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It ought to be mentioned just once that American Idol is one of the best pieces of culture produced on this planet so far in the 21st century. It is also to be admitted that the century is young. Other things will happen. But I don’t want the people of the future to think that we, the people of today, were oblivious to the things happening around us. In many ways, I’m speaking to them. I’m speaking to the people of tomorrow as one who was here, who saw it all unfold in real time.

American Idol is generally categorized as “Reality Television.” Reality Television is itself a product, essentially, of the 21st century. The idea (so the story goes) was that scripted television, the “situations” of situational comedy and so forth, had become a little tired. Ratings at the end of the 20th century confirmed this intuition. “Reality” was meant to inject something raw, something invigorating into the mix. It was meant to bring the excitement back.

That’s a funny proposition on the face of it. There’s nothing more banal than reality. It is the one thing we deal with all the time. It is the world as it is presented to us. We wake up to the damn stuff every single day. The lure of art and culture, of entertainment, is supposed to lie at least partially in the artifice. And that artifice is supposed to connect us to something radically human. We are the creatures who can take reality and refashion it. And in doing so, we are the reality constructors. Constrained by nature, we continuously struggle to turn the tables. Prometheus bound, unbound, and rebound in a perennial dance.

I suspect, though, that we want that struggle. The point therefore isn’t to win completely. You don’t want to obliterate reality but to wrangle with it. The desire for reality is thus the desire for that thing that kicks back. The satisfaction in reality is in the certain hardness, the resistance that is offered up. Artifice that fails to portray us in that struggle is empty and unsatisfying in the deepest of ways.

That is also why most reality programming fails to give us the element of pure, dangerous reality in the way we really want to get it. The situations are too contrived, too manipulated, too arranged to be able to deliver. It is as if these shows fear the very element that they are otherwise promising to release.

American Idol is brilliant because it actually delivers on the promise. It does it (amazingly enough) by relying on something no one ever normally associates with reality: pop music. The people who make their way to the American Idol auditions are dreamers. Many are outright delusional, some are probably dangerous. And they all share the desire to enter into the fantasy world of entertainment. They want to leave reality altogether. They want to be pop stars.

But this wanting tricks them. Because the wanting is real. The nervousness, the terror that many of the contestants feel when they finally get into the room to sing their song for a few seconds is visceral. It is reality. Like many, I find it difficult to watch Idol because it is so emotionally effective. And these are simple emotions. Fear, terror, joy, disappointment, euphoria. Simple, but not stupid. It’s also clear that Idol has become better, more interesting to watch, the more it exerts influence over pop music. Everyone who auditions for the show knows that being on Idol, let alone winning it, can translate into real (if fleeting) fame. That raises the stakes a little. American Idol has thus become a sort of fantasy machine, churning out actual stars from the raw material fed into it.

The easy conclusion would be to say that Idol thus serves to further blur the boundary between reality and fantasy, to close the circle on the simulacrum that is modern culture. But I actually think it is doing something close to the opposite. By ratcheting the pressure up, by playing so brazenly with desire and its possible fulfillment, Idol manages to inject that element of “reality” that the format promised in the first place. Because Idol isn’t really a game, because there is something genuinely at stake, the tension point between our projection of ourselves and the actual state of the world we’re projecting into is brought to the fore. Simply put, Idol is about fantasy smashing up against the wall of actuality. Simpler still, it is about the ongoing drama of subjects and objects.

Simon Cowell once told Terry Gross: “I like the idea of giving somebody 15 minutes of fame… and then actually taking it away. I do — I love it.” It is an interesting take on Warhol’s famous quote because it touches on a more complicated side of Warhol. What’s rarely noticed is how sad the 15-minute prediction really is. For all his breathless enthusiasm for fame and celebrity, Warhol had a deep sensitivity to the tragedy in human affairs, the ongoing futility of our getting up every day and going about our business. He sighed and smiled blandly, he accepted the specific tone and character of his times. What else was he to do? But in another way he always had a classical tale to tell. Everyone will get their 15 minutes. That is the democracy of mass culture. But it is only 15 minutes. It goes away, and then there’s the rest of your life. Postmodernism, in the end, isn’t really any more fun than anything else. It is just a different flavor to an ongoing sameness. Simon Cowell has always had the intuitive instinct to develop precisely that aspect of celebrity culture. Idol manages to strip people down to bubbly masses of pure wanting, pure hoping. The vast majority walk away with nothing, absolutely nothing. That’s both something more and something less than the frivolous fun most reality television gives us, but it is reality. • 7 February 2008