class observations of american idol

Like some 24.2 million viewers, I watched the final episode of this season’s American Idol last week. And like nearly a quarter billion of my media-consuming comrades, I was treated to Simon Cowell’s class-consciousless rendering of the American Dream.

Idol’s star judge has long been invested in the notion that American Idol “is really about is the American Dream.” And this past season, the wealthy Briton has viewed eventual-winner Lee DeWyze though those same rosy, rags-to-riches-tinted glasses. As a final comment to DeWyze, whose job in a paint store was mentioned seemingly dozens of times, the uber-judge offered this observation: “This [a former paint store clerk getting his big chance on American Idol] is what the competition was designed for.”

It can be difficult to assess the economic realities of those around us (or even, to give an honest assessment of our own class situation). We all code up and/or down the class spectrum at various points in our lives (sometimes even during the course of our weekly routines) according to personal comforts, insecurities and desires. Class is far too complicated to be reduced to a term like “paint salesman.”

Nonetheless, Cowell’s summation seemed like an odd, almost forced insistence on such a simplified storyline. Especially given runner-up Crystal Bowersox’s own rags-to-riches storyline accolades.

Here are some observations of the two finalists regarding their presumed class stories, and Mr. Cowell’s paint-stained obsession with the myth of the American Dream, and his and Idol’s place in it. 

(Former paint salesperson) Lee DeWyze grew up in Mount Prospect, Illinois, a suburb north of Chicago. His parents are still together, and were present through much of the Idol competition. Stories and pictures of DeWyze’s youth feature numerous family vacations.

(Single mom) Crystal Bowersox grew up in Elliston, Ohio, outside of Toledo, an area that Bowersox described as economically depressed in the episode where each of the three finalists visited their hometowns to perform a concert. (If memory serves, Bowersox performed an original, called “Heaven,” because of these difficult times.) Her father did not show up until late in the season (and she was visibly emotional about his arrival), and her mother never showed up. Bowersox is a single mom, and while her son’s father/her boyfriend made appearances toward the end of the show, they had a mutual breakup just before the finale. Explaining why, Bowersox noted that “he wasn’t cool with the lifestyle.”

DeWyze’s hometown of Mount Prospect is part of Illinois’ Cook County. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Per Capita Personal Income (PCPI) for Cook County in 2008 was $46,475, which is higher than the national average of about $40,000.  And is also higher than $36,646, which is the 2008 PCPI of Ottawa County, Ohio, which includes Bowersox’s hometown of Elliston.

A Google search for Mount Prospect, Illinois turns up a website for the “Village of Mount Prospect,” and the town’s own Wikipedia page. Google searching for Elliston, Ohio reveals no town website, and Wikipedia directs you to an entry representing the aforementioned Ottawa county. (Ellison does get mention on the Wikipedia entry for Crystal Bowersox, however.)

The website for the Village of Mount Prospect (which offered specially-made “Lee DeWyze Street Banners” for his May 14 homecoming to local businesses) includes a video tour, a link to a Chicago Tribune article with the headline “Mount Prospect, An Affordable, Inviting Town for Families,” and an ad/link for BusinessWeek, who in 2009, as Mount Prospect’s Wikipedia page notes, “ranked Mount Prospect as best place in the country to raise children.”

Which doesn’t sound too bad, even for a struggling paint store clerk. Unless, perhaps, that secure suburban reality is compared to the grandiose lifestyle of Simon Cowell, who, after raking in $70 million in 2009 alone, is now worth over $180 million (which, apparently, still isn’t enough to buy a shirt that covers his chest hair, but that’s another entry for another time…).

Perhaps Cowell follows the advice of Bowersox, whose (American Idol page) favorite quote is: “Success ain’t about the money, it’s about doing what you love.” Which seems consistent for the young woman whose goal is “to be a cool mom and a working musician.”

The latter quote was taken from the Q&A portion of the American Idol website. Lee DeWyze’s session includes this exchange: Idol: What makes a great performer? Lee: “An honest performance.”

I was struck by that term, “honest performance.” How can someone be honest if they are performing? If performances can be honest, than where is that honesty found within the nature of the performance?

The Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary offers these clues. A performance is “the action of representing a character in a play … a public presentation or exhibition.” To perform is “to carry out an action or pattern of behavior … to do in a formal manner or according to prescribed ritual … to give rendition of.”

All of these definitions seem particularly telling in relation to class, economics, and the opportunity, or lack thereof, that derives from them. For at its heart, the American Dream is a performance that we all, willingly or unwillingly, intentionally or unintentionally, act out together.

And the continued reenactment of this storied myth by so many results in the great benefit of a select few: unbelievably wealthy beneficiaries, like Simon Cowell.

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Filed under American Dream, Class, Economic Opportunity

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