the pulse

Singing America's tune: So what if it's off-key?

I have never seen a television phenomenon with the uncanny staying power of "American Idol" — and I'm guessing that neither have you. It has thus far defied the what-goes-up, must-come-down laws of entertainment physics. Instead, the show's popularity annually keeps rising. For Fox, it's the gift that keeps on giving. For America, it's an ongoing obsession.

Those who lack the "Idol" gene tend to evoke befuddlement at why this show has so completely devoured their friends, their family members, their media, at the same time infiltrating every crack and crevice of our society like a runaway computer virus.

You can understand the confusion of the uninitiated "Idol" curious among us. You've got people singing who were unknown before bathing in the show's prodigious spotlight. You've got judges whose personalities are hardly riveting: a sarcastic Brit, a flummoxed woman and an affable black man, their chemistry kept well hidden. There is nothing about this show that screams "smash hit." It is unremarkable, tried and true, somewhat derivative and indisputably formulaic.

But that's also why "American Idol" has captured the fanatical devotion of such a broad demographic swath of the viewing public. The show appeals to our need for ritual, for connection, for rags-to-riches.

And of course, the timing here is key. The show came along precisely nine months after Sept. 11, with the country still in a state of shell shock and unease. We were desperate to cling to something that felt real and inspirational — something that reassured us there may be a logical order to the universe. With every succeeding season since that "Idol" launch in 2002, it premiered at the beginning of each year with the promise of building a new icon based on the talent and charisma of an amateur performer driven solely by a dream. It sounds Pollyanna, but it's a powerful lure when set against the backdrop of a nation whose traditional underpinnings have been eroded by unbridled cynicism and despair.

The majority of us are haunted by our fear that the system is broken and in dire need of repair. We look to the future less with optimism than with dread. There exists a yearning to believe in anything that might re-establish faith in our way of life. "Idol" supplies it in spades. What could be more American than a perfectly calibrated machine that affords ordinary folks the chance to rise to the top, Horatio Alger style?

Indeed, few other vehicles in popular culture more vividly illustrate the American dream than does "American Idol." We wind up with a single winner chosen by democratic election, and it is due solely to their own diligence that they are rewarded with inevitable fame and fortune. They sacrifice. They perform. They triumph. We love them for their work ethic and their ability to thrive under pressure. But mostly, we love them because they're like us.

That the purity of the "Idol" process undoubtedly isn't always what it seems is also inherently American. It's OK that Simon Cowell scripts his zingers in advance, or that the show may be edited in such a way as to maximize tension and melodrama. Particularly when it comes to television, illusion and reality are interchangeable parts. You need both to build viewer loyalty. And in "Idol," Fox has constructed the perfect ratings beast, one that's impervious to competition or conventional ebbs and flows in popularity.

Of course, the focus groups never saw this one coming. Neither did anyone else. That's why the term "television expert" shall forever remain an oxymoron.