Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“Every government is a parliament of whores. The trouble is, in a democracy, the whores are us.”     P. J O'Rourke

July 15, 2008

American Idol — Why Democracy Doesn’t Work

by Brad Warbiany

American Presidential politics has long been derided as little more than a popularity contest. It’s said that it fails because the person Americans would “most like to have a beer with” is not necessarily the person who should be sitting in the most powerful political office in the world. But President Bush’s approval numbers [and those of several predecessors] make me wonder one thing: are Americans even good at choosing a president based on popularity?

So I decided to look at another popularity contest: American Idol. Sure, like the presidency, this is held under the veneer of being a “talent” competition, but the reality is that it’s run by a record company who desires to find an artist with built-in popular appeal. It legitimately should be the ideal method for finding a pop star, because the audience of voters self-selects as the logical group of people most likely to buy the album. In the last season, the finale saw over 97 million votes cast (to be fair, with multiple voting that doesn’t mean 97 million people voted).

If the most democratic method of American pop music talent searching ever created is successful, one would certainly expect that winning American Idol should be an immediate path to superstardom. You have a built in audience, built in name recognition, and don’t have anywhere near the hurdles most new artists have in getting to market. Instead of hurdles, they’re immediately offered a record deal with a major label. If American Idol is worth its salt, there simply shouldn’t be failure.

How have the results turned out? Well, not so stellar. Of all the American Idol alumni who are releasing records, the top two sellers are Idol winners, Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood. The next two highest on the list, Clay Aiken and Chris Daughtry, are non-winners. Being from different seasons than the above two, one can’t claim that they were “overshadowed” by the winner’s success. Following these two, in 5th and 6th place, are season 2 and 3 winners, Ruben Studdard and Fantasia. Given the length of time between their seasons and now, one can be sure that their album sales won’t climb much in the future– unlike Daughtry above them, who is still on an upward path in his career. In the case of Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard, Aiken– who finished runner-up to Studdard– has sold over 2 million more albums and his follow-up albums have peaked far higher on the charts than Studdard’s non-debut albums.

Looking specifically at Season 5, won by Taylor Hicks*, the “undercards” of that season have far outshone Taylor Hicks and the runner-up, Kat McPhee. The 4th place finisher, Chris Daughtry, has become a legitimate star. 6th place (Kellie Pickler) and 3rd place (Elliott Yamin) have sold roughly similar numbers of albums as Taylor Hicks, and Yamin receives regular airplay. The second-place finisher, Katherine McPhee, sits well below the above, in the same rank as the 8th-place finisher from that year. Season 2′s 4th place finisher, Josh Gracin, even tops Taylor Hicks and is likely (with a new album coming out soon) to increase his lead in the future.

How can this be? If you’re trying to run a competition that is a glorified popularity contest, how can you account for the fact that those who win often end up far less popular than those who were eliminated? If democracy SHOULD produce the correct results, why doesn’t it? Or, more importantly than why, if you realize that democracy doesn’t produce the expected results, should democracy then be viewed with suspicion when it comes to making more important decisions than the award of a record contract?

A democratic system (to be fair, a flawed system multiple voting allowed) is at least reasonably successful at choosing who will be the most popular person in American Idol. In many ways, a democratic system (to be fair, a non-democratic system due to the electoral college) can also choose from a limited field who will be the most popular person to become President. It does little to select the best person for the job. In fact, the self-selection of politicos (media, lobbyists, donors) who tend to influence the process ensure that those who are best for the job are unelectable.

American Idol shows us that democracy is moderately successful– but still with significant misses– in choosing the winner of the popularity contest of pop music. The history of the United States has shown us that democracy is largely unsuccessful– with an occasional hit– at producing a President who does anything more than pander and reward his own pet interests.

A very smart man once said that Democracy is the worst form of government– except for all the others. He was incorrect. The best form of government is a severely limited government, with the method to choose ones “leaders” largely immaterial. Expecting to elect “the best” candidate to rule over you is less likely to result in positive outcomes than expecting the most salable pop star to be produced in American Idol voting. The best option, then, is to ensure that the office of President [and the rest of the government], by severely restricting the scope of their power, is about as important to the daily administration of your life as the decision of who wins American Idol.

