Pop Culture

‘American Idol’ turns viewers into loons

For those of us who watch "American Idol," this is it: the last moment before we all lose our minds.

That's because "Idol" makes us crazy. For five months, our sanity takes off for parts unknown. It doesn't happen all at once, of course. That would kill us. No, it just sort of quietly dribbles away until people who were once rational, clear-thinking individuals (I don't know you personally, but I'm assuming) have been transformed into raving loons.

Idol isn't the only show that has this effect. Plenty of programs have their fanatic devotees, from "Gossip Girl" to "The Office" to "Lost" and "Battlestar Galactica." But it takes audience-vote-driven competitive reality to really tap into and fuel fan insanity. You only need to look at "Dancing With The Stars," which casts a spell powerful enough to make its audience openly plead for dance partners to become romantic partners, and to accuse the show of rigging its results for ratings.

But "Idol" is bigger than "Dancing," of course, and its ultimate prize is a heck of a lot more impressive than bragging rights and a meaningless trophy. And audience investment in "Idol" contestants is a different animal entirely. "Dancing" teams aren't there to build careers out of dancing. It's intended to be good fun and entirely temporary, the television equivalent of a summer fling. When a season's over, it's over.

"Idol," on the other hand, is supposed to lay the foundation for something far more lasting. Contestants don't come into it as celebrities looking to juice their preexisting careers but as unknowns hoping for a break.

The show looks outside itself, beyond the finale to the radio and sales charts. That requires a degree of fan devotion deep enough to last not only through the end of the season but well into the months afterwards spent anticipating the contestants' albums. And viewers are all too happy to oblige.

In terms of hysterical loyalty to things that ultimately don't matter in the least, it might be second only to the fandom reserved for sports teams. The difference is, nobody's born a Brooke White fan and will die a Brooke White fan, having been raised to be a Brooke White fan no matter how poor of a season she might have. (Unless you happen to be related to Brooke White, of course, in which case this obviously doesn't apply.) That's how you know that she's not, say, the Red Sox.

But fans of "Idol" contestants act as if this were the same sort of lifelong passion, rather than something picked up over the course of a few weeks. Consider the hours spent texting and calling in as many votes as possible before the lines close. The proliferation of increasingly embarrassing signage in the audience at tapings. (Cougars For Cook, you should be ashamed of yourselves.) The YouTube video of David Archuleta fans in full meltdown when their fave lost last year's contest.

Same ratings as ‘Scarecrow and Mrs. King’And there are the fan wars. It's apparently not enough to simply love your contestant beyond all reason. Somebody somewhere loves a different contestant beyond all reason, and that's the sort of thing that can pit fan against fan, sometimes for years. Just wander into any online Clay Aiken fan community and mention Kelly Clarkson, and you'll see what I mean. And those two weren't even on the same season. You can imagine what happens with contestants who are actually in direct competition with one another.

But here's the thing. It's like loving the Jonas Brothers and finding your friend morally reprehensible for preferring Kevin to the obviously superior Nick. Guess what? They're all Jonas Brothers. You're on the same team, so save your strength. Believe me, you're going to need it once you encounter the Fall Out Boy crowd.

"Idol" works the same way. People who don't care about the show (and they do, in fact, exist) don't see the difference between David Cook and David Archuleta. All they see are two "American Idol" singers, and they are laughing at you for sniping amongst yourselves.

All of this is made possible by the way we pretend for nearly half a year that "Idol" is the most important thing in our lives. It's on the covers of magazines, gabbed about on morning shows, written about on the Internet. (What are you looking at?) There is almost total media saturation for months and months. It's so hard to escape that even people who don't watch the show end up with a pretty good idea of what's going on.

This is, in a word, insane. Yes, "Idol" is the number-one television show in the country, and Lord knows that the folks who put it together love to constantly trumpet their own greatness, whether it's number of viewers, votes tallied, awards won or some other measurement that just means more money for production companies 19 Entertainment and FremantleMedia.

It is, however, just a television show, and possibly not nearly as big of one as we like to pretend. Not too long ago, NPR.org's Linda Holmes (an MSNBC.com contributor) pointed out that its ratings are, curiously for something that knocks down everything in its path, pretty much the same as those for the modestly successful and mostly forgotten 1980s series "Scarecrow And Mrs. King."

But not only did "Scarecrow" air at a time of fewer channels and thus less competition, it wasn't interactive. "Idol" is, both in the format of the show itself and the way we talk about it. We're not just watching it, we're using our phones to call the shots. And the Internet encourages the type of instant and prolonged discussion that would never be possible, or permitted, at the watercooler of any self-respecting office, to say nothing of its well-documented ability to upend reasonable conversation if you're not careful.

We can't handle the responsibility. It turns all of us into lunatics. The trick is to plead temporary insanity and remember to come back out into the light when it's all over.

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Marc Hirsh is a writer in Somerville, Mass.

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