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TODAY

Monday, June 17

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I take great pride in knowing as little about American Idol as possible. I deliberately skip stories in my copies of Entertainment Weekly and try to ignore the headlines that RedEye trumpets daily. At least it seems to be daily. Yet because I am (allegedly) a human being who lives on planet Earth, I cannot escape its reach, its tentacles, its utter domination of the current television landscape.

As a pop culture junkie, I should embrace the utter cheese and impact and influence of Fox's biggest non-scripted hit (in fact, the network's biggest show ever). In fact, I love a good — disco; Abba's Gold was the first CD I bought when I switched over from cassette tapes. I have an obscene number of one-hit-wonder songs from the '80s on either vinyl, tape or CD. I dressed as a rejected Spice Girl one Halloween. My favorite contemporary singer is Robbie Williams, and thanks to Amazon U.K. and stellar connections, I have all of his albums, as well as rare singles and remixes. I've shelled out a large amount of money to see Justin Timberlake live. Twice. I'll do it again if I can. (As a result, I've also seen Christina Aguilera and Pink.) I know my fellow OutOf5ers often shake their heads at my weekly selection, if they're not out-and-out cursing my name. Let's just say my new iPod would give most Transmission readers the shudders, and rightfully so.

However, Idol has never been my cup of tea, even if it does epitomize everything about entertainment in the United States.

1. It's the stereotypical American dream. A nobody from nowhere with nothing but a voice and a vision…With a lot of hard work, an immense amount of talent, and a little luck, you, too, can become a star! Of course, you're shackled to an airtight contract for several years and have to sing other people's music, but you've arrived. People know your name! And, in the age of the information superhighway, your bra size when you were 14.

2. It's a petri dish for schadenfreude, our favorite national sport after football, baseball and porn. Sure, the word itself is German, but what's more American than gleefully reveling in someone else's pain? A large segment of viewers only tune in to the first several episodes of Idol to gape at the extremely deluded or genuinely befuddled wannabes who really, really can't sing. The acerbic-but-concise insults from "mean" judge Simon Cowell echo what several thousand people at home are thinking, only crisper and with an accent.

3. It promotes groupthink and participation. You're a part of the action; you have the power! You decide, America! You! Your favorite! You can vote multiple times via telephone or online. Vote early and often. It's up to you to choose the winner. Your American Idol! Just dial now.

4. It took a British construct, tweaked it and made it ours. (See also: Three's Company, All in the Family, Antiques Roadshow, Sanford and Son, Who Wants to Be A Millionaire, The Office, Dancing with the Stars, Trading Spaces and Queer As Folk.) The close-up shot heard 'round the world? Hmmm.

5. It polarizes the audience; participants inspire rabid devotion as well as sneers of derision. Americans are nothing if not opinionated. The loyal "Soul Patrol" helped catapult Taylor Hicks to the top spot in 2006, but his album sales have been sub-par. Season 2's Clay Aiken devotees, known as Claymates, even developed their own voClaybulary, including nicknames for each of his buttock cheeks. On the other end are naysayers who think Idol isn't about music — it's about (gasp!) marketing and money. However, Chicago-based site VoteForTheWorst.com manages to combine dedication and disdain. It started in 2004 "to support voting for the entertaining contestants who the producers would hate to see win on American Idol." In a recent interview with Maureen Ryan of the Chicago Tribune, VFTW founder Della Terza explains:

"Our goal is just to enjoy the show more. … Then we also have people who say, 'I hate "Idol," I want it to be canceled, so I'll vote with you guys.' We also have people who say, 'My wife or whoever makes me watch the show, and this makes it tolerable for me." There are so many different groups that enjoy it. We don't want to bring down the show, but people who do want to bring it down may enjoy [the site]."

Overall, the only "successful" winners are the first, Kelly Clarkson, and Carrie Underwood. Both women have won Grammys and sold millions more albums than Hicks, Ruben Studdard and Fantasia Barrino. I am saddened that I knew all these names off the top of my head. Through this odd, inescapable Idol osmosis, I also know that this season, Chris wanted to quit but stayed so he could go on the Idol tour, that Haley was better known for her legs than her voice, and that Sanjaya sports the most talked about hairstyle since Britney shaved her head. I also know Cowell threatened to quit if Sanjaya wins. This is not information I want. I wish I didn't retain it. And yet…

Full disclosure: I have subscribed to the Lyric Opera in the past, and some people say I have an unhealthy relationship with Beethoven. (Yes, I know he's dead. You know what I mean.) Then again — now that I think about it — my first introductions to Ludwig's music were Walter Murphy's "A Fifth of Beethoven" from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, and Electric Light Orchestra's "Drum Dreams," which sampled "Ode to Joy" during the penultimate roller-skating scene in Xanadu. No wonder!

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About the Author(s)

As a child, Dee Stiffler was only allowed to watch one hour of television a day. She usually chose Sesame Street. Today, she overcompensates by knowing far too much about the CW's lineup as well as pop culture in general. Email her at pop@gapersblock.com.

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