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Change is Gonna Come

The American Idol finale will easily win the ratings war this week. Despite another year of declining viewership (and the disappointing coherence of Paula Abdul), it remains the number one show on television. This year’s final battle between aw-shucks Christian boy-next-door Kris Allen and aw-hell that boy ain’t right queen-of-scream Adam Lambert may have looked like red versus blue state politics personified. But truth is, the secret of Idol’s success is the same popular narrative playing out over and over across American culture today.??  With the economy in the proverbial terlet and our own future uncertain, we take comfort in cheering on the average Joes and the biggest losers as they claw their way toward transformation.

Consider Susan Boyle, the caterpillar-eyebrowed spinster whose pitch-perfect channeling of a tragic French prostitute on Britain’s “The X Factor” has been viewed more than 100 million times worldwide. She catapulted from dumpy never-been-kissed unknown to worldwide media sensation in mere days.

Or look at the reality programs that have caught our collective eye in America. Right after Melissa Rycroft was publicly dumped on “The Bachelor,” fellow ABC program “Dancing with the Stars” was there to sweep up the shattered pieces of her life, turn her into an Oompa Loompa with spray tan, and make her the injured victim to root for on “Dancing with the Stars.”

Helen Phillips went from pariah to princess when she dropped 140 pounds on ‘The Biggest Loser.”

And each week, Extreme Home Makeover turns crumbling house to castle, giving struggling families with good hearts and bad luck a fresh start and a reason for hope.

In theaters we’ve got the insane popularity of “Hannah Montana,” a regular high school girl who transforms herself into a confident, musical superstar with the simple donning of a wig (clearly, her friends are the kids of Clark Kent’s former coworkers). Crowds flock to see Logan emerge from the tank as Wolverine, and an Iowa yahoo outsmarts the “unbeatable” Vulcan-designed simulation at Starfleet Academy to take over as captain of a snazzy starship.

It’s no surprise, then, that “American Idol” struck such a chord this season. We want to see transformations, and that’s exactly what we got. Adam Lambert, having toiled in L.A. theater for much of his young life, went from singing with Val Kilmer (yes, seriously) in the most ridiculous looking musical ever, to iconoclast superstar, assumed victor and magazine cover boy. Pocket-sized Kris Allen didn’t register on screen for weeks, but as his confidence and artistry grew, so did America’s fixation on the unlikely (and Popeye-mouthed) sex symbol of the season.

And so tonight, the metamorphosis complete, America has its transformation of choice – Kris Allen. Ryan Seacrest’s blinding white teeth said it all: “The underdog…the dark horse comes back to win the nation over.” For some, it’s a major upset. (Come on, people, what did shoulder cages and eyeliner ever do to you?)  Even Kris seemed surprised by the outcome. But, really, we all knew how it would end.

We’ve been watching and telling the same story everywhere else.



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