American Idolatry?

American idolatry?

Competition, singing and communicating values


By Vaughan Hayden

 Note: Last January, CPYU President Walt Mueller taught a graduate class on understanding and analyzing contemporary youth culture at the Evangelical School of Theology in Myerstown, Pennsylvania. As part of their coursework, students were required to complete a final project on a contemporary pop culture phenomena. We thought we’d pass on one of those projects to our readers. We trust that Vaughan Hayden’s insights will give you something to talk about with the “American Idol” fans you know and love.

“American Idol” is sweeping the nation. It consistently receives the highest ratings of any show on television, especially among youth and young adults. It launches careers and catapults otherwise unknowns to unimaginable heights. And it captivates our teens. It is a cultural phenomenon that does not appear to be going away, but is instead setting the trend and agenda for many other shows that hope to capture the same hysteria and success. But is it something that should cause concern or celebration? Is something that is so pervasive in our culture innately good or something to be feared? Are there spiritual ramifications of a simple television talent show? With so many of our youth watching and becoming vested in the “Idol” experience, it is a subject that must be broached.

What is “American Idol?”

It all started in England in 2001 with a hit TV show called “Pop Idol.” The show was a singing competition that allowed the viewers at home to interactively choose the winner. Its success in Britain prompted the widely successful spin-off “American Idol” in June 2002. The show is a cross between a talent show, a game show and a reality show. However, what sets it apart is the interactive feature of allowing viewers to actually choose the winners and losers each week.

For those who may not have seen it, this is not your ordinary reality show. It begins with open auditions in several cities across the United States, with willing contestants between the ages of 16 and 28 vying for the attention of the judges—Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell. These judges each have a unique perspective and offer different types of criticism or support to those lucky enough to audition for them. If at least two of the three judges approve of the auditioner, they are granted a “golden ticket toHollywood” where all the survivors from the first round are put through a week of skill tests that allow the field of candidates to be further narrowed. At the end of the week the number is cut to 40 hopefuls, of which only 24 will get the opportunity to sing forAmerica. Everyone is then sent home, with the 40 having to return for a final judgment at a date closer to the airing of the live portions of the show.

After the field is finally narrowed to 24—12 male and 12 female—each of the contestants gets an opportunity to sing in front of a live audience, the judges and America’s TV sets, hoping to garner enough support to make it to the next week. Each of the first three weeks of the live shows weeds out two males and two females until the “top 12 finalists” have been determined. Some say this is where the show officially begins, as those who make it to the Top 10 will have contractual obligations to sing on records and appear on a tour, regardless of where they officially place in the competition.


The show then moves to a larger venue and each week challenges the contestants with a different theme or style of music to perform. After the performances, America again votes for their favorite performer and the one who gets the least amount of votes is eliminated from the competition. This continues until the winner is crowned amidst much pomp and circumstance. The winner is guaranteed a record contract and—due to the already established fan base—instant success.


While that may be a simplistic overview of the show in its current format (the format has changed somewhat since its debut), “American Idol” is really two entirely different shows. The basic show is the talent competition in which the “American Idol” is crowned, but the audition shows are not really about talent at all but about notoriety. The audition shows do not simply feature the best talent that is granted the “ticket to Hollywood” but usually highlight and accentuate the weird or unbelievably bad “talents” inAmerica. They unashamedly embarrass and destroy contestants for the joy of the viewer, and millions tune in to see what humiliating lengths some people will go to for a chance at two minutes of television exposure.


How do we evaluate this phenomenon?

Obviously, to become and to stay the number one show in America, it has to attract and keep viewers. So what is the attraction? The allure of the show for the contestants is obvious. By getting up and going to an audition one day you can go from obscurity to being an “American Idol.” Yet, what makes the talent portion of the show so successful is its interactivity. Viewers know that their opinion matters as they choose the contestants they want to succeed. They may not want another Britney Spears, Jay-Z or P-Diddy singing and dancing for their entertainment. Or they may want someone in one of those genres, but, the point is, they get to choose. They also get to play the role of a music critic, and have their opinions either validated or contradicted by either the judges’ opinions or the popular vote. In any case, they get a chance to participate in their own entertainment.


Yet what is so appealing about the embarrassment that highlights the audition rounds? Perhaps Andrew Corsello has found the answer when he cites the almost pornographic nature of the audition room as he remarks, “one found it irresistible at the same time one knew that it was probably bad for humanity.” He decries the naked shame that each contestant puts themselves through with the innocent belief that they really are good, yet the whole country is there to watch the ruination that results when the words come, “You are ghastly. There cannot possibly be a worse singer.”


