American Idol's Lessons for Those Who Would be President
Presidential candidates would do well to learn their American Idol. I beg the site’s forgiveness if it is demeaning to make a comparison between a TV singing contest and electoral politics. One is a serious process in which dedicated people give of themselves to better our nation while the other one is just a bunch of old guys in suits mouthing platitudes and empty promises. Nonetheless, from its great heights, American Idol offers many important lessons for anyone seeking the love and respect of this nation. In my decade of intensive study of the most important tentpole of our culture, here are some rules I've taken away.
Lesson 1. Know Thyself. One thing every champion of American Idol has in common is that the basic kind of performer they are does not change one millimeter from the day they first auditioned until the day they win the crown. Along the way, they improve, they overcome challenges, they grow and refine. The audience loves to see people get better - but they do not fundamentally change. The champions who won as country singers, came as country singers. The same with performers of R and B, soft rock, hard rock or pop balladeering. Idol audiences have shown they will go to all sorts of places, so long as they trust the singer is taking them to someplace that is authentic to their experience.
What never works is reinventing yourself in mid-stream. Each year, a handful of struggling contestants make abrupt changes in their basic image, switching from rock to country; going from glam to down home. This always fails. When the performers do this they are effectively telling the audience, everything I have shown you before is a lie but I swear this time it is the real me. Totally flummoxed about who the performer is, the audience quickly ends their confusion by sending them home where they can find themselves away from the glare of the spotlight.
Lesson 2. Every Underdog has His Day. This rule may not be an exact correlation with politics where money and organization can barrel through much, but the emotional lessons pertain. In American Idol’s ten seasons, the initial front runner has won exactly once. In almost every other year, the eventual winner was someone no one was talking about at the season’s open. There is nothing the audience loves more than to see someone rise from obscurity and take the prize. Raising a singer up from the back of the pack makes the voters feel personally invested in them; they feel they made this candidate. Conversely, nothing turns the audience off more than the notion that a champion is being forced down their throats by the producers or by the critics. And Mitt Romney beware, truly nothing turns them off as much as the feeling that a singer is too polished, too perfect; that it comes so easy to them, they don’t even have to try. If Idol audiences feel that you think life is just a beautifully wrapped Christmas present waiting to be opened, they are likely to give you the chance to learn that it is not very, very soon.
Lesson 3. Anger Management. There is one emotion that is an instant career killer on American Idol and that is anger. You can be sad, despondent, inconsolable, hopeless and lost. But let the nostrils flare a fraction of an inch and your music career is over. It’s no easy trick not to look a little miffed upon being told a performance that you put your entire soul into was “absolute rubbish.” But in the cold medium of television, the tiniest hint of anger is magnified a thousand fold, and what may have only been a little flash of annoyance reads as uncontrolled rage. Uncontrolled rage reads as this person is a a raging psychopath, and a raging psychopath is nobody’s friend. In Season 1, front runner Justin Guarini responded to a particularly vicious critique with the very measured, “Well, let’s see what the audience thinks.” The backlash was immediate and enormous; Guarini was labeled cocky and arrogant at every water cooler in the land. The next day he found himself at the bottom of the voting heap for the first time and felt compelled to apologize to the audience and the judges. His campaign never recovered.
As hard as it is, if you are in the public eye, the correct answer to being told that you are a worthless disgrace is, “Thank you so much for helping me get better. It means so much to me that you’d take the time to share your thoughts.”
Lesson 4. Critical Detachment. Every Idol singer must make a decision: do I want to win the pundits, or do I want to win the contest. In the end, nobody does both. Each year, the critics anoint their favorite, a performer who pushes boundaries and takes risks and defies beloved genre. That person generally finishes seventh. The best they can hope for is a distant second. Theirs will be amazing reviews they can hang on their walls, friendships with some of Hollywood’s most celebrated bloggers, and invitations to movie stars’ birthday parties for about six months until the new flavor comes along. Meanwhile, the singer the critics wrote off as middle of the road, saccharine grandma-bait begins their music career.
The analogies aren’t perfect. But looking at the campaigns we’ve seen lately, a little more Idol and a little less politics would go a long way for most of these folks flapping their gums out on the debating circuit.