In the 1920s when radio was first catching on, the idea of a popular culture was somewhat different than what we have today. For there to be a pop-culture, there needs to be a way for media to reach the masses. Up until then, the extent of popular media was done in print, and was limited to those who could read and had the time to do so. But, with the invention of moving pictures and the breakthroughs in mass producing personal radios, the concept of bringing a single product to an entire nation was born and with it the concept of pop-culture.
At first it was simple, big bands and radio shows in the afternoons. The country fell in love with Bogart, Bergman, and Garland and people all over the world were watching and worshipping the same cultural scions. The voices of popular music and the face of the movies was everywhere and along with the collective feeling of involvement, of a mass consumption that the world had never seen before.
Television soon followed suit and multiplied it all ten fold, along with affordable record players, the invention of cassettes, VHS tapes, and the computer. These days the availability of mass media is such that pop-culture is the only culture we have anymore. If you ask anyone on the street what cultural icon they most respect, they’ll most likely offer up Eminem, Tom Cruise, or if they’re a little older the Beatles. But even the Beatles are a product of that pop-culture machine that’s been churning since the dawn of the last century, diluting what we consume each and every day to the point of watching grown men and women fight in pits of mud and scorpions for $10,000 in prize money. The idea that anyone would consciously compare the likes of Survivor and Desperate Housewives with Hemingway and Rembrandt is partially if not wholly disturbing when you think about it. The cultural output of today’s society is strictly commercial. That’s not that there isn’t decent music being produced, films made, and art created the world over every day, but less and less it is possible to dig through the slough of viral videos and 24 novelizations to find them.
Which brings me to the greatest cultural lesion of them all, born not quite five years ago. Yup, that’s right. It hasn’t even been five years yet. The summer after the quintessential defining event of this generation, there came another defining event, something which I hope every year (and find myself less willing to believe) will not be remembered as vividly as 9/11, the series premier of American Idol. I was fresh out of High School and had just moved out of my parents’ home. I was staying with friends in a suburb of Seattle and on that fateful June evening in 2002 I watched as a few thousand poor souls made fools of themselves in the highly produced, quality free rehearsal space in front of three withered remnants of the music industry; the man who brought us the Spice Girls, a long since washed up drunk dance queen, and the guy who played bass on tracks for Madonna. These three at the same time tore apart, offered support and flung superfluous slang at awful and amazing singers alike in what I’ve never been convinced is not a fully scripted three minute sequence.
The first season or two of the show were cultural phenomenons. By the third season, the American Idol voting got almost as many votes in a single season as a presidential election, and ten times the viewership. Every teenager, washed up singer, and creepy old guy watched with intense interest as these poor kids sang their hearts out (granted, they have talent) for cheap poppy fluff that will sell. God forbid you win the whole thing, as the promise of record contract also means you’re eternally tied at the hip to Cowell’s production company and the overwhelming percentage they suck dry from your earnings. And these singers make money – lots of it. The 20 million or more viewers watching for 10 plus weeks, are more than a little willing to pay for the album they watched the development of. It’s marketing genius, and it’s destroying popular culture in the same way popular culture destroyed actual culture.
There’s no denying the popularity of the program, or the talent of the eventual finalists. But, this year especially, there’s a certain feeling of production in every scene that’s always been there. It pervades every audition. If you have a friend who’s auditioned, and the odds are after six seasons of auditions you probably do, you’ll know that they only take a very small percentage of the 30,000 people that show to an audition to see the Big 3. And what do we see on tv? About 80% godawful singers. They purposefully pull these people from line, give them a disclosure agreement to sign and send them in to be knowingly torn apart by a smarmy Briton. Better yet, since William Hung made his horrific appearance into a career, these lost souls go with the sole intention of being mocked mercilessly in hopes of finding fame in their poor performance. This year though, it went a little too far as a young man was berated for his weight and poor singing by the entire crew of judges only to later find out that he was mildly autistic. And they aired it.
These kids are throwing away their pride and dignity for the hopes that they can find fame in the sole fact that they were yelled at on American Idol. It’s not only sad, it’s the most popular television program of the decade, and every year it gets more viewers. For shows like Arrested Development to go off the air and on the same network, millions tune in to watch an overweight autistic teen try his best to sing God Bless America and get degraded by the meanest (and I’m banking that he’s on script 90% of the time) man on television for the viewing pleasure of the increasingly brain dead masses around the world is sickening.
There was a time in the 80s when the music industry started ramping up its production in a box theory of output, not new to the industry but increasingly prevalent. There was a time when musicians used to get offended at being called mass produced and created. Now, it’s a part of the game. If you aren’t pushed through the blender of studio primping and preening, paraded across the national spotlight for approval, you’re not ready to be the next “it” girl or guy. For anyone who actually listens to music for intelligent lyrics or watches films or television for good writing, and social importance, shows like American Idol are only one more nail in the coffin of intellectual thought and culture. Pop culture can be intelligent. That’s been shown in the past few decades more than once, and it can become cultural with age (I point to The Beatles again), but American Idol will never be either of these and only serves to lubricate the downward spiral into cultural emptiness.