Start with the title: in England, the show was called "Pop Idol"—but when it migrated here in 2002, it apparently needed an infusion of patriotism. So, much like freedom fries, "American Idol" was born. If that kind of rah-rah branding doesn't conjure thoughts of President Bush—go on, world, you know you idolize us—I don't know what does. "Idol" is the quintessential television show of the Bush era not just because it's been the most popular show of his tenure but also because of where it's popular. You'll find defenders and detractors all over the country, but this is primarily a red-state show. That's the reason that Southern contestants win just about every season. Are the people fans vote for (and vote for, and vote for) great singers? Does it matter? What's important is that they're our singers, and we love 'em because they're unthreatening, God-fearing, desexualized kids with stars in their eyes. Whenever those elitist critics on the coasts trash "Idol" as mediocre, middlebrow entertainment, we rally to the show's defense, whether it deserves it or not.
And clearly there are times when it shouldn't be defended. Consider how the judges, like a posse of fraternity boys, haze the mildly freakish contestants in the early rounds. Or the annual charges that the phone-in voting system is rigged—the "Idol" equivalent of a hanging chad. And no TV program shills as shamelessly as "Idol." The Ford ads, the Coke cups, the AT&T plugs—"Idol" is as cozy with big business as, well, as our president is.
And like Dubya, the show makes a virtue of its unflagging consistency. "Idol" is the most predictable show on television. Simon Cowell is always the evil one. (It's no accident that he's also the only foreigner at the judges' table.) Paula Abdul, the former Laker girl, is always the cheerleader, always endorsing the delusion that everything, and everyone, is just great. For some shows, this stasis would be deadly, but perhaps the biggest reason for "Idol's" success—especially in these war-torn times—is that it's the TV version of a thick, cozy blanket. (Is it a coincidence that, for many seasons, the show aired right before "24," the fictional version of Bush and Cheney's besieged America?) The surge may or may not have worked in Iraq, but every January, America gets its "Idol" surge, and all is right throughout the land. At least for an hour.