American Idol, More Than Just a Franchise

Andrew Belonsky :: Thursday, May 27th, 2010 12:40 pm

Let us rejoice! An American Idol has been named! Lee DeWyze now reigns supreme, and he and runner up Crystal Bowersox are free to forge their new careers. Hoorah! For all the news coverage of this story, one would think the Messiah had returned. It’s hard to understand the hubbub over what amounts to an updated Star Search. Yes, Idol’s a perplexing phenomenon, one dripping in advertising dollars and commercialization. It also provides a much-needed education.

I was out of the country when American Idol’s first season ran its course, and it was baffling to learn that a talent show had enraptured even the most rational of my friends. I mean, Paula Abdul was relevant again? What planet is this? And look at this ridiculous branding. It’s sickening!

Yes, I knew about Survivor, Big Brother and other lowbrow reality shows. I had come to grips with their existence. But the explosion of this American Idol sounded like a harbinger of cultural decay. Popular music has become even more cheap, low rent, and soulless. It was coming from our television, sponsored by corporations. Art was dead. [Mind you, this was when I was in college and still quixotic.]

Despite my initial distaste, it was hard to first Idol. Of course there was the show’s ubiquity, overwhelming even in its early days, which thrust it into my life. And then there’s the fact that Idol has produced some natural talent. I’m by no means a “fan” of the show, but I admit I have enjoyed a season or two, own Kelly Clarkson’s first album and Ruben Studdard’s nonsensical “Sorry 2004” remains a guilty pleasure. This franchise, however, may be far larger than record deals and movie contracts.

Last night, around 11:30 or so, I wandered over to Google Trends to see what the sick, depraved Internet was thinking about. Turns out the world’s collective mind had turned to music, because almost every single one of the top 20 searches were about aural sensation.

Sure, “American Idol Winner” was number four, and “Who Won American Idol Tonight,” came in at number 17, and William Hung, the untalented contestant who became a national joke, was the 7th most popular search. None of this is surprising, or particularly uplifting. The other searches, however, are: Joe Cocker ranked as the number one search, thanks to his appearance on the Idol finale. Meanwhile, the oft-ignored Hall and Oates were number six, and the sensational Alice Cooper came in at number nine. Janet Jackson, forever my girl, had to settle in at twenty.

Now, these are all wonderful, important musicians. Even “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” the number two search, is a great song, although a bit overplayed. I’d bet dollars to donuts a lot of Idol’s young viewers had never even heard of Cocker before last night, nor of Cooper. For all of unabashed advertising and slick business dealings, American Idol consistently features exceptional artists – Dolly Parton, Stevie Wonder and Billy Idol have all been “theme nights” – thereby exposing an entirely new generation to music unlikely to be played on MTV, if such a thing ever happens anymore.

If you ask me, the blatant shilling and irritating ubiquity aside, Idol’s an astonishingly powerful, and important, force that keeps the music alive. And that’s deserving of some applause.

Image via Roitberg’s Flickr.