continues to dominate television ratings with a product that just isn't terribly deplorable. The success of the contest at finding unexploited commercial singing talent, especially female talent, shows up the inefficiency and corruption of the traditional music industry, which fails to maximize profits because too many male executives prefer to exploit their power to promote pretty but untalented girls who will sleep with them rather than to find the best singers. Further, the contest format gives nice, unassertive people like this year's standout, Melinda Doolittle (a 29-year-old professional back-up singer with a near Gladys Knight-quality voice but a shy, unassuming personality), a chance to shine in a business where pushiness is normally a prerequisite.
One striking difference between American Idol and the spate of lesser reality TV shows is that, surprisingly, it doesn't reward diva attitudes and bitchiness on the part of the contestants (the judges provide more than enough of that). The show has consistently resisted the temptation to put cameras in wherever it is that the contestants are lodged. It would be easy to encourage the contestants to engage in backstage backbiting and undermining each other on camera, like on Big Brother and all its imitators, but the show doesn't do that. One reason is that American Idol isn't American Idle -- the contestants who make it past the early auditions to Hollywood are working hard in rehearsal all week to get ready to put on two shows a week, and thus don't have as much time to connive against each other.
Another reason is because singing is a more objective undertaking than just being a media personality. Radio psychiatrist Dr. Drew Pinsky gave the standard Narcissistic Personality Inventory test to scores of minor celebrities that came on the "Loveline" radio show he hosted with Adam Carolla and found that the most narcissistic were the least talented -- the female reality TV stars of the moment were the most narcissistic, while the most talented, the musicians, were the least. If you are an excellent musician, you are always aware that there are truly great musicians out there. Melinda Doolittle knows that as good as she is, she's not as good as, say, Whitney Houston was in her (brief) prime.
Indeed, one of the rare pleasures of American Idol is the initial open audition shows when the talentless egomaniacs are sent home with curt, but valuable, advice to find a different career. In an
One thing that surprised Cowell a half decade ago was how little the American public cared about singers' looks. Being beautiful, like last year's runner-up Katherine McPhee, or cute, like the previous year's winner Carrie Underwood, helps, of course, but being fat (e.g., winner Rueben Stoddard), funny-looking (winner Fantasia and popular runner-up Clay Aiken), or gray-haired (winner Taylor Hicks) doesn't hurt as much as it would in Britain.
My wife has been guessing for some time that the winner this year will be 17-year-old Jordin Sparks, the cheerful mulatto daughter of a retired NFL cornerback and a blonde.
This year, the male singers have been below average, and without a strong white female country singer like Underwood or first winner Kelly Clarkson, the black women have dominated. Although they always put a cute white rocker chick in the top dozen, American Idol isn't conducive to singing electric guitar rock, for which you need your own small band, so that leaves country as the only genre where experienced white women have an advantage over black women on the show. The other good genres for the show are either black, such as Motown, or old-fashioned, such as show tunes, where the black advantage in raw vocal talent gives black women the advantage.
But there have been so many good black women this year, and they never have that all big a voting bloc among the public (the modal voter -- an adolescent white girl would prefer, all else being equal, to vote for somebody she identifies with), so they've cut into each other's vote, with LaKisha almost being sent home this week. (Howard Stern's novelty candidate Sanjaya was sent packing instead). The same thing happened in the third year, when Fantasia, who is black, won. Another tremendous black singer, Jennifer Hudson, the new Oscar-winner for "Dreamgirls," finished seventh, despite a lot of praise from the judges. Without Fantasia in the running, Hudson might well have won, but there wasn't enough support from the public for black women for both of them to make it to the last night.
Because she can sing black or white, Jordin Sparks thus looks well-poised to win the vote this year.
If she does well, that would be more evidence for a phenomenon I've been vaguely noticing for some time -- the rise of a Mulatto Elite in public life, to some extent displacing African-Americans raised in a conventionally black background. Perhaps it's just that there are more people with one black parent and one white parent today. But I suspect it's also that traditional African-Americans, in general, are getting ever more into their own narrow black groove and thus slowly losing touch with the rest of the country. For example, Levitt and Dubner wrote:
"The California data establish just how dissimilarly black and white parents have named their children over the past 25 years or so—a remnant, it seems, of the Black Power movement. The typical baby girl born in a black neighborhood in 1970 was given a name that was twice as common among blacks than whites. By 1980, she received a name that was 20 times more common among blacks. (Boys' names moved in the same direction but less aggressively—likely because parents of all races are less adventurous with boys' names than girls'.) Today, more than 40 percent of the black girls born in California in a given year receive a name that not one of the roughly 100,000 baby white girls received that year."
Giving your baby one of these stereotypically black names exposes your child to discrimination on the job market (as resume tests have shown). But blacks seem to be willing to have their children pay that price in the name of racial solidarity. Giving your baby a name like LaKisha is a way of branding her permanently with black culture so that she is less able to step away from it if she chooses.
As conventional blacks increasingly concentrate in only a handful of fields (e.g., just basketball and football in sports) and make a fetish of keepin' it real, of not "acting white," they are losing touch with the interests of the white majority, even as whites become ever more positive toward black talents. In their place, those individuals who are part black genetically, but had at least a partly white upbringing are able to flourish among whites by providing black skills without as much self-defeating black attitude. (Any connection between this trend and the popularity among whites of a certain Senator from Illinois is of course utterly coincidental.)