The last few days the media has been buzzing with the news that American Idol got it wrong in picking Kris Allen over Adam Lambert. Many have gone so far to say that the voters deliberately ditched a contestant who is probably gay. Other sites have lamented that the singing competition didn’t award the best singer and that America must be off its rocker to pass up the flamboyant, super-talented vocalist Adam for the subdued, guitar/piano-playing singer Kris.
But I have a perspective from an unlikely source: The Newbery Medal.
What I’ve learned from the Newbery is that edgy is a long shot. It might make the honors list, but won’t take home the gold. The Newbery is so dry as a contest that sometimes we have to make up controversy to relieve the boredom. Thus we get Scrotum-gate of 2007.
There are basically two reasons that the Newbery and American Idol will not go for edgy. The first is in the structure of the organizations. The Newbery Medal “honors the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” It’s that distinguished that throws it all off. Because while the mission statement may be using the definition “made conspicuous by excellence,” it’s hard to separate the word from the other definition, “having an air of distinction, dignity, or eminence.” Excellence. Dignity. Tough to fit edgy in there.
American Idol is murkier in that its goal is to find the next American Idol. So to see what that means we have to look to the show and how it defines itself. AI doesn’t say it’s against rock or hip-hop or bluegrass. But through the series of competitions they make the choices pop songs. They bring out Tony Bennett to mentor the contestants. They write the cheesiest ballad for the last two standing. It becomes clear that they are looking for a pop star, preferredly one that addresses the key teen demographic. When the judges remind listeners often that “this is a singing competition,” we start to forget that it is an American Idol-branded singing competition. If we are talking vocal powers, then why did we rule out all those opera singers in those early, brutal rounds?
The second reason the Newbery and American Idol can’t go edgy is that both decisions are left up to a group. In American Idol’s case, a very large group offering almost 100,000,000 votes in the finale. In groups, the unique often get love-it-or-hate-it attention, leaving more subdued offerings to make it through as being acceptable to everyone.
Now, the good thing that both the Newbery Medal and American Idol have in common is that the winner doesn’t really matter. I mean, it does but it doesn’t. The Newbery Honor books get silver medals and the authors get that extra boost for their careers. The American Idol finalists get record contracts from producers who have been waiting to pick them off, and the show has given them a starting fan base. Once you get down to the last four or five, no one really loses. In fact, one might say that the trickiest place to be is as the American Idol winner, now stuck in the American Idol contract and obligations for a long time.
This year both the Newbery Medal and American Idol got it right. The gold sticker went to The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman, allowing us to stick out our collective librarian tongues at the media impression that the Newbery couldn’t pick a popular book. So there. American Idol got mild-mannered and multi-talented Kris, who will fit nicely into the American Idol mold and perhaps even benefit from its control. Adam Lambert can leave his American Idol shackles behind and be the artist and person he wants to be, while bringing along a huge fan base from the show. In both cases, we moved further along the path to acceptance of different, unexpected, edgy.
In any case, we can all get along and find our common ground... in bashing the Miss America Pageant.