem from four basic categories. These are 1) an appreciation for musical talent, 2) enjoyment of hopeful people being put in their place, 3) a fascination with celebrity lives and personalities, and 4) the competition and exaltation of personal opinion. For Christians, these categories should raise some basic questions about what it is that we actually love.
1) Appreciation for Musical Talent
There’s nothing wrong with appreciating a good singing voice. But ask yourself; do you show this same appreciation for music in other contexts? My fear is that the enjoyment of music becomes an excuse to indulge our enjoyment of other aspects of the show. If American Idol were merely a talent show that did not include the judges, the initial rounds, or voting, would you be just as interested? Can you truly avoid taking pleasure in some parts of the show that may be challenging to your faith?
2) Enjoyment of Hopeful People Being Put In Their Place
Do you take pleasure in people being cut down? David made an excellent argument for the importance of enforcing objective standards. But is it the standards you appreciate, or the witty comments? Are you happy that a person has received helpful feedback on their talents (or lack thereof), or that they were embarrassed on national television? Is it possible that you like feeling better or smarter than other people? What value does seeing people torn down have in your spiritual life? After a contestant leaves the stage, are you more likely to say, “I’m glad that person finally received some helpful teaching in the area of objective standards,” or are you more likely to say, “What in the world?! If you stink that badly at singing, why would you go on the show? What an idiot! He/she got what they deserved. I would never be that dumb.”
3) A Fascination with Celebrity Lives and Personalities
I never cease to be amazed at how much people know about their heroes (myself included). How much interest do you have in the details of a person’s upbringing and background, challenges and qualities? How much does that influence your evaluation of their talent? Is your interest any different than the strong interest in celebrity that drives the paparazzi industry? How articulate are you about their personal qualities and character traits? Most importantly, is there a possibility that this fascination is the same as Idol worship? After all, is there ANY aspect of the show that does NOT promote Idol worship?
4) The Competition and Exaltation of Personal Opinion
How important is it to you that your voice be heard (votes, water-cooler conversations, etc.)? Do you find yourself caring deeply about sharing your thoughts as widely as possible? Do you become emotionally invested in convincing people of your point of view? Are you happy when your dislike of a particular contestant is vindicated? How many times do you vote? Are you unhappy with those people who vote for a candidate you dislike, or don’t show enough support for the one you do like? What effect does it have on you when expert judges appreciate a different candidate than the one you most enjoy? After all, how can a person say they appreciate Simon’s enforcement of objective standards, but then vote against those whom Simon seems to be most impressed by?
My personal tendency is to be attracted to the contestants’ personal qualities. I become fascinated by what makes them tick, and what drives their hunt for glory. Perhaps that is why I liked Katherine McPhee- she seemed to want to break into the music industry because she loved music rather than fame. However, I found that this mild interest quickly became over-appreciation, as I argued for my perspective in every conversation about the show at work, school, or even church. The slide from enjoyment to sin is a powerfully simple one in the American Idol world.
I realize all this is less than concrete. That, I suppose, is the nature of dealing with a multifaceted national phenomenon. My central point, though, is that the show is obviously built on playing to certain passions and interests that we have as humans. Christians need to thoughtfully and introspectively ask why the show appeals to them personally, and then challenge those attractions in light of Scripture.
What do you think? Are those four categories helpful? What do YOU like or struggle with on American Idol? Am I being too hard or not hard enough on the show?
Oh, and one last thing. In the spirit of fairness, I have to admit that if you changed the category of “Musical Talent,” to, “Athletic Talent,” many of these same questions and arguments would apply to the professional sports industry (NFL, NBA, MLB, etc.)! Those of us who skip American Idol but watch 6 hours per week of baseball, football, hockey, basketball, or other sports should be extremely careful before we condemn a show that’s on for a mere hour per week.