Friday, May 27, 2005 | To think I used to pride myself on being in tune with popular culture. But that was years ago, I guess, before I dropped out and stopped watching television. I still haven’t seen “Desperate Housewives,” “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “Fear Factor,” “The Apprentice” or “CSI.”

But I did watch the season finale of “American Idol.” For the first time. And only because I saw a story about it on the front page of the newspaper.

The front page? Where have I been? Is this such big news, this face-off between the final two contestants?

I watched also because I listen to my young passengers when I drive two school carpools. From girls in fifth grade to 11th grade, I learned that “Idol” has taken over American culture. One girl’s teacher told her students that they should watch the show and know about it to be able to converse with strangers at parties.

Silly me. Who knew? To think I’ve been reading Newsweek all these years so I might do the same. But who cares what’s in Newsweek these days? Unless, of course, it has to do with the subject of irresponsible journalism.

From the false report of the Koran being flushed down the toilet to fake pictures of Martha Stewart on the cover, the formerly well-respected national publication is now regarded more with derision and notoriety than as a credible news source – unless we’re talking about Newsweek‘s gossipy coverage of “American Idol.”

I learn a lot driving the carpool, as I sit up front and eavesdrop on the kids when they think I’m not listening. I have learned the value of hair straighteners (I now own my own flat-iron that, as the girls say, is my new best friend), who slept with whom on “The OC” (another show I’ve never seen), how much girls spend on prom and what goes on in the limos (don’t ask, unless you want to lock your daughters away for all their high school years). And I’ve learned about the country’s obsession with “American Idol.”

So I watched the two-hour show on Wednesday (at least one hour of which was commercials), to see whether Bo or Carrie would win. I actually didn’t know their names until the show started, alone among the hordes of adoring fans who appear to worship at the feet of these up-from-nowhere heroes who give hope to the undiscovered and meaning to many viewers’ lives.

When they announced the winner, a propeller-head accountant type strolled on stage with “The Envelope” – the contents of which revealed to “Idol”-izing admirers the fourth mega-super-star to be launched by the show. He said that over 500 million – 500 million! – votes were cast to select the next winner, who by now every living, breathing person on the planet must know is Carrie.

George W. Bush and John Kerry must be salivating. Actually, not Bush, because if more had voted, he would have lost. But in principle, more political involvement is generally to be encouraged. Maybe there’s a way to get our next presidential candidates up on the glitzy stage, belting out a few numbers and flashing their pearly whites, to generate more voter enthusiasm. After all, that’s more or less what they do now anyway, in those staged Town Hall meetings and overly managed whistle-stop train tours and bus caravans.

Like Spam in a lovely tin, “American Idol” is fancy on the outside but a pasty, gooey, patchwork combination of “The Gong Show” (remember that one?), “The Ed Sullivan Show” (okay, I’m dating myself) and “Survivor,” all wrapped up in one.

As the show enters its fifth season this fall, I learned that producers will be coming to several cities, including San Diego, this summer to search for new talent. How many will be there? Will you?

This saccharine-laced, black hole of television entertainment that sucks you in and spits you out after it’s over, feeling drained and used, is an undeniable American phenomenon. But I was left scratching my head. Why? What’s the fanatical attraction?

What is it about “American Idol” that captivates so many? Why is it so popular? Is it insipid or harmless? Or, insipid and harmless? Should this show be lauded because, even though it may be vacuous, at least it’s inoffensive? Does entertainment need to have any lasting value?

E-mail your comments on the show and what it says about American culture. When you watch it, does it make you proud to be an American? Or does it help explain the contempt many other countries have for Western excess and empty materialism?

I’ll say one thing for “American Idol” – at least it doesn’t incite violence or promote bad values. But me, I’d rather “idle” away my time doing almost anything else – even reading Newsweek.

Please contact Marsha Sutton directly at

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