The columnist Russell Baker once wrote a piece about the discovery he made one evening after he retired to his basement and, with nothing else to do, turned on the television set. All sorts of new and alien life forms invaded the basement. There was, he would write, a country living in his cellara country with which he was not particularly acquainted. That’s how I felt several months ago when I found myself in the presence of actual grown-ups, who were parsing the results of a television show called American Idol. In addition to being unaware that so-called talent shows had been a staple of broadcasting since Guglielmo Marconi figured out wireless communications, these grown-ups admitted that their children were hooked on the show. One grown-up announced that his teenage daughter, who likes to sing in the shower, has decided that one day she will be an American Idol.
When I suggested that there were other avenues to idolhood, like medicine, social work, engineering or teaching, my friend laughed. Apparently he thought I was kidding. I wasn’t. Was I being a killjoy? Yes. Snobbish? Perhaps. But kidding? Not a chance.
The startling popularity of American Idol and its knockoffs provides further proof that America is, in the words of writer Neil Postman, amusing itself to death. As never before, young people are being taught to believe that genuine American idols sing and dance and look beautiful in front of a television camera, that pop culture is the only culture that matters, and that achievement that doesn’t bring the dubious reward of fame is hardly worth the effort.
One of the new Idol knockoffs is called America’s Got Talent. The title suggests that television executives were stunned to learn about this surfeit of American talent, but given their line of work, their surprise is understandable. As talented as America may be, however, the country doesn’t have enough engineers, mathematicians, scientists and systems analysts. The culture no longer recognizes this kind of work as worthy of aspiration.
That’s absurd, and most of us know that. Surely the people who put on these awful shows know they’re selling dubious goods. After all, many of them are products of America’s finest universities. (That thought alone ought to tell us something about our society.) They are familiar, presumably, with the work of genuine American idolspeople who have actually contributed to society rather than merely distracted it.
For the men and women who are the brains behind shows like American Idol and its imitators, all of this is an exercise in postmodern irony. But for the kids who watch, and even for some of the grown-ups, it is completely serious. And that’s the frightening part.
At the risk of sounding like a middle-aged crank, I remember when children aspired to be astronauts, rocket scientists, cancer-conquering doctors, firefighters, clergy and religious and, yes, even political leaders. Not every aspiring president made it to the Oval Office. And not every would-be firefighter passed the physical. But at least those dreams were born of a society that valued service and citizenship. Today’s Idol-worshipers are the products of a society that values extreme narcissism and shallow fame.
That’s not to say that serious people cannot spend a few frivolous moments watching a silly show just for fun. I’ve spent more than a few hours this summer following the exploits of the golfer Phil Mickelson. This curious pastime could be regarded as an even more serious sign of American decline than the popularity of American Idol. But then again, at least Phil Mickelson is not hostage to the whims of a snooty British judge.
I realize that actors and singers have long been regarded as secular godsthis did not start with American Idol. The cult of celebrity and fame has been around for generations. Kids in the 1960’s worshiped the Beatles, or so I am told. Bobby-soxers fainted at the sight of the young Frank Sinatra. Young men fell in love with the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Betty Grable. Movie fan magazines have been chronicling the lives of the famous since the Roaring Twenties.
Still, it seems clear to me that today’s Americans devote more time, money and energy in pursuit of trivial pop culture than ever before. Entire television channels are devoted to one of my favorite oxymorons, entertainment news. A word from a single talk-show host can and does inspire millions of people to buy a book that most of them probably will never read. Serious magazines struggle to find new readers, but magazines devoted to the lives of movie stars make their owners rich, if not famous.
And, of course, there is this business of what makes an American Idol. In the aftermath of 9/11, we swore that we were a changed people, that we would forever honor the sacrifices of society’s true heroes. We claimed that we understood how we had let trivia consume our lives.
For a while our idols were people who gave of themselves, who put their own lives at risk for the sake of others. Fame and glamour were put in their rightful place. Eternal values reasserted themselves. We saw the difference between reality and fantasy.
Today, less than five years after that life-altering outrage, we debate the merits of singers who wish to be seen as an American idol. We encourage our children to worship these idols, to go forth and do likewise.
We really haven’t learned much, have we?