Christopher Ames in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
Indeed, the dramatic moment that follows each audition mirrors the dynamics of classroom grading, putting that familiar but anxiety-producing situation into bold relief on millions of television screens. Each judge delivers a verdict, up or out, and some explanatory comments. Even the ages of the participants echo the traditional college classroom: The singers are between approximately 16 and 28; the three judges are middle-aged and all experts in their field, popular music. Randy Jackson is a widely experienced bass player and a successful record producer in several genres; Paula Abdul is a veteran choreographer and recording star with a No. 1, multiplatinum album in her past; and Simon Cowell is a British record producer who piloted a similar show in England.
We might think that Americans are eager to celebrate talented young people who can thumb their noses at the older generation and thus exorcise the lingering resentment so many harbor from being graded and evaluated in the classroom. But what American Idol reveals instead is a veritable hunger for realistic evaluation. Time and time again, contestants in the early episodes of this year’s season whine obviously off key and then insist they are highly talented — in spite of the judges’ protestations. Most of those kids have not learned how to sing, but they have mastered the self-esteem and “attitude” so valued in our culture. The persistent dynamic of these episodes is expertise putting down untalented braggadocio.
In a world full of people rating themselves highly, audiences seem to long for the enforcement of standards of taste and judgment.