An “Idol” undeserving of worship

By Michael Medved

At the end of September, “American Idol” Kelly Clarkson set new 2002 sales records with the release of her impassioned single, “A Moment Like This.” This debut song sold enough units to qualify as the highest first-week total since the release of Celine Dione’s “Titanic” theme some four years ago.

Meanwhile, executives at Fox Television have already begun their search for the next batch of contestants for the new edition of “American Idol,” and more than 15 million viewers eagerly await the next round of competition. Even the most cantankerous critics, who generally condemn reality programming, reluctantly acknowledge the relative wholesomeness of “Idol,” which pays at least passing homage to performance ability rather than exclusively honoring stupidity and exhibitionism in the noxious tradition of “Temptation Island” or “Fear Factor” or “The Anna Nicole Smith Show.”

Amid the universal celebration of this new American obsession, it may seem churlish to raise serious reservations about the enthusiastic embrace of Idolatry, but it ought to be obvious that this latest fad, for all its charm and appeal, encourages some of the most destructive trends in contemporary life. In particular, “American Idol” emphasizes the overnight jackpot, win-the-lottery approach to personal success – a model that will embitter and frustrate tens of millions of unsuspecting suckers who accept its values as their own.

Consider the tender ages of the leading contenders for the million-dollar recording contract and the limitless fame promised by this phenomenally popular TV talent show. The gifted and likeable winner hasn’t yet reached her 21st birthday, and her rival in the climactic showdown, Justin Guarini, qualified as a ripe old man of 23. Like the majority of today’s most admired celebrities in entertainment and sports, the “Idol” contenders exemplified the joys of instant gratification, of ordinary lives suddenly and swiftly transformed by an intoxicating combination of good luck, talent, manipulation and hype.

This completely contradicts the traditional American ideal, which put a premium on hard work, long-term planning, steadiness, and self-discipline as the reliable path to fortune and security – the same path famously described in the national bestseller “The Millionaire Next Door.” In contrast, our contemporary tabloid culture, which saturates all media as well as much of our personal conversation, emphasizes the most embarrassing scandals of privileged and powerful people – conveying the unmistakable message that our society regularly rewards bad behavior. At the very least, the publicity surrounding drug busts, out of wedlock births and painfully broken marriages among entertainment and athletic stars suggests that wealth and popularity bear no association with virtue.

No wonder that so many Americans nurse dreams of achieving fame and fortune in an instantaneous and random fashion. “Megamillions” and other popular gambling opportunities promoted by state governments dazzle the populace with the beguiling notion that chance offers the only liberation from the grind and drudgery of daily toil. All studies of the mania for high-profile lotteries indicate that poor people will squander far more of their limited resources in this folly than will wealthy people who could easily afford it.

Defenders of the get-rich-quick snake oil peddled everywhere in our society will insist that even the most destitute and downtrodden among us “need to dream” – and so the lottery, and instant bonanza TV shows like “American Idol,” can provide a sense of harmless comfort.

The problem is that the false promises behind such fantasies reduce the chances that hard-working Americans will pursue the one dream accessible to any of us – the route of steady work and weekly saving. If a 20-year-old makes a commitment to put aside merely $25 a week in a tax-deferred account, by the age of retirement he will have accumulated a tidy nest egg of $150,971 (assuming an average annual return of 8 percent, far less than the historic returns from the stock market – for all its ups and downs – over the last 60 years). If that 20-year-old worker receives enough raises so that by age 35 he can increase his weekly contribution to $50, then he’ll accumulate a total of $290,113 by age 65.

A skeptic might insist that such methodical saving constitutes a boring road to riches – that flashy alternatives like the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes, or Las Vegas gaming, or notions of football or hip-hop or movie-star glory, provide escape valves that at least offer a sense of fun. Placing a priority on enjoyment and diversion, however, seldom leads to happiness – and almost never leads to wealth.

As author and talk-show host Dennis Prager so usefully points out in his book “Happiness is a Serious Problem,” fun by its very nature is fleeting, but the most significant ideals of happiness involve long-term realization of goals and life changes of lasting impact. Our founding fathers believed that the “pursuit of happiness” amounted to an inalienable right that ennobled each of us, but they never honored or encouraged the pursuit of fun.

As to “American Idol” Kelly Clarkson, one can only assume that her dizzying ascent to the heights of pop-culture success has provided her with all the excitement and pleasure she desired. At the same time, even the fans of this phenomenon ought to recognize that her current achievements hardly guarantee her happiness – any more than we can assume serious satisfaction for the other exemplars of our seductive culture of unpredictable, irrational and instantaneous triumph.