Yet before the sympathy for the plight of these youth takes hold, Corsello admits the real draw: “Heartbreaking as those deluded kids were, their public evisceration aroused in me, and, I’m sure, in other viewers, a deep predatory instinct to expose and destroy true believers, pretenders—anyone who would dare to rise above the rest of us lumpen.”


Herein is the real draw, the idea that we can celebrate someone else’s downfall instead of our own. We celebrate their ruination knowing, most importantly, that it wasn’t us; and that as bad as we may be, we are not that bad, for we have never been embarrassed on national TV.


This is a big connecting factor with youth, who are immersed in a postmodern culture that is rife with nihilism and the belief they are nothing. So in a way the idea that someone is worse than they are is therapeutic, although not healthy. Also, this public embarrassment registers as a form of violence, psychological violence, which, as Corsello remarks, “scars more deeply” than physical violence. And as difficult as it may be to watch, this connects with many youth who often bear their own scars of psychological violence and emotional pain.


In fairness, some of the “awful” singers that appear on the audition shows seem to do so at their own peril, or is it their own pleasure? Psychologist Debbie Then agrees, saying, “The goal for many singers is just that one TV appearance.” She continues, “Even if they get cut, at least they were on ‘Idol.’ And if I know them … then a little bit of fame has touched me, too.” This points to another reason why this show is so popular: its ability to make people famous.


Youth are enthralled with fame. Simon Cowell, often considered “the most obnoxious judge in America that everyone agrees with,” remarks, “There is an insane desire to be more controversial and famous than you need to be.” Youth want to be noticed. Jake Halpern, author of the book Fame Junkies, remarks how the desire for fame crosses over demographic lines and infuses all ofAmerica. He remarks, “Fame is an equal-opportunity tantalizer.” His book focuses on the desire of youth and children to make it big, and the money they and their parents will spend in order to pursue those dreams. In many ways “American Idol” capitalizes on the already celebrity-obsessed culture that has been created, while at the same time feeds the culture by creating more celebrities to obsess over.


The most pervasive aspect of “American Idol” is the talent show. The ability to help make a superstar is breathtaking. Often, this connects with youth who feel they have the same amount of talent as those who make it through. They have the opportunity to dream about making it next year. This year’s contestants featured some who had been turned down before but came back and this time went further, thus increasing the optimism that hard work and persistence can truly pay off. These are themes that can be applauded. But what usually drives this desire to be an “American Idol” is not simply the desire to be a respected hard working artist, but the desire to be wealthy. In fairness, that seems to be the driving factor behind most of those who pursue the American dream, but is that a value we should applaud or support?


How should we respond?

“American Idol” has much that can be celebrated. As already noted, some people who pursue this dream persist, train and work hard to be successful. This attitude of instilling and creating a work ethic that says “if you want something, you will have to work for it” is a good thing.


Also, “American Idol” purposely tries to choose music or a style of music that not only stretches the contestants, but that will appeal to a large spectrum in the audience. In other words, they shy away from music that divides people and focuses on music that has stood the test of time. This allows the show to be more “family friendly.”


In comparison with other shows that are on television during the same time slot, it should be noted that the show contains no gratuitous sex or violence, and purposely tries to filter out any words or even innuendos that may be inappropriate for young children. It also does not seem overly obsessed with choosing “perfect” people based on their appearance, although there have been several contestants who have been ridiculed because of their looks. While the show does not purport to be Christian in nature, they have featured at least one contemporary Christian song. In general, the show can be very entertaining.


However, there are many potential pitfalls, most of which easily can be overcome if the proper framework is set. The most obvious, due to the title of the show, is the concept of idolatry. While few if any people would actually bow down to these celebrities, in many ways they become idols that we have made, much like those Isaiah refers to that the Assyrians made with their own hands (Isaiah 44:9-20). Although our American Idols are not wooden statues, they have been granted power to influence our lives because we have given it to them. We have put them on this pedestal; we have chosen or fashioned our idol to our likeness. We have determined whose music appeals to us, whose personality we respond to, who we would prefer to spend our time looking at, and who we will spend money to see and hear.


While it may seem like a stretch, just walking through any middle or high school will let you know that kids truly do idolize and desire to emulate various celebrities. Current Events magazine’s article about celebrity obsession remarked, “Stars have become heroes, role models, modern-day gods.” This can become especially dangerous when the “gods” fall, as evidenced by the devotees of Kurt Cobain who followed his suicide with their own. Youth are especially susceptible to idol worship, as celebrities fill the “hero” void that used to be filled by their parents and teachers. They live in a media-saturated society where, as Walt Mueller states, “For those without positive input from parents and other adults, the media is a surrogate parent.” The legacy of our broken families leaves a generation looking for heroes where ever they can find them.