* PS – Much like my political leanings towards libertarianism, I was pulling for the quirky underdog, Taylor Hicks. Somewhere in between AI and his album, though, the train derailed and he missed the mark.

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21 Comments

  1. This has to be the most ridiculous article I have read, in a very long time.
    Absolutely absurd.

    Comment by CKNJ — July 15, 2008 @ 6:36 pm
  2. The thing you didn`t take into consideration and that would have possibly produced different winners is that unlike the Presidential race, you can vote till your fingers fall off for American Idol. That show should limit the votes to one per phone number. The popularity of certain runners up is the evidence that some of them, evidenced by their apparent popularity in the real marketplace, should have won. Also, you didn`t address the probability, based on repeated evidence, that the Idol show doesn`t account to anyone. There have been repeated accusations of the producers choosing the winners regardless of the actual votes.

    Without auditing or accountability, the American Idol results are an unreliable sampling.

    Comment by Matt — July 15, 2008 @ 7:11 pm
  3. The thing you didn`t take into consideration and that would have possibly produced different winners is that unlike the Presidential race, you can vote till your fingers fall off for American Idol.

    Yes, he did.

    Without auditing or accountability, the American Idol results are an unreliable sampling.

    Unreliable sampling of what? Like Brad said, it’s not perfect, but it basically does what it was designed to do: pick new pop stars.

    Comment by Jeff Molby — July 15, 2008 @ 8:43 pm
  4. Are you really serious? You wasted actual minutes of your life writing this? I wish I could get back the time I spent reading it.

    Comment by mystified — July 15, 2008 @ 10:11 pm
  5. CKNJ,

    Absurd? Certainly. No more absurd than the thought that by voting, you have any meaningful effect on the election. And no more absurd than the idea that democracy leads to anything more than a tragedy of the commons writ large.

    mystified,

    My goal in writing this piece was deliberately to compare politics to something as asinine and meaningless as American Idol. Politics is asinine, although unfortunately they have too much power to be meaningless. I’m just trying to point out the absurdity of politics through the comparison to American Idol.

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — July 15, 2008 @ 11:40 pm
  6. I agree.

    The only way out is to educate people on how to improve their lives by showing them how they can be self-reliant entrepreneurs. Our collectivist system can’t survive if the people become independent.

    Comment by uhm — July 16, 2008 @ 12:56 am
  7. Self-reliance isn’t the goal, uhm. Not everyone can be an entrepreneur. The goal is consensual interdependence.

    Comment by Jeff Molby — July 16, 2008 @ 2:30 am
  8. How can interdependence be consensual if people lack the knowledge and skills to be independent?

    Comment by uhm — July 16, 2008 @ 3:37 am
  9. For an “asinine and meaningless” show, it surprises that American Idol is used as a reference in every kind of argument and situation (including this one). I went to a graduation recently where the guest speaker, after stating the long and thorough process he went through in deciding what message to send the graduates off with, came up with a funny (altered) version of something Paula had said about the “youness of you.” He used it in a very good argument about not trying so hard to “find” themselves that they lose themselves along the way, and ended with something like: “So my message to you is listen to Paul Abdul.”

    That said, in defense of AI sure people vote as many times as they wish; but when AI is on it is the most watched show on TV, and people aren’t counted twice in those numbers. All of those people have the opportunity to vote as many times as they wish. In 2006, the passion was with Taylor Hicks and so he won.

    Comment by Kiki — July 16, 2008 @ 5:46 am
  10. How can interdependence be consensual if people lack the knowledge and skills to be independent?

    Read the 7 Habits for a good explanation. Independence is one of the steps on the way to becoming interdependent.

    Comment by Jeff Molby — July 16, 2008 @ 7:06 am
  11. American Idol popularity contest winners who make lousy music quickly fall into obscurity. Unfortunately, we’re stuck with the winner of the Presidential election for 4 years, whether he makes good music or no. So perhaps Idol is more of a preliminary selection process than a final one. Too bad the election isn’t.

    Comment by tfr — July 16, 2008 @ 7:15 am
  12. tfr,

    Go one step farther. With Idol, I don’t care who wins, because I don’t have to buy their album. With the President, if you (and 51% of everyone else) vote for an idiot, I’m stuck living under his policies.

