American Idol by
(318 Stories)

Prompted By Guilty Pleasures

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Really? Says every cultured person I know. You watch THAT show…or, you STILL watch that show? Short answer: yes. My father-in-law (who has been gone more than 20 years) introduced us at the end of the first season. Kelly and Justin. Kelly Clarkson won. She did OK for herself. As have Jennifer Hudson and Carrie Underwood, both huge stars.

We didn’t watch the second season, but tip-toed into the third. At this point, close friends were also watching and it became a ritual to watch together one of the two nights it was broadcast each week – at our home or theirs – with some beverage and dessert. So for years it was also a social event. We guessed who would get voted off. (I confess, we have NEVER actually voted for anyone.) I am a singer (not of pop music). My friend is a pianist, so we both know music. There is no such word as “pitchy” (someone is singing flat or sharp, or just wobbling off-key). But the word has now entered the lexicon. And by the time “America” votes, we recognized that it is merely a popularity contest. But it engages us.

The judges rotated around. When Simon Cowell left, so did the snark. Harry Connick, Jr. was excellent, gave great coaching and advice. Ellen DeGeneres added nothing. We gave up completely when Nikki Minaj and Mariah Carey were both added. They just screamed at each other. It was unbearable to watch.

The show went on hiatus for several years but came back with Luke Bryant, Katy Perry and Lionel Ritchie as an interesting triumvirate of judges who actually coach the contestants along the way (and switched networks and producers). It has made for a better show. They transformed and survived during COVID. They have slimmed down the season. They don’t show contestants who are embarrassing and are just ridiculed. There is heart to the show now. The ending may be full of overblown production numbers, but it is still interesting to see who remains, who goes and how the contestants grow over the season. It is hardly high art, but it is better than it had been during the middle years of the show.

And somehow, we just can’t quit it.


Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.

Characterizations: right on!, well written


  1. John Shutkin says:

    Great analysis of a show I only know slightly, Betsy. So I really learned a lot from an Idol “pro” like you. I am particularly glad that it has moved away from showing obviously untalented contestants, ostensibly for laughs, but really more for ridicule or shamelessness (choose one). Sort of like Eddie the Eagle at the Olympics; not my cup of entertainment tea.

    Indeed, as you describe Idol, it sounds like it has morphed into a true talent show, particularly with some judges actually coaching — rather than just judging or, worse yet, ridiculing — the contestants. And, given your own deep background in musical auditions and performances, I can certainly understand the attraction. (Which reminds me, just watched “Coda” and loved it.)

    Will I now watch Idol? I’m not quite there yet, but you make a compelling case for it. So, at the least, nothing for you to feel guilty about.

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    This is the true definition of a guilty pleasure and makes total sense for you as someone who can really evaluate true musical talent. I did watch it a bit in the first season, but “reality tv” is not my thing. As you can see from what I wrote on this prompt, I have a guilty tv pleasure that sucks up far too much time.

  3. Wonderful confessional Betsy!

    Who cares if it’s not high art if it gives you pleasure, and what fun to watch it with friends and some adult beverages!

  4. Khati Hendry says:

    My reality TV has mostly been Dancing With the Stars, albeit I blame Sally for getting us sucked into it, and it has been interesting to get some insight on what it takes to succeed (entertainment or sports backgrounds advantage in a dance competition—physical talent and charisma and never give up). Tyra Banks, the new emcee, has made it less enjoyable.

  5. Suzy says:

    You have identified a true guilty pleasure! I love your first 3 sentences, setting it up! I watched for one season, with Molly, because she was on the home-hospital program second semester freshman year of HS, and her teacher assigned her to watch and write about it. It was fun to watch because we were doing it for school! I can’t even tell you who won that year. Sophomore year, when she went back to regular school, we didn’t watch any more. I do like Katy Perry, so might be tempted to watch now just for her, but with Molly not living at home, and Ed not interested, it wouldn’t be fun to watch alone.

    Am I right in remembering that Jennifer Hudson didn’t even win?

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      We don’t watch with the other couple any longer, but Dan and I do watch together. It does help to have a partner in guilt.

      Most winners are forgettable. And you’re right, Jennifer Hudson did not win. I believe she came in 7th place, maybe even lower.

  6. Marian says:

    Very enlightening commentary on this show, Betsy. I have only watched now and again, and not very recently, but you have nothing to feel guilty about. Especially because your musical insights likely make it more enjoyable than for someone with my tin ear!

  7. This was a bit for me like reading some anthropology: narrating and decoding the language and practices of a subculture where people live differently and have a language of their own, and some chieftains or other “big names” that they think are important. Thank you for taking me along this path and it’s good to know that people, including you, are having fun in that land.

  8. Jim Willis says:

    Betsy, I enjoyed reading your take on American Idol. It’s not on my list of guilty pleasures, probably because — as you say — it’s more of a popularity contest like so many that genre. I am, however, old enough to know it’s built off the successful premise established back in the 50s with Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour. I used to watch that as a kid, and here America is again, watching the same kind of show seven decades later. Some things never change.

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