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Dead Tree Alert: They Sing America

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In the print edition of Time magazine this week, I offer up my last word on American Idol. Except for all the other last words that I’ll be writing in the future, because apparently this freaking show is never going away. Which is kind of the point of the article: more specifically, if American Idol has such a deathgrip on America’s cultural tastes–dominating TV, selling millions of CDs, producing an Oscar-winner–then what does it say about what Americans like and why? Here’s a sample:

American Idol is like the Museum of Disposable Music History, with current pop liberally mixed with multigenerational nostalgia: Big Band tunes, disco, the Cure. This may be an odd way to pick a 21st century pop star, but it’s a great way to reach one of TV’s few remaining large, mixed-age audiences. “The average parent has no idea who Arcade Fire or MIMS or Fall Out Boy are,” says Jackson. “This show allows the parent to connect with the kid on something they can both enjoy.” (This applies as well to Gen X- and Yers, themselves parents now, who are if anything more prematurely nostalgic than boomers.) There’s a practical advantage to the show’s oldies focus too. Half the fun is playing critic, which is harder to do if you don’t know the original recording.

In a bigger sense, Idol has figured out the challenge of mass entertainment: how to please an audience that craves novelty but rarely rewards the jarringly new. The New Old is the aesthetic of mass-market America: new-build houses with Tuscan accents, summer movie sequels, Harry Potter knockoffs. Idol celebrates interpretation, not creation; if any Idol contender has been a great songwriter, he or she has been smart enough to hide it. The ideal Idol performance—a hip-hop Sweet Home Alabama, a beatboxed Time of the Season—mashes up old and new, letting viewers feel cool in their squareness…

In the print version, the article is called “…But We Know What We Like.” For time.com, it was jazzed up as “Why American Idol Keeps Soaring,” because Web readers don’t so much go for the subtle allusions, apparently. Get our attention! Cut to the chase! We’ve got things to do! That porn’s not going to download itself, you know!

Anyway, read it yourself and see what you think. Given all that’s been written about AI, I’d be satisfied if I achieved a 15% ratio of semi-interesting points to painfully obvious statements. Also: did Ryan Seacrest turn out to be a much more observant commenter than I expected before I interviewed him? Find out–after the break.