The American Idol season finale airs tonight, and the nation is collectively aflutter with anticipation. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter whether Katharine McPhee or Taylor Hicks claims the dubious title of “Next American Idol.” We lose either way.
And I’ll tell you why.
American Idol has almost nothing to do with scouring America for the next musical phenomenon and almost everything to do with demonstrating the power of a well-oiled PR machine. It’s a simple formula: open with a seemingly fruitless quest to find an incredibly talented, but undiscovered, musical pearl among the Great Unwashed of the American populace – assuming the talent can make it to the auditions, which are invariably held in a tourist trap city, such as Vegas, LA or Austin. From that point, parade a series of delusional miscreants and clowns before the cameras to illustrate just how daunting the quest is.
Obviously, that formula can go only so far — approximately 3-4 weeks in the Idol universe — before it wears thin, so the producers spice it up by showing the intrepid “judges” wading through the flotsam of humanity and plucking that one or two who perhaps are marketable – “marketable” being the operative term here.
Because marketing is the wellspring from which all things Idol flows, the PR blitzkrieg kicks into full gear at this point, and what began as a harmless little talent search is elevated to an all-encompassing gladiatorial fete that only we, the American public, can decide. And if we don’t vote, we have only ourselves — not Simon, Paula, or Randy — to blame.
And boyoboy, do we eat it up. The artificial frenzy builds over the next weeks as we systematically destroy careers with a single Cingular text number. Then the debates begin in earnest: little Paris Bennett is gong home? She was too young anyway. Rocker Chris Daughtry sent packing? True rockers don’t do American Idol to begin with. And so it goes, until we do what we always do when left to our own devices.
We elevate mediocrity to godhood.
All of this brings us full circle to McPhee v. Hicks on tonight’s finale. In this corner, Katherine McPhee, a curvy, doe-eyed little songbird who goes in swinging with the advice “girls should keep working on themselves.” And in this corner, Taylor Hicks, the choreography-challenged leader of the Soul Patrol, who wants nothing more than to “inject as much soul as I can into the American public.”
Both opponents are strong contenders, obviously, but in the end, only one can ratchet the level of mediocrity up or down a notch, depending on one’s point of view. The odds makers favor Hicks by a narrow margin. After all, he’s already a hero to millions of karaoke barhopping good ol’ boys and the bored administrative assistants who love them. Drunken dance moves are funny, if not downright cool, as we all know.
On the other hand, Katharine McPhee can wow a crowd merely by kneeling and begging audiences to love her. She’s a role model for depressed female adolescents and an iconic fantasy for millions of stressed-out office managers.
It’s a tough call, to be sure, but in the end, it will get down to this: who challenges us least? That person will win it all tonight. They’ll be heralded as an artist for a month, maybe two, before we get bored and the American Idol cycle begins anew.
As to who I think will win, I haven’t the faintest.
Nor do I care overmuch.
I’ll be listening to the Dixie Chicks.