American Idol hasn't actually begun its eighth season yet, but the verdict is already in and we have a winner. However, unlike the winners from every other season, this new Idol's path to victory was unique: it only required a single (albeit impressive) performance. She didn't have to audition, or go through any of the preliminary rounds in front of the judges or the TV audience before being selected as the winner. It's as if this virtually unknown performer was handpicked as the winner by the show's "producers" just before the big final show was about to air.
"Forget this nonsense about letting the audience pick the winner," the producers said. "Let's tell them who they'll want."
With this "free pass" in her hand, our newest Idol avoided the gauntlet of having to consistently perform, live and under intense pressure, at a high level, without mistakes, week in, week out, pitted side-by-side against the other contestants over the course of a long season and under the critical gaze of a panel of judges and the TV-watching world. After her coronation and a hasty introduction to a somewhat bewildered audience, our new Idol merely had to read a single speech written for her by the producers from a Teleprompter before a live, enthusiastic, and sympathetic crowd. With an inquisitive and massive TV audience also watching, she performed beyond even the show producers' wildest expectations. Even the viewing audience, who would normally sit in judgment over the course of several competitions, was completely willing to overlook how she got there and almost everything else about her. They even forgot they hadn't actually voted for her.
Just like that a new American Idol was born.
Fortunately, as a former Miss Alaska runner-up, she's practiced acceptance speeches before.
Will this star continue to shine, or, like most others, just flame out and fade away?
Time will tell, but now, with one repeated stump speech and one "real" interview with Charlie Gibson, she's given us a lot to think about.
It's one thing for a performer to win American Idol with a performance matched solely against the other predominantly amateur contestants. It's quite another thing when the audience starts to look deeper and compare that performer and their skill set to every other seasoned, professional performer and recording artist of today and yesteryear. The minute that person steps outside the bubble, the rules shift pretty quickly. Expectations change, and the same fans and cheerleaders who supported your rise to stardom begin to look at you with a much more discerning eye when they start paying to see you, or, say, when they invest in you with a vote for the nation's second highest public office.
What's great on American Idol may only be marginally good or even passable in the real world of professional entertainers. Now the competition isn't just a handful of striving amateurs selected by producers for their oddball charm, but with real artists who bring a unique and compelling perspective to their material (self-penned, in many instances) that has been seasoned and honed through years of struggle and being vetted by the established recording industry and the paying public.
Now consider the multitude of previous American Idol contestants from the past seven seasons who, unlike our winner, actually went through the show's insulated but rigorous-in-its-own-way vetting process. For the few performers who competed and went on to have, so far, a somewhat viable career (Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson come to mind), the vast majority of them never broke through into the mainstream and become superstars. Those contestants may have been huge household names and media darlings during the particular weeks they were competing and succeeding on the show, but they were quickly forgotten the minute they lost. Pop culture has a short memory, and an even shorter shelf life: Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken anyone? Fantasia? Taylor Hicks? Sanjaya? Season 7 American Idol finalists probably did just fine on their arena tour this summer; but I'm doubtful that a tour of the Season Two finalists would move a lot of tickets these days. It's important not to confuse someone riding the wave of constant media exposure with an artist who has a sustainable career and could become a game-changer.
So how will Sarah Palin, with her free pass to the crown of this fall's American Political Idol, now fare in the real world? We're already beginning to see the cracks in the Alaskan ice beneath her feet -- and it's a safe bet they'll only deepen and widen as the Democrats, the media and (hopefully) the public continue to probe to find the substance beneath the sizzle.
Let's remember: Barack Obama has been subjected to thorough (some would say "brutal") public vetting for the 19 months since he's arrived on the national scene as a Presidential candidate. Each of his interviews, speeches, statements, debate answers, Senate votes, and personal and public actions and associations has been dissected ad nauseum. But, painful as it was, this vetting ultimately helped him secure the trust of the more than 18 million voters in the more than fifty grueling primary contests marking his historic ascent to the head of the Democratic party.
By comparison, Sarah Palin hasn't been vetted -- or been voted for -- by anyone outside Alaska in her rise to becoming the Vice Presidential nominee. After a single in-person meeting and one phone conversation, John McCain anointed her. And the pop culture-obsessed, star-making public jumped right on board.
Just like with American Idol (and so many other similar "reality" shows), the public was initially thrilled with the prospect that "someone just like me" could become a famous superstar overnight and cheered them on. But just like most of those forgotten media-manufactured celebrities who became "famous for being famous", the clock is now ticking, and the real question is whether Sarah Palin deserves more than fifteen minutes of America's time.
And the election is still two months away.
So to all my fellow Obama-Biden supporters who are understandably and palpably nervous and worried about all the love and attention currently being lavished on Sarah Palin, take heart. My bet is that come November 4, Sarah Palin will just be the latest addition to the list of "American Idols" who came and quickly went.
As long as Americans see through this charade and reject the political producers' ploy in the voting booths, Governor Palin's legacy will be secure in the annals of popular culture:
As an answer to a trivia question.