Americans are more outraged by Chris Daughtry's ouster from "American Idol" than they are by George Bush's ouster of our Democracy. Why, America, WHY?
John Tierney spends his entire op ed column analyzing the popularity of "American Idol" instead of the unpopularity (29% and dropping) of our less than Idyllic American President. Why, Tierney, WHY?
The Meistersinger Has Left the Building
By John Tierney
The New York Times
If you've been watching Fox or tracking the blogosphere, you know that Americans are struggling through the year's most emotionally cataclysmic event. I refer, of course, to the ejection of Chris Daughtry from "American Idol."
"Why, America, WHY?" asked Kelly, one of the stunned bloggers who turned MySpace into the World Wide Wail after Chris was booted on Wednesday night. When they were not vowing to boycott the show and move to another country, they were denouncing the vote ("a downright abomination of all things holy") and dismissing the remaining contestants as the Plastic Girl, the Wedding Singer and the Warble Goat.
There has never been a show like this. Other reality shows have star-is-born and rags-to-riches themes, but nothing comes close to the hold "Idol" has on the public. Bookies (who made Chris the favorite) have gotten far more bets on "Idol" than on the Oscars or the N.B.A. playoffs. "The Apprentice" and "Survivor" offer similar Darwinian competitions with better dramatic narratives, but the masses would rather watch amateur singers doing covers of Elvis.
Why, America, WHY?
Until this year, I tried explaining the show's appeal with the Nascar theory: like race-car fans, "Idol" viewers can't resist the chance to see spectacular wrecks. Now that most music is so tightly packaged — overproduced music videos, lip-synced concerts, foolproof Broadway shows with mandatory standing ovations — connoisseurs of the awful must look to amateurs like William Hung, the tone-deaf civil engineer on "Idol" who gyrated spastically during his now-legendary rendition of Ricky Martin's "She Bangs."
But if you crave humiliating wrecks, nothing is more satisfying than watching Olympic figure skaters hitting the ice on their sequined rear ends in front of a global audience. This opportunity comes along only once every four years, yet this year's event was crushed in the ratings by "Idol."
After looking at those ratings and seeing the maniacal affection for Chris, I no longer think the Nascar theory is sufficient. "Idol" taps deeper emotions. My new Meistersinger hypothesis is that the "Idol" formula for success comes from Wagner, the composer who turned timeless passions into endless operas.
Wagner created the "Idol" format in "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg," his opera about a 16th-century song contest that has traditionally been judged by the guild of master singers according to their own set of convoluted rules. But a burgher named Sachs, arguing that singers should instead be wooing the "untutored" hearts of the masses, proposes letting the winner be chosen instead by a young woman named Eva along with the rest of the public.
The prospect of a "Bavarian Idol" appalls the guild members, who warn that their art will be ruined "if it runs after the favors of the people." They also reject Sachs's suggestion that the contest include an outsider, a handsome young knight with an unorthodox singing style.
But after much scheming (this is a five-hour opera), Sachs manages to open up the competition, first by arranging for the guild's ultraconventional singer to suffer through a Nascar-style flameout. The crowd laughs at his song and mocks him as a "booby" with no sex appeal.
Then Sachs explains to the crowd that it's actually a beautiful song that has been "distorted" by the performer. (Or, as Simon Cowell put it to one "Idol" contestant: "I think you just killed my favorite song of all time.") Sachs brings on the handsome knight to perform the song. The crowd loves the rebel in shining armor — "No one can woo like him!" — and he ends up winning the competition and Eva's hand.
Singing has always had a primal appeal because it's a courtship display, whether it's done by a knight in 16th-century Bavaria or a lady in an 18th-century English drawing room. Humans, like birds, sing to seduce. And since everyone is an expert on what's sexy, everyone's a critic.
"Idol" fans yearn to reward their favorite and see the others rejected for their effrontery — first by Simon, then by popular vote. Simon is the star of the show not just because he's cruel but because, like Sachs, he knows how to expose hacks. He hates the formulaic — karaoke, as he calls it — and appreciates rule-breakers.
He liked Chris's bad-boy rocker charisma more than the wholesome virtuosity of the others. If "Idol" had followed the rest of the "Meistersinger" script, Simon's view would have prevailed with the public, and Chris's fans would not be despairing at their hero's demise. But in the end, "Idol" isn't Wagner. It's Fox.
Photo credit: John Tierney. (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)