‘American Idol’ has had a cultural & political impact, says BGSU scholar

Katherine Meizel (BGSU photo) & her book "Idolized (University of Indiana Press photo)


BG Independent News

Katherine Meizel had moved on from “American Idol.” Back 10 years ago, Meizel, an associate professor of musicology at Bowling Green State University,was  writing for Slate about the show.  That turned into the book “Idolized: Music, Media, and Identity in American Idol,” published in 2011. Since then she said she’s watched the show off and on. Her waning attention is not unusual.  Ratings for the Fox blockbuster had just started to slide from their vaunted heights, until the show was attracting fewer than 10 million viewers

Now after a one-year hiatus, “American Idol” is back for its 16th season, now on ABC. The show made its season debut last Sunday with a second episode airing Monday.

Meizel said she’s back watching the show, though a day late on Hulu since she doesn’t have a TV.

That points to another challenge for the producers of “Idol.” The show isn’t just competing with other TV programs, but offerings across a range of digital media.

Meizel’s interest has been piqued. “I’d like to see where it goes.” She curious as to how a new network, and new sponsors with Macy’s and allergy medication Zyrtec as major sponsors instead of Ford, Coke, and AT&T as well as new judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan.

But Meizel said from what she saw on the first episode, some essential themes of the show are constant.

“One of the things I always talk about is the way the show tells stories that show what Americans are supposed to be like,” she said. She was intrigued that one of those auditioning was an immigrant from the Congo. Ron Bultongez said of being on the show: “What’s more American that this?”

It was the discussion of what the show said about American music that first led her into writing about the show. She was finishing her doctorate in vocal performance and teaching voice at the University of California Santa Barbara in the show’s early years. She read an editorial in the New York Times “complaining about the way the contestants sing” contending they were not as good as the original artists who performed the songs the contestants were covering. The writer and others who followed were particularly bothered by what they saw as the overuse of melisma, the practice of adding florid ornamentation to a note, a technique derives from gospel music.

“The more I read, the more I realized the complaints were not about aesthetics but about expectations about what American music  is, expectations of nostalgia, and expectations about music and race,” she said.

Back then, as a vocal performance major, Meizel admits to being “super snobby” about the show. “The more I watched, the more I appreciated it, not only as a cultural phenomenon, but as a good show. I really enjoyed it. I really got invested in it even though I was listening with a critical eye, a critical ear,” Meizel said. She felt there was “an authenticity.” That feeling was confirmed as she met more people involved in it.

The show’s original goal was to launch the next pop superstar. But after the first few seasons, which gave the pop world Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, the program’s star making power faded. The show became an end in itself.

Now in its return, “American Idol” has competition from another singing show the hit “The Voice,” which emphasizes giving people a chance to shine on the show, rather than aiming for a career.

The blind auditions on “The Voice” also give it a twist, and play on identity as when a singer the judges assume is black turns out to be white, or someone they assume is male turns out to be female. “It happens all the time,” she said.

Meizel said this plays up the notion that the voice is not just about what comes out of the singer but what the listener expects to hear.

One of the major changes in “Idol” came when one of its creators Simon Cowell left as judge. Cowell was known for his scathing criticism of performers. Some of those comments, Meizel said, did cross the line into bullying. “This was couched as his being honest.”

It was a sign of an emerging divide in the American consciousness as to what it meant to be honest. That came to the fore in the 2016 presidential election. “We’ve had a rude awakening in the consequences of that kind of behavior.”

Everyone wants politicians to be honest, she said. “We just understand honesty in different ways.”

For some “honesty is about being authentic to yourself and being someone who is confident in who they are. We have that story a lot in popular music and in pop culture.”

However, for “some Americans honesty is the ability and desire to express yourself without thinking about how it impacts other people, to express oneself without a filter.  Simon Cowell was part of that coming to a head.”

More recent judges have not gone to that extreme, and instead celebrate quirkiness. “This a big part of ‘Idol,’ staying true to who we are.”

Meizel’s university students have grown up watching the show. “They were toddlers when it started in 2002. It was a different culture,” she said.

“It used to be years ago when I asked my students if they watched it, they were ashamed. It was a guilty pleasure. Now nobody hesitates to raise their hands and say they’ve seen it.”

“American Idol,” she said, presents “consumer choice disguised as the democratic act of voting.”

Meizel continued: “Young people are used to having their voices heard or at least acknowledged in that consumer sense. This is one thing I admire most about millennials and post millennials, the  way  they  are able to stand up for themselves and demand what they need. … I think it’s translating more into politics.”

It’s not that “American Idol” necessarily created this, she said, but the show “tapped into the trends and contributed to them, and we’re seeing it play out now.”