Thursday, March 15, 2007

Talcott Parsons on American T.V.

I felt devastated this morning as I watched the news. No, it’s not because of the war in Iraq or the continued destruction of the environment. Truthfully (and embarrassingly), it’s because of the latest American Idol results.


I was absolutely appalled when I heard that Sanjaya Malakar is still in the race and that Brandon Robinson was booted instead! It continues to puzzle me how this kid manages to stay on for weeks now. Objectively speaking, I just don’t think he has any star quality and most importantly, he does not have the vocal prowess at all. Simon Cowell put it so accurately when he said a few weeks ago that Sanjaya sings as if he’s just in a school program. His voice is weak, coupled with an awkward stage presence.


So what exactly does he have that makes him stay on? I wish I could rationalize it all by believing that the American public vote for him because they simply want to know what next week’s hairstyle would be. Or perhaps they want to know what shape earrings he would wear next? A simpler explanation would be that he just has millions of friends and family members who barrage the American Idol lines with their votes. Family votes anyway, are, in every respect, obligatory, and are rarely expected to be rational. I am very much reminded of Talcott Parsons’ (Sociologist) Pattern Variables. In this theory, Parsons highlights the ways in which social actors orient themselves given certain situations, the underlying assumption being that in traditional milieus, what would pervade would be an orientation towards Particularism (instead of Universalism), Affectivity (instead of Affective-Neutrality), Ascription (rather than Achievement), Diffuseness (more than Specificity), and orientation towards the Expressive (rather than the Instrumental). The interesting point is that people have always thought of America as a modern, rational society. Voting behavior of the public on this show, however, points to the opposite. People may be voting based on appearances and emotions, rather than real talent. Sanjaya may just be capitalizing on his ‘nice guy’ appearances, his ‘gentle boy’ image, appealing to people’s emotions, rather than their ears and brains.


All this, however, may be an over analysis on my part. I may be over-intellectualizing the whole tragedy (yes, it is a tragedy, but a funny one, especially to non-Americans like me!) and I would like to apologize to Parsons if my application of his theory seemed inappropriate. I suppose, my own theory is in order. Perhaps the only reason this kid is still in the race is because of the general public’s boredom and cruel sense of humor. Perhaps people vote for Sanjaya because of their “gaper’s mentality”…They simply can’t resist the temptation to find out what the next disaster will be, what song he will murder next, what will cause them to spasm again as they cringe in their seats. Let’s face it. As bitter a pill this is for us to swallow, the truth is that most people do have an insatiable thirst for tragedies. As long as we can distance ourselves from it, we crave drama, embarrassments, heartaches, failures. People are just too bored…too bored that anything becomes entertainment….even Sanjaya Malakar.