This brokenness also may be behind the desire for fame that is one of the reasons so many young people flock to the auditions. They want to be noticed, perhaps even famous. Robert Thompson, a psychologist from Syracuse University believes, “this desire [for fame] is very human. We all desire attention.” Many youth, even in Christian families, suffer from the results of broken relationships within their families, their circle of friends and the culture at large. This leaves them feeling unnoticed and unimportant. Mueller records the lines of a poem written by a teenager to her parents that captures this thought: “Somehow I lost my mouth, Somehow you lost your ears.” The quest and pursuit of fame allows one to regain their mouth, even if it is someone else who is listening.


Along with the desire to be famous comes the desire to be wealthy. Youth are taught at an early age, mostly by the advertisers that they see in their media-saturated society, that they need to keep up with the Jones family. Advertisers go to great pains to reach this young market, because they recognize the influence they have on their parents, as well as the benefit of creating brand loyalty at a young age. Added to the marketing influence is the unprecedented amount of discretionary income youth have to spend. Once they become accustomed to spending money at will, they have a difficult time dealing with the responsibilities of growing up and they realize they need more money to continue their lifestyle. Hence, they need to be rich. It is best defined by the “entertainers and celebrities who unapologetically revel in being rich, mindful of their obligation to live out the fantasies of the rest of us.” Hence, the symbiotic relationship between the desire to be rich, and the desire to be famous.


Spiritual touch points

The question becomes, “What is the main issue behind these pitfalls?” The answer for so many of our youth is the spiritual vacuum. There is an emptiness they are trying to fill, and they try to fill it with the things of this world, because for many of them, that is all they know. Their lives are filled with brokenness. What they need cannot be found on “American Idol,” for only God can fill the emptiness inside. Therefore, to avoid these pitfalls, a Christian worldview is required, one that believes that God can fill the emptiness that postmodern culture has created.


Regarding the first pitfall, idol worship, the most obvious corrective is to help youth put these celebrities in the proper context. Youth need to understand that every person is of equal value in the eyes of God; celebrities are not more valuable than anyone else (Acts 10:34). In particular, they need to understand that their value is not based on what they can do (i.e., sing). They are valuable because of who they are (Psalm 139:14).


Secondly, their desire to be famous is a misplaced desire to be important, to be needed or wanted. Youth need to understand that God loves them, desires them and seeks after them (John 3:16; Romans 5:8; Luke 19:10; Isaiah 62:12). They need to know they are important to Him and have been called by Him for a purpose (2 Thessalonians 2:14, 1 Timothy 2:9). But mostly, they need to understand the definition of greatness is not found in how popular one may be, but in how useful one is (Mark 10:42-45).


The third pitfall of wealth is really a symptom of the basic issue—the God-shaped hole. Youth must realize that wealth can never satisfy the longing that only God can. Solomon, who was arguably the richest man in the world during his time, realized this (Ecclesiastes 2:1-2, 10-11, 5:10-11). His discovery actually covers most of the pitfalls, for he realized that all the things that he had been chasing after, just like the things that our youth chase after are truly meaningless and empty. They cannot fill what only God can. Solomon concludes the end of the matter is simply to fear God and follow his commands. That is the only thing that provides fulfillment. Jesus addresses this in His Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6. After discussing all the things that people then (as now) chase after he declares, “seek first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” God will provide what you need, if your focus is on Him and not on things.



“American Idol” is a phenomenon for many reasons. While it is good entertainment in many ways, there are a few pitfalls that it may promote of which the discerning parent should be aware. With the proper understanding of the issues that youth are facing, and the proper tools for working through these issues, the show can not only be an enjoyable respite from a hectic day, but an opportunity to process the values of the world we live in. By understanding the perspective of our younger generation perhaps we can help them to see the world through a different view, a Christian worldview.


Vaughan Hayden is a former youth director, former pastor of Hopewell UMC in Port Deposit, Md., and currently the senior pastor at Marshallton UMC, in WIlmington, DE and the father of two boys.


The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding grants permission for this article to be copied in its entirety, provided the copies are distributed free of charge and the copies indicate the source as the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding.


For more information on resources to help you understand today’s rapidly changing youth culture, contact the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding.


©2007, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding




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