It's not news that "American Idol" isn't a meritocracy, given its long history of injustices. The Fox reality show wasn't through its first season before it elevated plastic punk-rocker Nikki McKibbin over powerhouse Tamyra Gray, and the lengthy run of hunky Marine Josh Gracin in the second season still boggles the mind. "Idol" is, however, supposed to be a democracy. Power to the people and so forth. Unfortunately, more and more, "Idol" is not about the people. It is about the People.
Who are the People? You know them if you've been where rabid "Idol" fans gather. They are the Ruben People. The Kelly People. And, of course, the People who perfected Peopledom: the Clay Aiken People. They scream. They go to war with opposing factions. They trade stories of meeting a guy who knows a guy who met the contestant's father, who turned out to be just the nicest, sweetest guy! They trade low-quality MP3 files of contestants' bootlegged high school choir practices and try to give away sample CDs to unsuspecting strangers on the subway.
Witness again this week's "Idol," when Jennifer Hudson was tossed in a bottom-three group that included two of the competition's best talent -- Fantasia Barrino and LaToya London. Meanwhile, escaping elimination was redheaded born-behind-his-time crooner John Stevens. Stevens has consistently been ripped by the coaches after so many flat tunes and even forgetting words during his performance last month. It was a ridiculous result, and although I can't prove it, I blame the People.
To understand why People are powerful, you have to understand the basics of "Idol" voting. Voting is free, and you can vote as many times as you can get through. And we're not talking about voting two or three times, either. The People redial constantly for the entire time that the phone lines are open. Remember, you don't vote for contestants to be eliminated; you vote for the ones you like. A good stable of People, therefore, can take a performer several rounds farther than his talent or his general appeal ever would have.
Stevens is a perfect example of a guy who really isn't very good, but has People anyway. They're the ones who fell in love with him -- how, I don't know.
America cringed, but his People found his voice solid, and from here on out, they cannot be swayed by any number of mediocre showings. He could get up on stage in a given week, wave, spit on the floor, and leave, and they would dutifully vote for him for two solid hours. So far, they're keeping him in the game.
You see, People don't really care about the performances week to week. They treat "Idol" like a horse race. Pick your horse, bet on your horse, cheer for your horse. And, in some cases, carry your horse across the finish line. Above all, tolerate no suggestion that your horse has shortcomings.
He acted like a jerk? He's misunderstood! He sang badly? He has a cold! He has irritating, cloying, obnoxious mannerisms? That's what you love about him! No one understands him! Everyone is jealous of him!
The problem with People, of course, is that they don't respond to talent so much as to the ability to attract vaguely obsessive personalities. Instead one of the rules of People is that People love geeks. They love underdogs, they love losers, and they love everyone who is picked on by Simon Cowell. Many mid-level performers struggle in the early rounds, but the real stinkers? The ones it hurts to listen to? They've always got People.
Another rule of People is that they favor the young. This is why Stevens and Diana DeGarmo — both 16 — have People. So did last year's underage nightmare, Carmen Rasmussen. To put it delicately, a lot of People share demographic characteristics with 16-year-old contestants, and, all other things being equal, support them enthusiastically, talent notwithstanding.
Vote for the worst, not best
So who cares? Why not let the People take over? Not everyone with People is untalented. Shouldn't those who care passionately be allowed to determine the outcome? In a word, no. It is past time to put an end to the reign of the People.
Voting that is driven by the People, after all, rewards a level of fanatical devotion that generally cannot be sustained over any significant period of time. Being a Person is a full-time hobby, but you can't make it a career. Thus, the exposure that "Idol" offers is wasted on the commander of whichever fan base can remain the most fanatical for a period of a few months, while performers who might actually develop into long-term prospects — as Gray might have, and as London might — wash out because the admiration for them is wide but not sufficiently deep. And by "deep," I mean, "blessed with large quantities of free time."
It also detracts from the show to see better performers kicked off in favor of poorer ones. Sure, some of the disastrous auditioners in the first episodes are amusing, but no one wants to watch an insipid voice linger week after week. No one wants to see a kid who's in way over his head struggle through Big Band night being berated by Simon and screamed for by — you guessed it — his People.
So what's the answer? How can it be stopped? Fairly simply, as a matter of fact. Votes shouldn't be cast for who you like; they should be for who you want to see eliminated.
I have absolutely no doubt that the People would attempt to coordinate their efforts — they would conspire in their various online speakeasies to vote for one particular person in an effort to protect their darling. But it wouldn't be as easy to do, and they would at least be at risk of some other group of People choosing their guy as the target of the week.
Elimination-oriented, "Survivor"-style voting may not be an ideal solution. It's nice to think that you can succeed by accumulating fans, rather than by avoiding the wrath of detractors. It is also possible that the People might turn even uglier as they zeroed in on targets. But in the end, the best way to avoid the injustice of the steady, relatively solid performer being eliminated while a far inferior one advances is to sap the power of the People.
Linda Holmes is a writer in Bloomington, Minn.