Paula-tics As Usual

Why the American Idol scandal matters.

American Idol has always struck me as so thoroughly, unreconstructedly phony that this week’s hype about last night’s Primetime Live “exposé” of the Paula Abdul “scandal” at first seemed preposterous. But after watching a couple of episodes of Idol, along with the remarkably revelation-free Primetime Live report, I began to get why people feel so strongly about the show. (Though I still loathe that bloated, hyper- melismatic vocal style that’s ruining the great American songbook, one cover version at a time.) I can even see why, if it is true that Abdul offered behind-the-scenes help to a contestant with whom she was having an affair, it might, in some odd, symbolic way, matter.

Did Paula—shown with Kenny Loggins—take a contestant into the "Danger Zone"? Click image to expand.
Did Paula—shown with Kenny Loggins—take a contestant into the “Danger Zone”?

An advertising executive interviewed in yesterday’s New York Times discussed what her firm’s research revealed about American Idol’s appeal: “The thing that fans say transcends everything is the concept of the real and genuine contest. If that genuine essence is at issue, it could be problematic.” There’s something touching about this quote, with its recourse to old-fashioned philosophical concepts like “essence,” “transcendence” and “genuineness.” Countless hours of research by sophisticated marketing firms, no doubt written up in impenetrable jargon about “added value” and “opportunity cost,” come down to this: People like American Idol because it’s real. They sense that, beneath Ryan Seacrest’s smarm and Simon Cowell’s insults and a great deal of spectacularly bad singing, something is legitimately happening: Amateur vocal performances are being given, compared to one another by a panel of judges, and voted on by the viewing public, and the results of that vote are tangible onscreen the very next night.

Sure, the viewing public might happen to have crappy taste (as evidenced by last week’s voting out of the widely favored Constantine Maroulis, while the mediocre Scott Savol barreled on. Don’t ask me, I think they all suck.) Some pranksters might even deliberately set out to “vote for the worst” (as Idol fans were recently encouraged to do on a Web site by that name; the site has since been taken down, but you can read about it here.) But the important thing to Idol watchers isn’t how closely the final choice hews to their ideal of pop performance. It’s the act of voting itself: the pure, untrammeled expression of diverse individual opinions that congeal, thrillingly, into an expression of the common will. American Idol is a place where we practice our democracy.

Our country’s hunger for populist spectacles can’t be slaked by a mere presidential election every four years, a congressional one every two, or a senatorial one every six. With American Idol, we can experience the civic satisfaction of voting every single week, without having to schlep to the polls or research the candidates’ platforms. The host, Ryan Seacrest, summed it up in a recent episode when he greeted the crowd by saying, “Welcome to the show where it’s all about the singing, but yours is the voice that matters.”

I’d amend the first part of Seacrest’s claim; unless you’ve got an unusually high tolerance for belting, the only way to get through Idol is to tape it and fast-forward through all the songs. But the results segment of each show is a reassuring affirmation that, as Al Gore woodenly put it, “Every vote counts, and every vote is counted.” This is why the possibility of impropriety in l’affaire Abdul is causing any stir at all, and why, after the quiz show scandals of the late ‘50s, rigging a game show became a federal crime. Half a century after our first reality-show disappointment, we still look to television in the innocent hope that it will offer us a legitimate choice, what the above-quoted ad exec called a “real and genuine contest.” (We can ask the same thing from real-life politics as well, but the TV version, however rare, is much easier to come by.)

Watching Primetime Live last night, it was impossible to tell, finally, if there was anything “real and genuine” in Corey Clark’s story. Was the 22-year-old singer really seduced by judge Paula Abdul during the show’s 2003 run? Did she take him under her wing, offering him vocal coaching and wardrobe advice? (Wow … wardrobe advice from Paula Abdul. No wonder Corey’s rocking the matching turquoise knits.) Or is Clark a shady bottom feeder trying to promote his new record and land a tell-all book deal? Couldn’t both things be true?

As exposés go, this one is pretty weak: Who really cares if an over-the-hill Laker Girl briefly shagged a sister-beating  wannabe three years ago? (Though I did love the detail that, when Abdul first allegedly made her move on Clark, they were hanging out at her place watching … American Idol!) If this scandal has any legs at all, it will be because, in the current television landscape, American Idol is what democracy looks like.