A Divided Nation, United in 'Idol' Worship Fox TV's seven-year-old songfest is far and away the most popular show on television. Everyone from Howard Stern to your local librarian to her tween daughter loves the show. What many people want to know is: Why? NPR's Kim Masters investigates.
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A Divided Nation, United in 'Idol' Worship

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A Divided Nation, United in 'Idol' Worship

A Divided Nation, United in 'Idol' Worship

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Let's see, what are people talking about this morning? Possibly the pope, or politics, or the weather, if it might be bad. But definitely they'll be talking about this.

(Soundbite of TV show, "American Idol")

Mr. RYAN SEACREST (Host, "American Idol") This is "American Idol."

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of applause)

American Idol is the number one most-watched show week after week. The ratings may have softened a little in its seventh season, but it still pulls in about 27 million loyal viewers.

NPR's Kim Masters tries to figure out why.

KIM MASTERS: At Braddock Drive Elementary school in Los Angeles, it is possible to ask a stupid question.

Do you guys like "American Idol?"

Students: Yes.

Unidentified Woman: We love it. It's the bomb.

MASTERS: Talent competitions are hardly a new form of entertainment. Why then has "American Idol" taken the nation by storm and showed such staying power? At the most basic level, some viewers simply enjoy the music.

Ms. BIANCA GARIBY(ph)(Student, Braddock Drive Elementary school): I am Bianca Gariby. I am 10 years old, and what I like about "American Idol" is that you get to hear people sing, and it's very joyful to hear them.

MASTERS: Others find guilty pleasure.

Mr. SHANNON NELSON (Student, Braddock Drive Elementary school): My name is Shannon Nelson and I'm 10. And I like "American Idol" because it's funny laughing at people and seeing them mess up and Simon being very mean.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MASTERS: What's clear is that American Idol transcends a lot of boundaries. Not far from Braddock Drive Elementary, it's easy to find an "American Idol" fan at the Culver City Senior Center.

Mr. MURRAY SILMAN ("American Idol" fan): I'm Murray Silman. My age is 83. At the beginning it's kind of funny, but then at the end when it gets down to the serious business , you can see that they all have a great deal of talent.

MASTERS: But enough from the amateurs. What do the experts think? Jason Mittell is a professor of media studies at Middlebury College. He says a big component of "American Idol's" appeal springs from hormones.

Professor JASON MITTELL (Media Studies, Middlebury College): It's romantic fascination with one of the characters and really a fandom, that sort of old-school teeny-bopper swooning in front of a pop star.

(Soundbite of TV show, "American Idol")

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. SEACREST: Let's bring out David Archuleta.

(Soundbite of cheering)

MASTERS: It cuts across every demographic, location, age, race and gender.

Mittell also thinks an integral part of the "American Idol" experience is that the audience gets to judge, too.

Professor MITTELL: You can feel ownership of particular contestants and the competition itself allows anyone to fit in.

MASTERS: You can influence the result and at the same time you can imagine that you are the one standing before Randy, Paula, Simon and America.

Professor MITTELL: There's really this sense of, wow, I'm discovering someone who had an everyday job just like who can rise up and become the next pop star. That's the American dream.

Ms. PAT WILLIAMS (Student, UCLA): I look at "American Idol" as a secular ritual.

MASTERS: Pat Williams is a student of folklore at UCLA. Her dissertation focuses in part on "American Idol." She says rituals are often used to mark transformation, like, say, a wedding. The "American Idol" audience transforms the contestants, who are attempting to shed work-a-day lives and emerge as pop stars.

Ms. WILLIAMS: But sometimes ritual comes about in response to a crisis.

MASTERS: Williams argues that the U.S. is facing a crisis in democracy. There was the contested presidential election in 2000, suspicion about what went on in Ohio in 2004, and right now a great deal of angst surrounding the primary process for Democrats.

Ms. WILLIAMS: So it seems to me that we are in this crisis of democracy, and since democracy is such an important part of our cultural identity, maybe American Idol provides another way for us to express ourselves democratically.

(Soundbite of TV show, "American Idol")

Mr. SEACREST: America voted. You are safe. Congratulations.

(Soundbite of cheering)

MASTERS: Metaphor for a troubled democracy? An expression of the American dream? Just good entertainment? "American Idol's" appeal is in the eyes of more than 27 million Idol worshippers.

(Soundbite of applause)

Kim Masters, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: At our Web site, you can hear from one more American Idol fan, Fresh Air's Terry Gross. At least she used to be a fan. Find out what changed at npr.org.

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