Bangers and Bops: ‘American Idol’ as a microcosm

Some of you might’ve lost trust in the American electoral system in November of 2016 as high schoolers or undergraduates. It was May 21, nearly eight years earlier when my own naivete was taken from me by the failings of the mainstream electoral processes. However, on that fateful day in 2008, the country’s focus wasn’t on Florida or Pennsylvania, it was on the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles, Calif.: the season 7 finale of “American Idol” (2002–). 

David Archuleta was, in all ways, made to be on the cover of every issue of “Tiger Beat” and “J-14.” As a seven, nearly eight-year-old girl, I thought he had the perfect not-quite adult male voice that had the range to do both an emotional Jonas Brothers’ “When You Look Me in the Eyes” (2007) and a lighthearted “If That’s Not Love” (2007) by The Naked Brothers Band. However, the American Idol electorate was compelled to crown the mid-20s “rocker” David Cook, who chose to sing Switchfoot songs over John Mayer, the winner.

From the joke candidates (e.g. William Hung, Sanjaya Malakar) that remained un-eliminated for the laughs to the season in which Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey distracted from the competition by fighting, American Idol, in many ways, can point to us the shortcomings of our country’s electoral system. It is, perhaps, the quintessential microcosm of American politics. 

Perhaps the implementation of ranked-choice voting would have prevented the elimination of Jennifer Hudson during its third season. The inevitable drama that accompanied the portion of Hollywood Week where contestants were forced to perform in groups might serve as an example of how our primary system is fundamentally flawed. And this might be a stretch, but the sheer number of country-leaning pop stars that have won the show might be indicative of an unrepresentative American Idol electorate. 

This phenomenon of monumental electoral failures in the specific context of talent-search shows is not bound by American borders. In 2010, the United Kingdom’s version of “The X Factor” (2004) produced Matt Cardle as its winner. While Matt Cardle, similarly to Cook, was certainly not untalented, also competing during the seventh season of the show was One Direction. Although the band ultimately went on to be so legendary that even their B-side songs like “Act My Age” (2014) are still works of art, their third place finish points to the idea that sometimes democracy fails. 

Comparing entities made solely for the purpose of entertainment and a process that is, ideally, meant to be purely serious is pretty risky. And admittedly, the last American Idol episode that I watched was probably when I was nine years old. But the many parallels between politics and talent-search shows expose the fundamental flaws in giving mass opinion so much power. However, whenever I bemoan the existence of the electoral college or the potential that was lost with “Australia’s Got Talent’s” (2007–) Bobby Andonov, I think of Winston Churchill’s proclamation that “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”