March 2, 2016

From Justin to Donald

I blame Justin Guarini.

OK, not directly. But if you want to figure out how we got here, how it’s possible to have gotten to a place where the race to become the next President of the United States has essentially whittled itself down to five candidates, and the one with the most momentum is Donald Trump – it starts with the kid from Philadelphia (ironically, also with interesting hair) who sang Stevie Wonder on stage in front of an acerbic British judge.

On September 11, 2001, many Americans lost their lives – and just about every one of us lost our sense of security. Real or imaginary though it might have been before then, after planes took down the towers, we were all walking around in a daze, feeling like we had absolutely no control over anything anymore. And the chance to escape the mayhem and madness for even a short while by losing yourself in a television program was nearly impossible because 24/7 news coverage on every single channel was suddenly the new normal.

Which brings us to American Idol. Yes, Survivor had already introduced the concept of a reality competition program to the airwaves, but as fascinating as that program was, it was all self-contained. Viewers had their favorites, but it was still a passive enterprise, watching as contestant after contestant got voted out exclusively by the players on the show itself. Idol changed all that. It was a stroke of brilliance. On Idol, the judges would have their say, but eliminations would be done by a popular vote of the viewing audience.

And people got involved and took ownership of these contestants. When you called in and placed your vote for LaToya, and she made it to the next show, you won, too. When Nikki was sent packing in spite of your support, you took the loss personally.

Eventually, there was just Justin and Kelly left. And over 22 million viewers tuned in to see who would emerge victorious. 15.5 million votes were cast in the Season 1 finale. Justin lost, but somewhere along the course of his journey to temporary stardom, he had a moment where the judges gave him some critical feedback, and he didn’t just accept it like everybody else had done previously. Instead, he asked the audience, “What do YOU think?” 

He was the first contestant to realize that who the judges thought should win didn’t matter. This wasn’t, in fact, a competition to find the best singer. Host Ryan Seacrest has continued to make that clear each and every week over the show’s 15 seasons. “Vote for your favorite,” he implores. “Worthiness be damned,” is implied. Justin knew. The only thing that matters is to get people invested enough in you to vote for you to stay.

Since that first season in 2002, America has gotten more and more used to the then novel concept of being able to influence the results of what they see on television. We’ve had X Factor, America’s Got Talent, So You Think You Can Dance, The Voice, and so on and so on. “Vote for your favorite, worthiness be damned.” And with the rise of the Internet giving birth to a culture of trolls – by no means the majority, but a large segment nonetheless – it was just a matter of time before the process got hijacked.

“Vote for the Worst” was a website that understood that if Idol was simply going to eliminate the contestant with the lowest vote total, they could rally people around a single contestant and ensure that he or she would not finish last in any given week, by sheer brute force of numbers. And what better way to taunt those people who truly were invested in the outcome of this show than to create a voting bloc of otherwise disinterested parties to keep the singer they felt least worthy of winning the whole shebang in the mix for as long as possible.

Countless bodies fell in the wake of the likes of Sanjaya Malakar, Anthony Federov and John Stevens.

And all along the way, the audition process morphed from the stated goal of “finding the next pop superstar” to “finding the most delusional people we can string along and mock and take delight in their inability to recognize their own lack of talent.” And the ratings grew and grew. And the contestants sassed back more – and by doing so, endeared themselves to “Vote for the Worst” and got more votes and advanced further and further in the competition. It ultimately reached the point where the non-Worsters changed the way they voted. They started voting for the contestants they thought had the least chance of going home quickly, not because they liked them per se (or even at all). They just wanted the Sanjayas to go away.

At its peak, in the Season 8 finale (2009) between Kris Allen and Adam Lambert, Idol announced that over 100 million votes were cast. And while the actual breakdown of the final vote tally was never revealed, it’s probably safe to say that Allen won in blowout fashion, potentially with as many as 70 million votes. Take a quick look at the official voting results from the 2008 Presidential Election and do a mental comparison. Barack Obama received around 69 million votes to defeat John McCain. Out of a total of just 131 million votes.

