April 23, 2008

Can Sociology Explain American Idol's Appeal?

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer 

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? zwani.com myspace graphic comments

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, image 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?


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American Idol, as banal and brainless as it is, does aid social cohesion. People bond over the contestant(s) they like - and hate. More than other shoes, American Idol encourages - nay, demands - that viewers have opinions on everything from the best singing to the worst hair. Also, the show fosters the illusion that viewers have the power to choose the next singing star, rather than having the star chosen by some faceless music producer. That illusion makes people invested in the show and hooks viewers - viewers feel like they must fight for their favorite contestant.

About the taxes thing - again, people love power, or at least the illusion of power. However, I think if this experiment was ever carried out, a surprising number of people would decline to earmark their funds to any specific area(s). Faced with many choices, some people decline to make any choice at all. Plus people would reason that they elected representatives to take the time to allocate funds to the appropriate areas.

Though interactive media may be more appealing to viewers who believe they affect the outcome of the program, it is not actually benefiting their socialization. Viewers feel they have power, but every hour they spend on the couch only increases the time they spend in isolation. Without direct human contact, socialization does not rightly exist. None of the contestants on American Idol are going to pop out of the screen, give a nice handshake, and share life experiences over a cup of tea. No matter how interactive the media gets, without direct conversation and socialization, television remains an isolating activity.

I think that through the internet sociology can not explain why American Idol is so popular and famous, the reason being is that no million plus people are going to interact with each other before they vote for their finalists. As where either there are very slight chances every person in the United States who voted is going to get a chance and watch an American Idol live. So I do not think sociology can appeal for American Idol being so popular maybe the web but not the people.

1.) Sociology can explain the appeal of American Idol by looking at it with a sociological imagination. People will be voted in because of how they appeal to the general public. If their is already a pop star that is five foot seven with blond hair and blue eyes that is over exposed in the media, then it is highly unlikely that an Idol contestant with the same profile will win. It does have it's functions as a conversation topic for strangers to bond.

2.) American Idol promotes social cohesion because it serves as a conversation topic for strangers to bond. I can think of very few people who don't watch American Idol therefore, when complete strangers meet and would prefer to stray away from the idle chat about weather, Idol is always a "safe" topic.

Structual functionalism is displayed on American Idol throught the fact that America as a whole gets to play a paart in who becomes the next American Idol. This show is symbolic, because it shows how an American Idol should be portrayed as a singer. It takes the way a person looks in act into consideration, because this person will be representing American Idol so they have a certain standard they are held at. At a conflict theory point of veiw American Idol is jsut a source of entertainment. Exposure for a singer to grasp the attention of fans. Its just a ways to put a certain group of people int he spot light.

With Americans being able to vote and interact with each other, chat and talk about American Idol then I would definitely have to say that it promotes social cohesion.

The reason that american idol is so popular is because people really feel like they have a chance to influence the outcome of the show. Also the show give people who normally don't speak something to talk about

This article was difficult for me to read,I do not watch American Idol or evenmuch television. I do feel asthough interactive media is a growing part of society and this certainly could appeal to people. The fact that people can interact they feel their input is important,but I'm not sure fans opinions really count.

The appeal behind Idol is the fact that the viewers feel they are in control of the show itself. Interactive media is something new and great and it just keeps growing as we move forward into the new decade. It's like the author writes, we love to watch for the good singers and even more so for the bad ones. That way most of the population (or it feels that way with American Idol's popularity)has something they can talk about around the water cooler the next day at work.

oh me oh my the money we supply. Do we need to invest in entertainment? Do we think of all the money we give away for our kids education just for asuument, sport, or play? Use to be we sit back and scream at the t.v. when we want it to listen but now we waste so much money wanting to determine who is the best singer when truely everyone has a favorite. Idol is a waste of money.

In today's world with up to the minute news from the Internet and television, people feel like the media runs this country. American Idol gives a feeling that we help out with someone.

The global village ....interactive talent reality show

Its the american dream its third season, the network profited more than $260,000,000 who would not want a little of Hollywood in a town near you.. its more then a fad its popular culture clame to prime time a institution if you will. with the fourth season totaling approximately 500 million votes yea i feel its has it hand in appeal.

American Idol allows for social cohesion by involvement and interactivity. It merges all cultures where we would otherwise have nothing in common. It allows us to disagree, but we still have a common ground about liking the show overall.

I don't watch American Idol, but in my opinion it lets the audience have control of the show after the judges make their decisions on the contestants. Yes, it does merge all the cultures together, but can we not find something else to come together about?

