OK, I'll admit it: I watched American Idol. I've not watched it before, thinking myself above that sort of thing, but this year I got sucked in. I was irritated that Melinda Doolittle didn't win but satisfied that Jordin Sparks did. And I'll admit it: I think Simon Cowell always tells the truth, and I respect him for it.
But that's not why I'm writing this post. I'm writing this post because I am still trying to figure out why the Beatles were on such prominent display on the American Idol finale. Songs from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band showcased winners from previous seasons and showed why, for example, Carrie Underwood ("She's Leaving Home") has outpaced Taylor Hicks ("A Day in the Life," in which Hicks, in shiny silk shirt, stuck his finger to his temple and "pulled a trigger" to emphasize the line "He blew his mind out in a car") in the hearts and minds of the American Idolatrous public.
But that's not why I'm writing this post. I'm writing this post because I am still trying to figure out why Greenday chose American Idol to showcase their version of John Lennon's "Working Class Hero." It seems like a clash of competing idolatries: Idol is to Disneyworld what Greenday is to Lollapalooza. Idol doesn't swear. Greenday swears a lot; John Lennon, in "Working Class Hero," swears a lot.
I went along with it when Celine Dion sang alongside Elvis Presley earlier in the season, when Idol gave back. The whole thing made sense in American Idol World; it was acceptably surreal. But this mashup of power punk meets anti-establishment icon meets quintessential American mystique was supremely surreal and just left me confused.
I've had a hard time respecting Greenday; in the early 1990s they were just another punk band singing ephemeral lyrics about generic punk themes--leave me alone, I know I'm a loser, that sort of thing. They were immature even at their most mature; the surprisingly poignant "Good Riddance" was an acoustic farewell song with melancholy, sentimental lyrics, but it was sung too fast and with too much edge, like a high schooler auditioning for the Homecoming entertainment committee who had a semester left to learn nuance.
Greenday lost prominence for a while but then resurfaced in the last couple of years with American Idiot. Punk had lost its prominence as well, so now Greenday are the godfathers of the genre. And they've grown up; they're writing angry songs in place of their earlier self-indulgent songs. They've effectively taken on the Bush administration and won a great deal of critical acclaim. They're now important. And apparently they've discovered John Lennon.
But that's not why I'm writing this post. I'm writing this post because Greenday chose "Working Class Hero" as a fitting tribute to John Lennon (which it is) but also as an appropriate offering to the "Save Darfur" project (which it isn't), and they chose to draw attention to it on national television on American Idol--which makes no sense.
American Idol is a twenty-first century manifestation of the Horatio Alger vision for America: here even the poorest, the most downtrodden, can with pluck and fortitude become something great. Even an obscure, working-class neopeasant with a good singing voice can become an American Idol.
Of course, Jordin is the daughter of a former professional football player; Blake Lewis (this season's runner-up) has performed with Sir Mix-a-Lot; Melinda toured with the Winans; and even the song-contest winner, Scott Krippayne, has a long resume within the Christian music industry. These are not singers minding their own business who stumbled into greatness. They're not working-class heroes; they're industry insiders who became American idols.
So, in a sense, the joke's on us. And I find myself wondering whether Greenday was trying to make that point. People unfamiliar with the song "Working-Class Hero" will probably remember the line "A working-class hero is something to be," but they need to remember that the prophetic message of the song is more insidious: "You're still f---ing peasants, as far as I can see."