Full disclosure: I love televised singing competitions, and American Idol is a regular feature on my DVR. Despite the overly-maudlin backstories and ubiquitous product placement, it’s hard to forgo the delicious pleasure of ruthlessly judging people from the comfort of my own home–especially since it lets me live their dreams vicariously and forget that I could never do what any of those kids do. The show creators have hit on an endless vein of drama centered around lifting up and then crushing very young, very vulnerable and very talented people, and I tune in every week to see who gets stomped on and who gets a stay of execution.
This description could apply to many shows on TV right now–the compelling nature of competition is that someone wins and someone loses. But the manner in which the kids on American Idol compete is evocative of a recent literary and cinematic phenomenon called the Hunger Games. You may have heard of the series, considering the book’s been lighting up bestseller lists for the last 140+ weeks and the movie grossed $600 million internationally so far. Just in case you haven’t, the series centers around 16-year-old Katniss, a resourceful and rebellious citizen of Panem who is forced into a cruel competition that pits 24 children (called “tributes”) against each other in a highly-publicized (and televised) fight to the death. Of course it’s fictional, but it features strong parallels to the cultural TV phenomenon that is American Idol. Quick disclaimer: I don’t mean to make light of children murdering each other, nor do I wish to accuse American Idol of crimes against humanity. I do understand the difference between a voluntarily-entered singing competition and a government-mandated, homicidal tragedy. I’ve just noticed some structural similarities between the US super-hit and the most popular show in Panem. Here are some elements the two share:
1. Charmingly benevolent celebrity host. Caesar Flickerman, played by Stanley Tucci in the “Hunger Games” film, is charismatic, fashionably dressed, and charged with putting the contestants at ease while sussing out their stories to win them sympathy from the audience. Sound like anyone on American Idol? Ryan Seacrest has been a fixture of American Idol since its first season, and is a natural as the harmless and popular master of ceremonies. It’s his job to root for everyone, even though almost all of them will fall prey to the whims of the nation. It’s also his job to encourage audience investment in the contestants, telling viewers that they “must vote for [their] favorites.” (As a personal aside, I’d love to see the site traffic analytics for AmericanIdol.com on voting night.)
2. Elaborate strategies for winning over hearts and minds. In the Hunger Games arena, as on the Idol stage, the support of the public is vital to the success of the contestants. Gifts from sponsors often mean the difference between life and death for Katniss and the other tributes, while votes determine Idol contestants’ fates. And to win gifts or votes, contestants need to develop careful strategies for garnering favor. Your fashion choices, your touching backstory, your strategy in the competition–all of it matters, both in Panem and in the world of televised singing competitions. From song choice (Idol) to fabricated love stories (Games), moves are calculated. The thing is, it works; even though I know I’m being manipulated, I’m regularly moved to tears by the performances, just as the citizens of the Capitol wail and swoon watching the romance blossom between Peeta and Katniss. I vote for contestants who make me feel something.
3. Young and innocent contestants. The rules of the Hunger Games dictate that the tributes must be between twelve and eighteen years old, ensuring that they inspire maximal sympathy and emotional involvement from the citizens of Panem. The innocence of the contestants also contributes to the horrific cruelty of the Games, of course. The Idol rules allow for contestants between the ages of 15 and 28 (it used to be 16-24). The four remaining contestants this season are 16 (Jessica Sanchez), 18 (Hollie Cavanagh), 19 (Joshua Ledet), and 21 (Phillip Phillips). This gets to heart of the parallels I see; there’s a reason child actors are so often traumatized by the early vulnerability of the spotlight, and I feel for the youngest kids as they’re told they aren’t good enough. The guilt doesn’t stop me from tearing apart their performances or voting against them, though. Who do you think I am, a saint?
4. Cultural saturation. The Hunger Games are mandatory viewing in Panem, and much of the citizens’ lives are dominated by the ramifications of the event. Each of the twelve Districts sends two of its youthful citizens as tributes, and each District is consumed by the desire for one of their tributes to prevail. This fervor has a very different tone in the Idol contestants’ hometowns than in the fictional Districts; instead of dread, the Idol competitors’ neighbors look on with excitement as one of their own achieves fame. T-shirts, lawn signs and storefront displays are splashed with contestants’ faces; some town even have billboards made in honor of their finalist. And while Idol ratings have dropped off somewhat, the show still draws millions of viewers nationwide each week and is a regular source of water cooler discussion. Even after the show ends, many finalists achieve very real commercial success, dominating not only TV ratings but also radio waves and the iTunes charts. Idol is a cultural phenomenon 11 seasons strong, with no end in sight.