American Idol I watched a couple of shows I do not really care to watch the show. I thought it was pretty neat how you get to interact and vote for a singer who you like to be the next winner. The first couple of seasons thats all I would hear at work it is not so much anymore.

I think that American Idol promotes social cohesion by having people to, first off, watch the show by making it interesting and appealing to all sorts of people. Also, they entertain people by making fun of people and it seems to me that everyone can laugh at the expense of another. Not many people want to laugh at their own expense; not to say that none do though.
The viewers have to call in or text in their vote. The people who collect the votes tally them up and come up with the majority winner. That shows the cohesion because it shows how people can be brought together by a television show and determine the outcome of an election. People often tell their peers and friends to vote for a specific candidate.

American Idol's appeal could be explained with structural functionalism in that the contributions of the seperate parts of society affect the unified whole, or this case, the outcome of the show. The conflict theory could be used to explain its appeal in that the show is a competition and competition appeals to society. In conflict theory, conflict and competition are basic facts of social life. The fact that people can vote and ultimately determine the winner also gives people a sense of power, which is also appealing. For symbolic interactionism, the way we are interacting with the show can change or modify the outcome.

American Idol promotes social cohesion because of the way it allows people to interact with the show and with each other. It bands groups of people together by appealing to many different kinds of people.

I believe American Idol has the appeal it has becasue of the interactivity mainly, but also because of the judges. When a contestant gets finished performing, everyone is waiting to see what Simon has to say! It is usually cruel, but it is good entertainment.

I believe that people are so drawn to the TV show. Because the TV shows the people from day one sitting out in the parking lot. Sometimes for days. They have this glow in their eyes and from day one they suck you in. You feel if it is you out there. You journey threw the course of the show with them sitting on the edge of your seats. You laugh with them, get excited and even pray for them. You might be even texting for your're favorite. This is basically how all good drama's draw you in. Ask yourself this does it benefit you directly, have you learn anything for that hour you gave up to the couch? That's entertainment.

The reason why american idol is so much more popular is because americans have developed a taste for reality television. We enjoy watching people make fools out of themselves and then get talked down to as if they were inferior to us.

Today American's are far more intrigued by whats on television each week, than what is really important. I don't think that this is really a bad thing though. Television has always been an escape from what is really going on, so I think that is only natural that American Idol is such a huge success in this country. I like that we, as a country have shows like that, that take us away from what we have to deal with each day, whatever that may be. Many people around the world do not have the comfort of having an escape from reality like television brings so many Americans.

people are so drawn to american idol because it is a very entertaining show and it has given people a way that probably never would have had a chance

people like to see other people fail and succeed, we get a thrill out of it as a whole. i do agree that the interactiveness of the show makes it as popular as it is.

I do think that American Idol brings people together. Other then everyone talking about who they dislike and like. You have a voice and there is no age you have to be and you dont have to be a citizen. Everyone is treated the same and everyone has a voice. You dont have to give out any information. You just vote and you know your vote will be counted and it goes where you want it to go unlike taxes. The show also brings all kind of ethnic groups together and shows what people have to offer as far as a voice. ;)

When my friends talk about a show and I don't know about it I do feel "out of the loop" unless it is something I don't really care to watch. American Idol does let you feel like you are a part of the process because you are. You root for your favorite singer the whole time and pull for them. Taking time out of your day to vote for them. Why do we care so much? I watch tv shows that I wouldn't watch other wise if I wasn't bored.I wish I could be like my dad in a way, he doesn't care about any of that stuff. I care about them,yet I know they are stupid and I don't want to care. American Idol isn't one of those shows for me though. It does bound America so to say if you get into it,just like rooting for your favorite football team it is fun to just get involved. I don't know when it will lose it appeal. Some seasons are better then others.Having a say in tv is happening alot more through voting, calling in or tweeting.

American Idol is a great show that i think does aid social cohension people are fascinated with the fact that they have a affect on the outcome or who is going to win on the show.

American Idol is one of many things people can talk and form their own opinions on a daily basis. Much like sports or polictics, the show would fall in the category of entertainment. So, yes, it does have something to do with social cohension.

American idol is probably so popular because it gives people the opportunity to vote for something that doesn't really have a serious outcome. I mean if you vote and the person doesn't win your not that disappointed its not like your voting for the President. It's kind of like a game.

