Ok, I’m going to make a confession. I’m coming out of the closet and admitting that I watch American Idol.
There, I said it. But it’s not what you think.
Although I always pride myself as someone who generally operates outside of the mainstream, I find myself intrigued by this American Idol phenomenon. It’s not because I love the music or the contestants or that I get caught up in the voting frenzy. I don’t wear t-shirts with “I heart whoever” or make signs on poster board with glitter markers saying “Whoever rocks my world.” I actually can’t stand most of the music and contestants. But what does intrigue me is looking at American Idol as a study in mass market brand building. Although Fox tries to make its viewership think otherwise, this show really isn’t about listening to singers perform, enjoying the music or finding the best of the best. It’s about the guided and careful crafting of a mass market commodity. It’s about the structured building of a product and an incredible buzz machine. It’s about the selling of lots of stuff to the masses.
From the beginning of the season where hundreds of thousands of singing and screeching characters prance through, do their thing and either get booted out or “Go to Hollywood,” the brand building has already begun. The producers choose who to feature more heavily in clips, quietly influencing the soon to be voting public on who they feel has the most potential as a marketable product. The contenders are chosen for their poignant stories of a desire to overcome poverty, crime, disease, homelessness, blindness, loss of a loved one or shyness. They are chosen for their good voices or their quirky interpretations of standard songs. They are chosen because they are eye candy or they are the ugly duckling with a great voice, but with a hip haircut and a trip to the mall, they might actually look pretty good. The producers are looking for a brand story, a decent product and a good package.
I watch Simon Cowell as he observes the singers before him. He’s not just listening, but he’s looking. He’s checking out their demeanor, their style, their song choice, their hairdo, their clothes, their facial expression, their personal story and he’s measuring the potential marketability and pliability of this commodity that stands before him. You hear comments like “you are so commercial” or “you are this kind of ‘artist’” or “I love your look.” You see week after week, contestants trying so hard to be what the judges are telling them they should be. An artist can’t be crafted. It’s quite sad really. The art isn’t in the music; the art is in the building a money making machine, this American Idol brand – the show itself, the record deals, the tours, the gear, the ringtones, the commercials, the sponsorships. It’s like watching a Walmart product being molded and manufactured and promoted before your eyes. It is guided crowd sourcing.
American Idol is a reflection of what I see happening more and more in business and online. Crowd sourced opinions and masses being guided unknowingly by those who have marketed themselves as authority figures are becoming the norm. Real talent, skill, creativity, experience and innovation don’t seem to be noticed, valued or rewarded as much anymore. Mass appeal seems to be winning over originality, and fame and/or fortune seem to be the primary goals. Is that really what Americans idolize? If so, maybe I need to move somewhere else.