How did we get here? 9/11 changed the way television news operated. A constant crawl across the bottom of the screen had to grab viewer interest. And programming needed to exist all the time. So when there was no news to be shown, opinion shows began to flourish. Capitalizing on the advances in viewer voting that Idol had inspired, audiences were constantly being polled and those results were reported as if it was important information. And those unscientific poll results impacted subsequent poll results and the tail began to wag the dog – not on meaningless subjects like who sang that lame Kara DioGuardi-penned pop pastiche better, but on whether or not gun control was a good idea.

Slowly but surely, news channels morphed into entertainment channels and competition for ratings began to supersede actual reporting and impartiality. Debates were treated as football games, complete with sideline reporters, telestrators and hours-long pre- and post-game analysis. Politicians were no longer taken to task on the issues, but rather their speeches were whittled down into easily-digestible sound bites. Viewers asked to vote on which candidate was their favorite, worthiness be damned. American Idol, American President – it’s all the same now.

Sass the moderators of the debate – and there will be weeks and weeks of debates – and you’ll advance to the next round. And a certain portion of the audience will vote for you just to make sure you stick around to entertain them a bit longer. And who better to capitalize on all of this madness than Donald Trump, a veteran of the reality show world thanks to his “Apprentice” empire?

Is it any wonder that a show that garnered popularity precisely because its eliminations were based on the ephemeral whim of a dictator (strangely enough, a welcome counterpoint to the viewer vote format that had been corrupted by “Vote for the Worst” inspired anti-voters) would create such a cult of personality? Quite frankly, it was inevitable.

The question now is, going forward, how do we stop this avalanche?

For one, we have to start voting FOR something rather than AGAINST something else. When I see Trump supporters asked WHY they are voting for him, the answer almost always takes some form of “Well, Hillary… Cruz would...” When I hear Clinton supporters asked WHY they are voting for her, the answer almost always takes some form of “Well, Bernie… Trump would...” Those aren’t reasons. They’re excuses. And they very nicely achieve the goal of deflecting the original question and thus allowing you to avoid hearing an opposing point of view.

People need to get out of their echo chamber and stop treating knowledge as if it’s something to be mocked. We need to stop unfriending people on Facebook and blocking them on Twitter as a knee-jerk reaction for having the audacity to offer up a contrary opinion on your point of view or to simply ask a question about something we’ve stated. (And alternatively, we need to not respond to a post like “So proud of my kid for making the honor roll” with some sort of diatribe on how “if so-and-so is elected, our schools will get even worse than they are now” – the correct response is something along the lines of “Congrats!”)

And, going forward, once November passes, how about we all stop watching the likes of FOX News and MSNBC?  Idol is going off the air. Why? People stopped watching. Yes, there’s going to be a bump this season’s ratings thanks to nostalgia and the fact that, but it is going away. Stop watching. It goes away. And yeah, I’m sure there will be an inevitable comeback attempt in a few years’ time – but if so, it will come back changed. When the ratings go away, these channels will also change. The way they cover the news will change. And one can only hope that, as a result, the types of candidates who gain traction will also change.

Of course, the way we vote is still first and foremost going to be, to borrow a phrase, HUUUUUUGE.  So let’s start to change that as well. Vote FOR someone, rather than against – even if the current process has handcuffed us a bit into being forced into the lesser of two evils. Find a way to connect with a candidate on something, even if you have to couch it in the context of negatives of the alternative. But assert it positively, because if we only talk in the negative, this is going to be an election between Mrs. Benghazi Email Criminal and Mr. Build a Wall Deport Muslims. And that’s only going to inspire less voter participation and the greater likelihood that the extreme and the uneducated among us will be able to steer the ship.

As Justin Guarini sang in the Season 1 finale: “There are hills and mountains between us. Always something to get over… I don't care how you get here, just get here if you can.”