The early rounds of American Idol feature inappropriate contestants with little or no talent who are intentionally let through the cattle call weeding process. This represents an ugly and compelling entertainment spectacle that allows viewers to enjoy the drama of a few elite upper class celebrities verbally torturing some unfortunate neurotic caught in their web. These early scenes are job interviews designed to go horribly wrong. The hopeless contestants seem to deserve this fate because their grotesquely delusional overestimation of their talents and complete lack of understanding of what is expected of them by their prospective employers violates some primal sentiment of self-preservation in us. What they are really being punished for is not a lack of talent. They are being punished for being socially maladapted. Sadistic spectators at a ritual enforcement of conformity, we enjoy watching these sickly deer being culled from the herd. In the later rounds, when we root for the talented underdogs who have made it through the culling process, our sentiment shifts: now we’re thrilled at someone else’s success. But we’re also connecting with our own desire to sell out. Can this person hold on to a vestige of their humanity and individuality while achieving the extreme-sports version of selling out? American Idol openly and engagingly celebrates the triumph of commercialism over art. As viewers, we are rooting for the corporate machine that manufactures these celebrities as much as for the contestants themselves.
Please go and read this extremely intelligent take on how reality tv contest shows reflect the conditions of our awful economy.