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — July 16, 2008 @ 8:24 am
  13. American Idol shows the “Herd” mentality. My favorite analogy to elections is the show “who wants to be a millionaire?” The least reliable lifeline is polling the audience. If its an easy question then the audience gets it right most of the time. But in later rounds where the questions get harder the audience gets progressively worse. But that doesn’t stop them from guessing. Just like our elections where guessing gets you an I Vote sticker and makes you a responsible citizen.

    I have much more respect for those that admit their ignorance and forgo the need to shade a box for every office.

    Comment by Norm Nelson — July 16, 2008 @ 8:35 am
  14. You missed a big point. The voting system on American Idol is a variant of “Instant Runoff Voting”. The voting system on American Idol is *MORE FAIR* than that used in elections. Could you imagine American Idol using the electoral college to choose the winner?

    Comment by FSK — July 16, 2008 @ 4:17 pm
  15. You said;
    “Looking specifically at Season 5, won by Taylor Hicks*, the “undercards” of that season have far outshone Taylor Hicks and the runner-up, Kat McPhee. The 4th place finisher, Chris Daughtry, has become a legitimate star.”

    When Taylor won AI there was a lot of irritated rumblings from the three ‘top bunnies’Simon, Nigel and Clive D who were desperate for Chris Daughtry to win. Most years they had been able to sway the American public towards the one they wanted to win. This particular year people just liked Taylor and voted for him. Though Chris Daughtry has an excellent voice his rather arrogant manner put the general public off. Taylor blew the roof off the voting system beating even the Presidential election total.

    That year the top bunnies desperately needed to break into the Rock market. They had suceeded beyond their wildest dreams with Carrie and broken into the Coontry market, now they had to break into Rock and Chris was their man. How could they do this when Taylor was irritatingly voted as the Idol? Record companies know exactly how to make or break an artist and they needed to get Taylor out of the way with his non-trendy soul singing. What better way than to sabotage his debut by allowing Daughtry to release their cd on the week normally reserved for the Idol. Taylors cd was delayed, they gave him no single, no videos, barely any promo except for a dreadful Ford Commercial and nothing was done to bring him to the publics attention again. He was effectively ‘shelved’ to make way for Daughtry and if the articles I have read on the net about the tricks used to create a false image of the star you wished to promote are true then Clive Davis is the master of them. He pushed Daughtry in everyones face all day on the radio, on TV with massive promotion and managed to make it seem that Daughtry were selling almost exactly 20,000 cds every week for almost 80 weeks instead of him gradually dropping down the charts as those without the CD sales scams normally do.
    The record industry is rife with illegal practices and Taylor was a fly in the ointment. Simon Cowell has been blatantly rude about Taylor in interviews, telling contestants to stick gum on his face , when Taylor has NEVER spoken about AI with anything but respect. His face has been absent from the credits for the last two seasons. Daughtry has been invited to do all the AI work that Taylor should have done. All of this along with other cruel tricks have made it look as if Taylor has failed. Thank God he has bought himself out of his contract and is now suceeding his own way. What did he do to do to deserve this? He won AI when they didn’t want him too.

    Maybe you will see all this as a paranoid Soul Patrol fan venting some imagined slight on their man. You couldn’t be further from the truth. If you had been party to some of the conversations about record label practices, that I have, you would know this is the only way to bring one artist down and build anothere one up. Maybe some of this could be applied to your politics. Truthfully however American Idol is not about Democracy and never will be.

    Comment by Brian — July 17, 2008 @ 3:35 am
  16. “. . . if the articles I have read on the net about the tricks used to create a false image of the star you wished to promote are true then Clive Davis is the master of them. He pushed Daughtry in everyones face all day on the radio, on TV with massive promotion. . .”

    Brian: This made me think of a brief (filmed) news report on a photo shoot of Clive Davis with the 2006 AI finalists, either before or after the Grammys that year. Taylor was in the upper left back. Clive Davis was seated in the lower right front, with Chris Daughtry seated on the floor next to him. All it needed was Chris’ head in Clive’s lap and Clive stroking his head — it was hilarious.

