Window on Reality

"Reality" television is generally scorned as mindless, vulgar, exploitative and contrived. So is it ever sociology, is it ever real? Yes, if it's American Idol, the FOX show that recently wrapped up its blockbuster second season. The program, for the uninitiated, pitted 12 young performers against one another for a chance at a $1 million recording contract. True, American Idol was adapted from a British series, Pop Idol, which had attracted a record 14 million voters and made an instant celebrity of a colorless boy singer. True, the program's producers were motivated by only the slickest of intentions: to manufacture a lucrative audience for a recording star before even one CD had been released. True, the twice-weekly programs, with their drawn-out commercial breaks and clumsily staged group numbers, were not the material of art.

And yet, in its shape and timing, American Idol has provided a fascinating snapshot of American youth culture in the 21st century. At once a competition, a talent show, a soap opera, a makeover fest, a patriotic celebration and an election, American Idol showed how the postmillennial United States is changing with regard to race, class, national identity and politics. As its affiliate FOX News was cheering on the Iraq War, the FOX network's American Idol -- one of the top-rated TV shows of the period leading up to, during and after the Iraq invasion -- offered both a mirror image and a contradictory view of the nation's mind-set. Appealing simultaneously to Marines, Mormons, gays, blacks and Latinos, and to every region of the country, American Idol has a legitimate claim to its label of reality TV.

Playing the Race Chord

American Idol promoted multiculturalism with an ease missing from most network television, and quite distinct from its precursor. Although the British show began with a wide range of candidates, black and Indian aspirants were quickly eliminated; despite the influence of Asian styles from Bollywood and Bhangra, and black styles from the Caribbean, Africa and American hip-hop, the British pop scene is still white. In contrast, American Idol showed a youth culture and a young generation past the tipping point of racial harmony. Sociologically the program has been what one critic called "the Ellis Island of talent shows." In order to achieve this particular American dream of fame, 70,000 aspirants dressed in everything from yellow pimp suits to preppy khakis, then flew, drove and hitchhiked to grueling auditions in seven iconic American cities -- New York, Detroit, Miami, Atlanta, Nashville, Austin and Los Angeles -- for the second season.

Vying for only a dozen finalists' slots, an astonishing mix of blond Asians, yodeling twins, inner-city rappers, hopeful ex-convicts and desperate single mothers slept on the sidewalks and endured the blunt dismissals of multicultural judges Randy Jackson (a black music-company executive), Paula Abdul (a Brazilian/French-Canadian recording star and choreographer) and Simon Cowell (a white British music producer whose merciless insults and fearless observations as a Pop Idol judge had delighted U.K. audiences). The American Idol finalists included several black candidates plus two from biracial families. Despite the fears of some critics that no black candidate could win, Ruben Studdard, the soulful "velvet teddy bear" from Birmingham, Ala., who proudly displayed his 205 area code on his size XXXL T-shirt, took home the prize. Imagine a black singer as a Birmingham booster in the '60s! Ruben's distance from the racist history of the city where Martin Luther King Jr. began the civil-rights movement is a statement of how far this country has come.

In a vote so close that it recalled the 2000 presidential election, Clay Aiken, a white college student from North Carolina who worked with autistic teens and had become Ruben's best friend, came in second. At his audition, one reviewer recalled, Clay looked "like Alfred E. Neuman and Howdy Doody crashed head-on." Twenty weeks later, tanned, ironed and styled to rock-star perfection, Clay still retained his down-home charm and modesty. Guest judges alternated between Motown gods (Lamont Dozier, Gladys Knight) and white songwriters (Diane Warren, Billy Joel). Jackson's slang epithets ("dawg," as a term of affectionate greeting, was a favorite) domesticated the outlaw rapper idiom of hip-hop culture and repackaged it for middle America.

But there was a subtext to this surface of racial harmony and equality. Three black or biracial finalists and semifinalists were disqualified for concealing criminal records or for behavior unfitting to American Idols, suggesting disparities of opportunity and continuing cultural differences. One ex-finalist, Corey Clark, accused the producers of exploiting him for ratings when a Web site revealed that he was facing trial on assault charges, and he had to tape an on-air defense interview for American Idol that he claimed was misleadingly edited.

U.K. and U.S.A.: The Pop Coalition

The change of venue from England to the United States not only shifted racial meanings but highlighted national differences. To the British, "Pop Idol" means something specific: a mainstream, TV-packaged, youth-oriented, music-biz phenomenon. There was no conscious sense of national identity in the choice of Pop Idol winners Will Young and Gareth Gates. But American Idol had a different agenda, especially the second series, which coincided with the buildup to and climax of the Iraq War. For their charity single benefiting the American Red Cross, 10 of the finalists recorded a hokey Reaganesque anthem, "God Bless the USA," which zoomed to the top of the charts. Part of the patriotic message was the presence among the finalists of husky Marine Josh Gracin, whose commanding officers hinted that he could be sent to Iraq at any moment. (He wasn't.)

Yet in the midst of all this flag waving, the edgy presence of Cowell shocked the American judges into taking a tougher line, just as the critical, even whining, war coverage of the BBC balanced and challenged the excessive optimism of American news correspondents. Cowell's refusal to be kind, tactful, warm and fuzzy, or euphemistically upbeat, made him a bracing presence on the show. Unintimidated by the politically correct, he told biracial Kimberley Locke that her performance improved as soon as she had her bushy curls straightened and highlighted. "Now," he said approvingly, "you look cute." Unmoved by the tears of losers, he was also the only judge unsoftened by the shrill audition of a 5-year-old black child. "I didn't think it was any good," he said forthrightly. The studio audience regularly booed Cowell, but his candor and insistence on high standards made the pop coalition of American Idol work.

The Democratic Process: Elections and Parodies

In the show's finale on May 21, more than 24 million votes came in to American Idol. We can't compare the percentage of response to a real election because Idol participants were allowed to vote more than once. But the electoral structure of the program reflected American attitudes about the political process, and perhaps even served as a mass-culture referendum on the mood of the nation. Both professional reviewers and fans chatting on the Web speculated on voting blocs, on campaigns and on whether the voting was rigged; Cowell told People magazine that some of the finalists "play the role like presidential candidates. If there was a baby in the audience, they'd be running over to kiss it." Local newspapers ran opinion polls on behalf of hometown candidates. In the end, some reviewers even wondered about having the votes audited, bringing back memories of counting chads.

With American Idol providing its own parody of elections, it's no wonder that satirists were also attracted to the format. The Onion proposed a new FOX reality show called Appointed by America, in which contestants would vie in "a democracy quiz, a talent competition, and nation-building activities" to lead postwar Iraq. Who would it be: Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the exiled Iraqi National Congress? A peshmurga fighter from Kurdistan? Or Kymbyrley Lake, a cashier from Garland, Texas, who has always dreamed of "doing something to help bring about a more peaceful world"?

A third series of American Idol is promised for next year, with Paul McCartney rumored to be a guest judge. I'd bet the Bush twins and some Democratic candidates will be in the audience, too. This reality show could be a better political photo-op than the USS Abraham Lincoln.