The third season of American Idol was surprising, but not for the reasons you might think.
The third season of American Idol, which concluded last night with a satisfying victory for North Carolinian Fantasia Barrino, has been unpleasantly complicated for some observers. Kate Aurthur complained in the New York Times last Sunday that "the votes have been so capricious, and have pushed the show so far from its stated purpose—to find the best unknown singer and make him or her a star—that even the panel of judges has disavowed the results." She's referring to an episode a couple of weeks ago during which capable La Toya London was voted off and the wildly inconsistent but very pretty Jasmine Trias moved into the final three. Afterward, several judges carped about the voters' bad taste and announcer Ryan Seacrest implored viewers, as the credits rolled, to get off their lazy asses and vote (but not for Jasmine, you idiots, it was implied). Aurthur blames the audience (and to a lesser extent, the phone-voting technology) for the fact that Idol, which "used to exude a sense of pop-cultural justice," has "lost its innocence."
But the complainers have drawn the wrong conclusions from this year's weirdness. By Idol's own standards, it was far from a bad year. It was the opposite, and that was the problem. The contestants for the third Idol were the strongest ever, something that the judges, when they weren't complaining about the feckless voters, repeatedly acknowledged. There were six different contestants who could, with the requisite throaty loudness, hold a tune and inflict a little vibrato on it. All six could have easily taken Justin Guarini's place as a finalist in the first Idol season, and I would have preferred all of them to Clay Aiken in the second (but then Clay gives me the willies). Such a large, tightly bunched field invites chaos. It is one of the few remotely scientific principles of political science that voting procedures involving three or more candidates or preferences are unpredictable and sometimes perverse in their outcomes, especially when, as in weighted-voting arrangements, voters can choose not just a single favorite, but can express the order and strength of several preferences. (American Idol voting registers strength of preference in several indirect ways: the decision to get up and vote at all; the willingness to persist through busy signals and other telecom snafus; and, given the option of unlimited voting, the motivation to do all these things repeatedly.)
As an indication of how voters' general, collective preferences can be distorted by such procedures, consider that on different selection shows both Fantasia and her runner-up Diana DeGarmo had to stand and sweat among the low vote-getters as contestants they would later vanquish looked on from across the stage, safe in the high-vote group. (On selection shows, to build suspense, Seacrest divides contestants into two groups, low and high vote-getters. The shows conclude with the lowest vote-getter being eliminated and then singing a farewell song, which often helps remind us exactly why they were eliminated.)
So, it was the strength of the field that brought a little chaos to Idol voting, which was primarily reflected in the displeasing sequence in which people were eliminated—and it was this disorderly sequence that, in turn, caused all the hasty disavowing and garment-rending over the lost innocence of a Fox reality show. But it also provided the best opportunity yet to observe and ponder the different reasons why voters find particular American Idol contestants attractive. For the armchair sociologist, the six contestants came as close to the ideal of a random sample of characteristics (which, if you were an actual sociologist, you would call "variables") as you could hope for. There was prettiness (Jasmine), aggressive perkiness (Diana), and extreme semiprofessional adequacy (La Toya, who sang in clubs with her musician husband, and Jennifer, who, in a transcendently appropriate biographical note, sang on a cruise ship). There was another buttery-voiced, Rubenesque baritone (George), but he was slightly effeminate and not so endearingly fat. Age might have been another factor, especially in the survival of 18-year-old Jasmine at the expense of 25-year-old La Toya. Indeed, the two oldest among the final six were the first eliminated.
There was also race, which came up most conspicuously on a selection show at the end of April when the three lowest vote getters were all black women with excellent voices. (If there are any suspicions that Fox manipulates the votes, that image of three black women huddling together awaiting elimination should banish them. Network executives must have been cringing.) But this showed that the race question cuts in several directions. Some observers immediately inferred that these three were splitting the black vote—Idol voting is for, not against contestants—thus implying that black voters were voting their race. In an earlier article, I predicted that runner-up Diana DeGarmo would win, and implied that one of her advantages, on top of her adequate singing and her cloying perkiness, was that she was white, but—given her white Southern accent and her vaguely Latin complexion and surname—ambiguously so. (It's a little unnerving how, when trying to puzzle out the racial reflexes of the American public, you find yourself resorting to descriptive categories disconcertingly redolent of 19th-century racial science: "She has the nose and forehead of a member of the Latin Race, but the vocal timbre of a member the Caucasian race." For the record, I don't think Americans in general think like 19th-century racial scientists, but I do think that visual racial and ethnic cues play some hard-to-specify role in the type of desires and preferences provoked by a show like American Idol.)
Apart from the baseline of vocal adequacy and the distribution of other factors like age and looks and personality (and race), one thing I didn't expect to have to consider in handicapping American Idol was artistry. The typical Idol contestant—Diana DeGarmo, for example—embraces the show's abiding aesthetic of kitsch optimism with disappointing conviction and consistency. But when Fantasia Barrino sang "Summertime" from her knees Tuesday night, she evoked the humid, pagan atmosphere of Porgy and Bess in a way that simply shamed the American Idol franchise. The flat, nasal tones in which she operates in middle registers often rang oddly in the saccharine pop songs she was normally obliged to sing, but in "Summertime" she pushed those same tones to exquisite effect through snaking, breathless, almost sinister notes. At the end of Tuesday's show, Fantasia had to sing "I Believe," the hideous new "American Idol single" that begins "Have you ever seen a rainbow's end?" But she ripped the kitsch heart out of that song—which Diana had earlier embraced with every ounce of her perkiness—by transforming it into a furious gospel rave-up. Wednesday's final tally indicated, surprisingly to me, that a majority of voters found Fantasia's deviation from American Idol's governing sensibility a good thing.
A few days ago I reiterated to Slate's editors my confident, sociologically grounded, completely cynical prediction that Diana DeGarmo would be the new "American Idol," just so they had it on record ahead of time. It's an odd, happy way to be disabused, having your cynicism mocked by events.