Can Sociology Explain American Idol's Appeal?
By now you have probably seen at least one episode of American Idol, and maybe even have a strong opinion about who this season’s winner should be. But have you ever thought about why it is so popular?
It is certainly not the first talent show to be on television. Remember Star Search? I barely do. Not just because the show has been off the air for thirteen years, but it never generated the buzz of American Idol…a Star Search winner might be an interesting tidbit of trivia, but Idol winners become household names almost immediately. How come?
Clearly, there are many reasons the show has been so successful. As Bradley Wright recently blogged about, the judges are a key factor. I have to admit that I prefer to watch the early auditions to hear the judges respond to the talent-challenged contestants. Simon’s snappy barbs violate my own sense of kindness and the social norm of “being nice,” yet somehow seeing that violated is entertaining (particularly since I am not on the receiving end). The auditioners reflect a central principle of comedy: a character totally committed to his or her actions while completely lacking self-awareness. And there are plenty of those.
But beyond the bad singers, one of the key elements to Idol’s success is its interactivity. The audience can have a stake in the outcome by voting for their favorite right away by phone or text message. In our Internet age, media that don’t allow for our input and interaction seems dated. Even some national news programs encourage viewers to post comments online during the program. This challenges old complaints about television being a “passive” medium (see books like The Plug-in Drug for example).
What’s interesting now is how books from the mid-twentieth century made interactive media seem apocalyptic. Did you ever see the 1968 film based on Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, when Hal the computer takes over? It still freaks me out.
Another example is the 1966 movie based on Ray Bradbury’s great sci-fi book, Fahrenheit 451, which some interpret to be about how television destroys interest in reading. In this dystopia, “firemen” burn books, and an underground society springs up where people memorize books so that the world’s great literature doesn’t disappear. The film is being remade for release in 2010, perhaps reflecting renewed concerns about our digital age (or a lack of creativity on behalf of studio execs…or both).
This Fahrenheit 451 clip really resonated with me when I first saw the film in the 1980s. It seemed very Orwellian, that Big Brother would no longer allow us to watch television peacefully without demanding something from us. In contrast to the mostly utopian beliefs about computers and technology today, before we got to “the future” it seemed like it could destroy freedom and maybe even society itself.
But this has not exactly happened, at least not to the extent portended in these two novels. In fact, we might argue that interactive media technology has significant social benefits beyond the obvious ones.
Emile Durkheim, often called the father of sociology, might even say that interactivity and involvement with shows like American Idol promotes social cohesion. For Durkheim, problems emerge within any society when its members feel a sense of disconnection and separation. Solidarity, by contrast, promotes stability and conformity, which is often difficult for large, heterogeneous societies to create.
Sociologists Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz write in their book Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History that events which generate a lot of media attention can have the impact of uniting large groups of people who otherwise might have little in common. Do you think American Idol promotes social cohesion? It may give us a sense of shared culture, and something to bond over by talking about favorite (or least favorite) contestants.
Beyond American Idol, a thought-provoking Los Angeles Times op-ed piece suggests that Americans might even be happier about paying taxes (yes, “tax” and “happy” in the same sentence) if we could designate exactly where our money goes:
Love national parks? Give the Department of the Interior a generous slice. Against the war? Zero out the Department of Defense.
Individual income taxes account for slightly less than half of the roughly $2.4 trillion the IRS collected last year. So the less-sexy programs (crop research, say, or U.S. Mint operations) could still be funded by Congress with other revenues. And because some taxpayers inevitably wouldn't designate any choices, there would still be a little slush fund for Congress to spend on pet projects. What about really critical things like Social Security or education? There's the beauty! Taxpayers decide what's really critical. And if we don't like what we achieve, well, we get to decide again the next year.
Would you feel better about paying taxes and our federal government if you could tell them how you wanted your money spent, much like a donation to the Red Cross? I wouldn’t try this at home unless Congress agrees, and I’m guessing they won’t. And while voting for your favorite American Idol contestant won’t necessarily make you a better citizen, do you think it promotes a sense of connection to something bigger?