American Idol is a great show in the sense that it helps some person achieve their dream of being a star. It also helps the people who were rooting for that person have a sense of something greater in their life other than the day-to-day routine most have. I personally feel that if we had a say in what taxes we paid, we would generally feel better about ourselves, and have a better outlook on life. That may sound as though it is a little wishful thinking, but if you think about it, some of it is true. Take for example the fact that people get to vote for their favorite person on several shows. That makes people more interested in watching that show. Now say that Congress did pass a bill that states that every citizen had a right to what tax they could pay. Don't you think more people would pay attention to the news and other things happening around our nation and the world if we could?

American Idol to me is a funny show it shows how some people dreams being destroyed and other created. The show popularity is due to promoting the show by showing funny outtakes of contestant failing and some succeding.I think most people tune in to see who got kicked off the show and to hear the hudges comments.

American Idol is so successful because it includes all parts of society in the show. Each part of the show from viewers at home to the contestants have their own function. Viewers at the end of the season determine the winner of the show by voting, the contestants go through a rigorous process to be competitive on the show, and the judges are the ones who allow the contestants to have a chance to achieve their goals or send people home. The show is a success also because of the interaction that takes place throughout the season. Recently a man became an overnight celebrity with a ridiculous song that he created. Because of the interaction between viewers and the show, the man's song became a household hit and now the man is famous. Fans of the show vote at the end of the season for their favorite singers hoping that they can push their favorite to the winner's circle. The show also involves heated competition. Contestants are there for one reason and that is to win the contest. This makes the show very entertaining. Social cohesion is promoted in that all parts of society play a major role in the show's success.

When it comes to American Idol, structural functionalism has to do with the contestants on the show. They are the whole reason as to why people are intrigued by it. If you notice at the beginning of the season, there are some poeple who are dresssed in stange outfits are are just good entertainment with no talent. There are others in fact that are good entertainment that can sing. They judges are there to determine between the two and which ones deserve to be put through. I beleive that by being allowed to vote by our phone or texting allows social cohesion. By doing this, the audiance is allowed to feel very involved causing much more intrest in the show. From the judges critcal comments, to the good and bad singers, and even to the audeince is what allows American Idol to be such a entertaining show.

This is very interesting. Yes American Idol has Simon, he can be very rude. That is what makes the show. Look at any televsion program it is about drama, conflict, some sort of struggle that is what the media is made of.

American Idol does aid social cohesion. People love to see the person they pick to win, win. We love to see how we can change the outcome of anything. American Idol has become more popular due to fact that so many people can interact with the show world wide.

I do not watch American Idol alot. But I do know who the winners are. And it do have its appeal to the American people.

I don't think sociology can appeal for American Idol being so popular but the internet probably can. I feel like people enjoy watching American Idol because their able to watch live people make a fool out of themselves while at the same time they actuall can get gooe entertainment as well

I think structual functionalism must play a big part in American idol because people have to know how to cope in react to structual habitats, sociology is the biggest percentage in American idol, one has to know how to be social and unique.

Many Americans like American Idol because they feel that they have the power to help or hurt the contestants. The American public feels the outcome of the show soley rests on their shoulders. In a way this is a global village. We can connect to all knids of people through a common thread, which is music. The conflict theory also plays a part in this in that the conflict of the judges analysis of the contestants and how we percieve them is a lot of why people watch. Many people watch just to see what kind of mean or hurtful things will be said to the contestants. We often root for thr underdog. The contestant with some talent but a very clean image. If the image is somehow tainted that affects how we feel tha contestant performs. Lots of people base how they evaluate things on the techniques they see on tv. Constructive critisim or not we all like to take part in something "everyone" is doing or watching. We all like to be a part of the group.

There is such a strong appeal to a reality show this generation. People love to see people fail, fall flat on there faces, and make a fool of themselfs. But also, they love to see who beat who. Who has the better voice, looks , all around package. American Idol is a perfect example of social cohesion because it bonds those whos votes are the same together. They might realize they have more in common than American Idol & some may just be interested in American Idol talk.

I have watched some seasons of American Idol it is very intertaining, especially Simon. They have had a big impact on us. It brings people together to watch who has the talent and keeps them watching to see if the one they like wins it all in the end. It also brings people together to talk about the outcomes.

This season of American Idol is worse than the last. I have never been a big fan of the show, but this season has really topped the cake for me. A personal friend of mine went to the audition in Atlanta, and had severl auditions before he went in front of the judges from the show. He is from Anniston, when the show aired they humiliated him on national television, they actually audibly laughed at him and made a sterotypical dramatization of a "redneck" on the show. It was so humiliating for him he will bareley go out in pubilc. They only put him on television to embarass him and humiliate him. I am not sure which is more bothersome, the fact that people enjoy watching that on television or that they never thought he had any talent, they just wanted to sit back point and laugh at him. I don't think American Idol has any appeal whatsoever and have always been against the show.