    Comment by Kiki — July 17, 2008 @ 6:02 am
  17. Yah, that was something that bugged me, also, about using any part of the music industry as an example: it’s pretty thoroughly rigged. When record companies own most of the radio stations and other media, how much air time will the songs of other artists get?

    Comment by tfr — July 17, 2008 @ 7:15 am
  18. Brian: This made me think of a brief (filmed) news report on a photo shoot of Clive Davis with the 2006 AI finalists, either before or after the Grammys that year. Taylor was in the upper left back. Clive Davis was seated in the lower right front, with Chris Daughtry seated on the floor next to him. All it needed was Chris’ head in Clive’s lap and Clive stroking his head — it was hilarious.

    Comment by Kiki — July 17, 2008 @ 6:02 am

    Is that why I’ve heard Chris is called PWE(P*nis With Ears!)maybe? Sorry Chris couldn’t resist that !!!……Kiki the image you conjured up was hilarious….however, I digress….

    American Idol is NOT based on democracy I will say again. The RIAA is owned by three of the biggest entertainment businesses in the world. Major shareholders are Sony BMG (Clive Davis) Universal and Warners. They own 80% roughly. As the RIAA have the grand job of awarding Gold and Platinum certificates on cd’s sold, it stands to reason that those three moguls are going to push their artists and sales before any of the little record labels who pay to be in the RIAA. The biggest farce was The American Music Awards. Shown on ABC TV that is owned by Disney who is owned by one of those three Entertainment Co. All the arists were owned by Sony BMG, Univeral or Warners. There wasn’t an independent artist to be seen. All the awards were carefully shared out so that the biggest shareholder Sony got the most, next came Universal and lastly Warners with the smallest share.

    How can you apply this to politics?

    Comment by Brian — July 17, 2008 @ 11:24 am
  19. How can it be applied to politics?

    Politics is controlled by the two major parties through plurality voting and ballot access laws, as well as a myriad of campaign finance regulations that increase the cost of entry into the game. They’re helped by a media that tends to marginalize anything outside the mainstream (see Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich, Bob Barr), and tends to filter campaigns into their own preferred “story lines”.

    Then, campaigns are driven by the party through the primary process, where party leaders tend to support or downplay certain candidates as they see fit.

    At the end, when it comes to the Presidency, we’re presented with a choice between two bad candidates, and we in the libertarian side of the argument get to argue whether it’s best to choose the lesser of evils, vote on principle, or not vote at all, when in the grand scheme of things it’s the system that’s broken.

    Maybe you’re saying that Taylor Hicks *WAS* chosen democratically by AI but then destroyed by the music industry. That’s what it sounds like. I could make the claim, likewise, that there are a lot of good people campaigning for public office, but then we still end up with the same bad policies. The rules of the system are greater than the individual players.

    It’s clear that you [Brian] are a Taylor Hicks fan, and that you’re upset by the fact that the “system” has pushed him to the bottom. I’ll agree and disagree here. Personally I think Hicks would never be a big force for success in the face of mainstream pop/rock music, for the same reason that Sierra Nevada gets dwarfed in the marketplace by Budweiser. The American people want bland, familiar characters just like the myriad of others. That’s the same reason why they keep electing the same big-government stuffed suits to higher office.

    The difference, of course, is that you can still buy a Taylor Hicks album, and I can still buy great craft beer, even if they’re tiny portions of the overall market. But in politics, it’s a winner-take-all system, and there’s NO way for me to opt out of the idiocy that McCain or Obama will enact.

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — July 17, 2008 @ 11:48 am
  20. Soooo……you’re making the point that Bush, who was the runner-up in the 2000 election, has been more successful than Gore, who made a silly movie and now has some more brain-dead idesa of how we should fuel our economny…….

    Sounds to me like the American voter got it right….

    Comment by jwh — July 17, 2008 @ 3:03 pm
  21. jwh said:

    [...] you’re making the point that Bush, who was the runner-up in the 2000 election, [...]

    Good grief dude. I am far from a Bush fanboy, but bringing this up totally blows away any credibility you might have had.

    Comment by Adam Selene — July 23, 2008 @ 4:01 pm

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