170,000 people in America think they have what it takes to be the next American Idol. And so they come, the talented and the talent-free, waiting in line for days on end in the hopes of securing one of the few prized spots in a competition that has has made Kelly and Clay household words. Young and oddly confident, they are blind to their deficiencies and impervious to the daunting odds stacked against them. To watch the AI auditions (which are currently being broadcast in the US on the Fox network during February, a "sweeps" month here in the US) is to be exposed to a curious epidemic: for while on the surface it's all about fame, it's also about the power wielded by the image, the luck of the draw, the seemingly insatiable quest for stardom that typifies modern ambition. Add a skewed dose of Horatio Alger, a quick dash of lottery action and, voila: your chance is as good as anyone's, so what's a few sleepless nights on the sidewalk?
There is much to be said about the complex lure of reality TV, but American Idol is different. It's unrehearsed and raw, but it's also amped-up by the showbiz veneer of performance (unlike, say, Survivorwhich celebrates performance anxiety.) There's what TV writers call "rooting" value, a dynamic which operates on a psychological level in dramatic entertainment, but which engages the viewer on an interactive and financial level in this case because viewers vote for their favorite performers by dialing in on their cell phones. None of this changes the basic fact, however, that there's only one crowned prince or princess at the end. 170,000 to 1? Reality TV it may be, but there's nothing real at all about these statistics relative to real chances: it's a total crap shoot. (Of course, if you're Bob Kerrey or Howard Dean, these numbers probably look like a drop in the bucket. But I digress.)
The closer parallel universe, for me, is graphic design especially insofar as the cult of personality remains an unfortunate incentive for many young, aspiring designers. I spent a good part of last weekend engaged in a preliminary slide jury of student work, which also involved reading letters of intent from an applicant pool that was considerable. When I later watched American Idol supplicants summoning all their courage to say, on camera, "America will love me!" and "I have what it takes to be the best!" I was reminded of some of these letters, which conveyed the same sense of drive and desperation. ("I will be a design pioneer!")
America needs its idols. It needs its pop stars. It also needs designers. But the inflated sense of worth that seems to accompany these contemporary visions of success, whether defined by performance parameters or design awards, skews the real value of any of these activities. (Nobody sets out to become a hero: it's a designation that comes after the fact, and it assumes some fundamental value at its core.) That any of this is perceived as "reality" is television's prerogative (or, in the case of The Apprentice, Donald Trump's) but where design is concerned, the content really should precede the form. I confess that I love to watch American Idol. I also love participating, as a critic, in graduate admissions and it's a job I take seriously. But it worries me that hero-worship of any kind plays a role in shaping our young designers. Let's teach them to think for themselves, not mimic their predecessors. Let's remind them that being a pioneer is about having the strength of your convictions, which is not the same thing as being blindsided by accolades. The rags-to-riches phenomenon that is a real consequence of contemporary economics in the West will likely continue, and lotteries will be won. There will be a new American Idol, and new design pioneers, and new opportunities for us all. But design educators have a more immediate reality to consider, and in a profession that has its heroes and its awards ceremonies, its publications and its celebrities, we need to remember what's real and what, in the end, is, sadly, just ridiculous.