American idol is another reality show. In which we get to peek into other people's life. We get to see there failures or accomplishments if they get voted off or if they survive. Its basically a job interview that we get to view live. I think that this type of televison programing causes social cohesion because no matter what race, gender, religion we come from, we all want to know about other people. That one factor in itself generates the large viewing public.

We the people that watch these programs or shows, do so to spend time relaxing or have a moment with family. Some shows and t.v. programs in the future will be brought up again as research or as a time line so that others can remember what we liked and didn't like. Also, the way the contestants dressed up, will show what our society then had to chose from. Happy,exciting, and sometimes even boring moments. Moments we won't forget. Even if the judges in Idol change. The feelings of seeing who tried out won't.

Viewers get to watch the auditions as they are being filmed, get to hear the judges response to the talent-challenged contestants and being able to hear how the judges criticize the contestants. All of this is entertaining to the public. Just being able to hear and see how people get accepted or rejected. One of the key elements to the idols success is its interactivity. The viewers get the chance to have a stake in the outcome by voting for their favorite contestant via phone or text message.While watching the show the viewers have the chance to actually get to know the contestants and the events that have occurred in their life. Just getting to see that little glimpse into their past and present will determine which contestant they will support throughout the show.

I think that when people vote on shows like that think they are going to be the deciding vote, and they want their vote to count just like voting for president. I would feel better about paying taxes if I got to decide where it was going, because most of it goes to crazy things or crazy people trying to scam the government.

American Idol is a great show. It makes people like feeling like they have a say so in today's world. It gives them a feeling of power and pride..

People want to feel as if they are social involed, a part of the bigger picture. I say bigger picture loosely. If people were this adament about other issuses that, lets say, are affecting them on a BIGGER picture, this wouldn't be such a bad place to live.

I believe American Idol is the perfect example of the conflict theory in sociology. The intrigue of the competition in my opinion feeds off of different people from different backgrounds competing for the same prize. The fact the you feel as if you can identify with a certain contestant gives the competition a more personal feel.

I my self do not watch the show but i have seen in passing through a room where it is on i know of its content. I feel it does bring a wide verity of cultures together. It does give us as individuals a chance to express our opinion for which a lot of other cultures do not have the chance to do.

I totally agree that brings out social cohesion because it does bring people together. American Idol is a really good show because it makes us the people feel as if we have a say so in the final out come. I am a big fan of American Idol and have never missed an episode in the 9 years it has been on. I like it because it brings out the real in people and shows them they can do it no matter what there struggles in life are. Also I like in the begging it shows the really bad ones and the good ones and I love listening to what the judges have to say to each contestant.

I think American Idol does not aid in social cohesion. It is large scale voyeurism. The voters are teeny-boppers and bored housewives.

According to the Conflict Theory, conflict among competing interests is the basic, animating force of any society. The reason why American Idol has been so popular is that it provides competitions to the society. Through these competitions, individuals have the chance to be successful. Therefore, American Idol is actually a social revolution driven by the competitions among individuals.

I personally watched American Idol for sheer entertainment. At work the show was the open topic for the beginning of conversations...so "Yes" I do believe this show brought people together they were actually intrigued by the many bold contestants who risk their nerve to show off their talents, or non-talents. I must agree that "American Idol does promote social cohesion because it allows people to come together with something to talk about,which acts as a bonding mechanism for us.

I think American Idol is a socially active show. Everyone has a say and a vote. People talk about it and talk about who will be the next idol. I personally don't watch it like I did when it first came out.

This show is getting old but still I feel the charm of this reality show. Its one of my favorite show.


At the end of the day,American Idol will be at the top of the food chain when it comes to reality T.V. shows because of the tradition the show has created over the years. It gives everyday people off the streets a chance to see what they are made of and try out to become the next idol. The ironic thing about it is, some contestants compete in the contest simply to get their 15 humiliating minutes of fame and know they are not going to make it to the next rounds. Even though most of these contestants are discarded, some start humorous trends that society watch over and over again on the internet. I feel like America Idol is just another way for the top officials to trick society into thinking what is cool and what society should buy to be cool. As for donating your taxes to the programs you want to, I think even though America is based on the people's voice of opinion,I feel that with that strategy some organizations might end up forgotten about. Though some organizations are not as popular as others, America votes for representatives to make these types of decisions

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?

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