2003. Clay Aiken loses to Ruben Studdard in the season finale. 2004. Ruben Studdard releases his failure of a song "Sorry 2004." Where is he now? No one knows. On the other hand, Clay Aiken makes the news all the time. I hear he just got a new haircut!
2006. Taylor Hicks wins it all. The audience is shocked when Chris Daughtry does not even make it to the final four. Hicks is even less famous than Studdard. It is unclear whether or not he actually produced an album (He did- it was just that forgettable). In contrast, I can think of 3 songs off the top of my head that Daughtry has released in the past two years that have been huge hits. America loves him!
I think you get the picture. More often than not, the talented are kicked off and the not-so talented take home the record label. And this is what makes American Idol such a popular show. America is thrilled by the unexpected, and we thrive off of shock value. And we are shocked even despite the fact that we are also the ones voting. But consider this: more Americans voted in the final race between Taylor Hicks and Katherine McPhee in the 2006 Season of American Idol than voted in the 2004 presidential election. So many Americans choose to participate in American Idol that we have no concept of how much our vote matters or which contestant is actually the most popular in the public eye. So we are often unpleasantly surprised when the votes are finally announced.
That is not to say, however, that we are not entertained by both contestants' performances and judges' critiques. The individual personalities of both the contestants and the judges on the show provide us with plenty of reason to watch. When Simon Cowell dishes out a praise, we cling onto it for days, knowing they are few and far between. And when Paula Abdul stands up to dance to a good performance, we know to dismiss it fairly quickly because she will do that for almost anyone if she is in the right mood. But while these attributes of the show might help us become American Idol junkies, they are not what bring us back week after week, season after season.
What brings us back is our emotional investment. Who will we root for this next season and who will we secretly hope gets kicked off the show even though our friends are all hoping otherwise? Who has the right balance of a good voice and good looks to really pull through? These are all questions we ask ourselves as we enter a new season, and, despite our best efforts to answer the questions and predict the winner, we will inevitably be disappointed in one way or another. American Idol capitalizes on our emotional investment, and would be nothing more than just another short-lived game show without the guarantee that we will become personally wrapped up in the fates of the contestants. I am not ashamed to say that I cried when Chris Daughtry was voted off the show because I know three other people who cried when Taylor Hicks won. Honestly, for the level of emotional involvement that the show provokes, it might as well be called American Cry-dol. After all, it could be called any name under the sun and we all would still love it. And as long as most of us continue to be surprised by the outcomes, nothing will ever change that.