Underdogma fuels American Idol’s ratings

Michael Prell Author, Underdogma
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TV’s No. 1 show American Idol returns on Wednesday, but does it have what it takes to stay No. 1?

The answer can be found in the psychology of what it means to be No. 1, and the time-honored American tradition of rooting for the underdog.

First: what is American Idol? It is a cultural touchstone for millions of Americans to gather each week and cheer for underdogs. Thirty to fifty million people tune in to American Idol to cheer for underdog amateurs as they sing (often poorly) in the hopes of winning a major record label deal. By contrast, an average of only one million people per week bother to buy the top ten albums combined on Billboard’s chart (produced by those who already have major record label deals).

Why is that?

It turns out that our love for the underdog is not unconditional. There is one condition. The underdog must keep being the underdog. Which is a lesson that American Idol, home of the underdog, should heed.

2009 American Idol winner (and underdog) Kris Allen got more than fifty million votes during finale week to help him beat heavily-favored front-runner Adam Lambert. But, after underdog Kris Allen became the top dog, won American Idol and landed his big record label deal, only 0.16% of those fifty million votes showed up to buy his debut album when it was released, placing Kris Allen outside of the Billboard Top 10 chart.

By contrast, the No. 1 album in America (and in the UK) that same week was from another underdog who sang her way out of obscurity and into our hearts on TV (Britain’s Got Talent). Except this underdog had the good fortune to lose her competition, not win like Kris Allen did — and therefore she never relinquished the mantle of underdog. Her name is Susan Boyle, “the unlikely pop-star Cinderella story” whose “I Dreamed a Dream” sold three million copies worldwide its first week, making it the bestselling debut album by any woman since SoundScan began tracking sales in 1991, and the biggest debut by any artist in the past sixteen years (the previous record was held by Snoop Doggy Dogg, not an underdog).

Billboard chart analyst Keith Caulfield credited Susan Boyle’s success to her status as an underdog, noting that the decidedly unglamorous forty-eight-year-old spinster is “so moving to a lot of people, who see something of themselves in her. They like to see the underdog achieve. You may not buy it just for the music but for the whole story.”

The “whole story” is that there are two sides to the way we feel about underdogs. Sure, we love to cheer for “rags-to-riches” underdogs. But once they shed their rags and become rich and powerful celebrities, we also love to cut them back down to size in tabloids and celebrity magazines.

“All these tabloids could as easily travel under the generic title of the National Schadenfreude, for more than half the stories they contain come under the category of ‘See How the Mighty Have Fallen.’” — “The Culture of Celebrity,” The Weekly Standard, October 17, 2005

I gave this love-hate relationship with success and power a name — Underdogma — which is the reflexive belief that those who have less power (underdogs) are good simply because they have less power, and that those who have more power (overdogs) are bad simply because they have more power.

As American Idol seeks to maintain its position as the most powerful show on television, its producers would be wise to heed the lessons taught to them each week by the underdogs who fuel the show’s success: get on stage, give it your all, don’t be afraid to face our judgment — and if all else fails; play the “underdog card.”

Michael Prell is America’s leading expert on underdogs and the author of Underdogma (www.under-dogma.com), available February 1, 2011.