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American Idol: The Soundtrack to a Torture
by Leilla Matsui
June 7, 2004

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For the non-white contestants of “American Idol,” survival in an increasingly outsourced job market means singing for your supper -- literally. And singing what America wants to hear: rousingly soulless anthems which play on familiar themes of self-empowerment, the power of love to conquer everything, but mostly, just lung power. The soaring and soulless power ballad, the vocal equivalent of hardcore porn's slow motion, in-your-face ejaculations have become the standard for “American Idol,” and American popular entertainment in general.

For all of its dubiously uplifting messages of empowerment for women and minorities, the power ballad is the sordid by-product of the violent, racist impulses underlying Imperialism and reflects the steady militarization of popular culture. The now infamous photos of young MP prison guards staging gruesome passion plays with Iraqi prisoners play on similar themes of conquest and domination, making “American Idol's” hit parade a timely and fitting soundtrack to this latest torture.

Until “American Idol” came along to give it a fresh coat of whitewash, the power ballad's future appeared as doomed as Celine Dion's efforts to raise the Titanic in her Vegas floor show. Over the last decade, though, Americans have super-sized their appetites for wholesome divas in provocative prom attire, whose vocal style could be best described as what happens when you try to recite a Hallmark greeting card after gargling with Draino. Salvaged from the ashes of the “hair metal” phenomenon of the 1980s, the tortured melisma of the has-been spandex set eventually morphed into a billion dollar industry of raised fist warblers with starched hair and sequins.

Given the recent political climate, it's hardly surprising how "the war on terror" (not to mention, music) has breathed new life into the genre, or that “The Star Spangled Banner” is to this generation what the Sex Pistols were to the previous one. On Clear Channel, where Britney and Beyonce's lap dances are limited to the ears and not the eyes, the power ballad fills in the cleavage void, while buoying the ratings of rightwing talk radio with yet more hot air. Similarly, “American Idol” serves the interests of the state while celebrating the dominant culture's conformist, market driven values.

The decline of CD sales worldwide has meant that music executives have had to adopt aggressive strategies to counter their own failures in addressing the demands of a new, tech-savvy consumer class who no longer require their services. Having wrested at least partial control of the distribution process through file sharing and downloading, consumers have voiced their dissatisfaction with the corporate stranglehold on home entertainment. As a result, industry thugs have gone to monster truck extremes to ensure that not one cent of their profits leaves the pockets of their Armani suits while disingenuously pleading on behalf of the musicians they claim have been impoverished by new technologies. Naturally, they fail to mention that recording artists have been cheated out of their fair share of the profits all along.

“American Idol” is the answer in bubble wrap to all that ails an industry desperate to regain its lion's share of the royalties, which in recent years have been threatened by consumers' unwillingness to fork over the hefty asking price of CDs. Unable to generate the necessary public support for their campaign to imprison twelve year olds for illegally downloading “N Synch” singles, the music industry has had to lower its beady sights and focus on a previously overlooked demographic: AI's core audience of virginal pre-teens and their love-starved grandmothers.

Having succeeded in purging dissent and diversity from popular music, the music mogul's job has been made all that much easier. After all, non-artists, especially the naive, star struck teenagers of “American Idol” are easier to control and manipulate than their unpredictable creative counterparts. And since global markets by their very nature demand blandness and conformity, the never controversial power ballad will continue to sell as well in Singapore as it does in Springfield, ensuring its long shelf life in Wal-Marts spanning the globe.

Politically, “American Idol” reflects the blond ambitions behind popular music's ethnic cleansing, making it an easier sell for FOX and News Corp's core audience of twelve year olds and their intellectual equivalents among voting age Republicans.

AI's message boards give some insight into the mindset that endeared this year's “Idol” winner Fantasia Barrino to the program's core constituency of “compassionate conservatives.” In typical condescending fashion, they felt her “refusal” to be just another single mother “welfare queen” earned her their grudging respect and, finally, their votes. More than a few of them, however, chided her for being a “poor roll (sic) model,” citing her single mother status as the main reason for withholding their votes. While there's no evidence that Fantasia was ever on welfare, and by all accounts she is a model parent, it's doubtful whether the term “welfare queen” would ever be mentioned in the same breathe as any of AI's white contestants.

Fantasia (a girl named after a Disney animated feature, no less) defied the odds of winning, which early on had talented black contestants eliminated in a virtual white riot which left no chads hanging when the votes were counted in the first few rounds. Even celebrity commentator Elton John was left to wonder aloud if racism played a role in the voting process, which had some viewers comparing it to a phone-in lynching.

Still, Fantasia's detractors can take heart. Disgruntled AI fans who voted for white runner-up, and “real” American Idol, Clay Aiken over hefty African-American, Reuben Stoddard (last year's winner), still gloat over the former outselling the latter in CD sales and concert tickets. By the same token, they predict perky Stepford teen Diane Degarmo will trump Fantasia in the post “Idol” sweepstakes. If disgruntled AI fans have their way, “Wonderbread” will once again win the day, even if it loses the popular vote -- a familiar message that will no doubt warm the hearts of Republican strategists in elections to come.

Leilla Matsui is a freelance writer living in Tokyo, Japan. She can be reached at:

Other DV Articles by Leilla Matsui

* The Silence of the Vultures
* The Lethal Stench of Japanese Power
* Bob Dylan: Victoria's Dirtiest Secret Yet
* The Passion of the Donald: Getting in Touch With Your Inner Psychopath
* Sofia's Critics Lose it in Translation
* Dances With Crucifixes
* Das Kanibal
* The Patriarch Act: Who Wants to Marry a Welfare Queen? 
* Planet Lunch Attacks Mars
* Sex, Lies, Murder, and Videotape
Presidential Placebos: Sugar-Coated Alternatives to Empire-as-Usual

* Give a Hand to the Governor E(r)ect
Incubator Babies Bite Back: The Ballad of Uday and Qusay

* Regime Change Begins at Home … Literally