How to Win American Idol
A creativity researcher cracks the pop-stardom code: It's not talent or looks—it's something far more improbable.
By Scott Barry Kaufman published January 1, 2010 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
I really wanted to be an American Idol. I even auditioned twice. The first time, I showed off my R&B stylings; the second time, I went full-on drama-club-kid and belted out a Broadway ballad. I didn't make it past the first round either time. But the odds are slim and the stakes are high. During any given season, as many as 100,000 hopefuls audition, of whom only 36 make it to the official start of the competition. Last year's finale drew 30 million viewers, and past winners, such as Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, have gone on to sell platinum albums and win Grammy awards.
Sure, I was temporarily crushed to not have joined their ranks. But I've put my quest to good use: I've done a deep analysis of the contestants, and their effects on the audience that votes them to the top. I'm not just an entertainer, you see. I am a psychologist who studies creativity and talent. Talent has everything to do with who wins Idol; brilliance is hard to ignore. But my close look at the show's last eight seasons has led me to conclude that Idol can help academics and fans alike reconceptualize "talent" in the context of show biz. It's not just singing ability. It's a startlingly unique combination of many different traits, and a couple of things that lie outside the contestants' control.
I didn't get to be an Idol, but I think I've finally cracked its code.
DIVAS AND DILETTANTES
Waiting in line with my father for an audition ticket back in 2005, I never felt more ordinary. I had thought my Afro and stylish corduroy jacket would make me stand out, but I spotted at least three others with the same look. Certainly, my background seemed unique: I was a voice major at Carnegie Mellon University. The first time I auditioned for Idol, I had hopes that the show could advance my musical theater career. Unfortunately, my rendition of All My Life by K-Ci & JoJo didn't get me past the first hurdle. Now, in line for my second audition, in 2007, I decided to stay true to myself and sing an upbeat, inspiring musical theater song—"This is the Moment" from Jekyll & Hyde.
Melodic sounds and flamboyant fashions were all around me. Two girls in particular were gaining a lot of attention: One had a heavenly voice and was surrounded by an enraptured crowd as she practiced. The other was dressed up like an angel and was getting escorted about with a team of cameras all around her to capture her lame vocals. To the surprise of everyone auditioning, Dressed-Like-An-Angel got through to the next round, while Sang-Like-An-Angel was immediately dismissed. What was going on?
On the televised show, auditions start with the celebrity judges—Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul (who has been replaced in Season 9 by Ellen DeGeneres), and Kara DioGuardi—screening an array of colorful contestants. But in reality, Idol hopefuls must first sing in front of professional talent scouts. Only a couple hundred in each city get through this stage. Those who continue undergo interviews and sing again for the executive producers.
When it was my turn to sing, I started in a lower range than I intended, perhaps even lower than humans are capable of hearing. I went from Scott Barry to Barry White. I decided to make the best of the situation. Singing as melodramatically as I could (which, in the context of musical theater would be considered quite normal), I clasped my heart, swayed from side to side, and professed: "This is the moment! Damn all the odds! This day, or never, I'll sit forever with the gods!" After my 10 seconds of song, the surrounding crowd broke into applause. But after a few seconds of deliberation, the scouts turned to my small group and told us rather robotically that we weren't what they were looking for.
Maybe I should have come with a gimmick. At these early stages, the producers are looking for two types of people: those who show potential to compete and those who will be good for a laugh. People in the second category might just be trying for their 15 minutes of fame, but some of them actually believe they are the best "undiscovered talent" in America. Such self-distortion seems to be quite common among young adults. Researchers James C. Kaufman and Michelle Evans looked at college-age students' perceptions of their own creativity in math, science, writing, and art and found very little agreement between self-ratings and expert ratings of their output. Self-delusion cuts across all boundaries—age, sex, ethnicity, and education.
The researchers labeled their results "The American Idol Effect." They might have been referring to someone like Fookling Benita Lee. She bypassed high school, learned three instruments, and was attending graduate school at Harvard University when she auditioned for the celebrity judges. Such precocity didn't help her with her "bloody awful" (in the words of Simon) performance of "I Can't Stand the Rain." Paula astutely observed: "You obviously heard in your own head something different than we heard." Perhaps by skipping high school, she missed out on some crucial feedback.
Or perhaps she's just bought into the worldview that American Idol— and pop culture in general—has pushed on American youth: Anybody can be a star if they want it badly enough! "Stardom by its very nature depends on exclusivity," notes Hal Niedzviecki, author of Hello I'm Special: How Individuality Became the New Conformity. When Niedzviecki interviewed Idol hopefuls, they all said pretty much the same thing: I'm the best because I have something special and I believe in myself. "When I told them that everyone else also said that, they simply said the same things again, only more forcefully," he says. "We've inculcated kids with the idea that celebrity is good, and that everyone can and should be able to achieve it."
Some of the deluded contestants could even be considered pathologically narcissistic. S. Mark Young and Drew Pinsky administered a narcissism questionnaire to a wide variety of celebrities and found that reality-TV stars scored the highest. "A lot of these folks have this disorder. They need to be treated," says Young, a professor at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California. But producers aren't mental health workers. They are well aware of how entertaining the self-deluded can be—and seek them out.
"Narcissism is useful for trying out for American Idol because it gives you the confidence—overconfidence—to go in front of an audience and sing," says Jean Twenge, author of The Narcissism Epidemic. But it's not a great long-term strategy, she notes: "Narcissists don't get along with other people and they come across as unlikable. So they're actually less likely to win."
As viewers, we love to laugh at narcissists and watch them fall. "Somehow, it feels good to see those with 'delusions of grandeur' get their comeuppance," says Colin Leach, a professor at the University of Connecticut who studies schadenfreude. "Maybe witnessing this sort of failure helps us affirm our belief in a just world."
So what about the other contestants, who aren't getting through for a laugh? They possess some core prerequisites, meaning they don't have to resort to tricks (as did "Bikini Girl" from last season, who auditioned in a skimpy two-piece and high heels, temporarily directing attention away from her mediocre voice) or follow their delusions all the way to public humiliation.
Researchers Rena Subotnik and Linda Jarvin interviewed over 80 top students at different stages of their musical careers and identified the traits important to succeed at every stage on the way to the top. The three abilities that were absolutely necessary as a baseline were intrinsic motivation, charisma, and musicality.
Those with intrinsic motivation have a genuine love for the art of musical expression; they aren't doing it just for the fame. These people come across as genuine. Those with charisma are able to draw listeners in with their dynamic personalities.
The "X-factor" on American Idol is really a blend of these traits—intrinsic motivation, charisma, and musicality—and others. Successful Idols work extremely hard to cultivate their abilities, but each trait is still the product of many factors, including interacting genes. Some qualities relevant to Idol are also what behavioral geneticists call "emergenic": It takes just the right mix of genes for the trait to present itself with striking flair—you either have "it" or you don't.
Consider physical attractiveness, for instance: "Attractive parents can have unattractive children and vice versa," notes Dean Simonton of the University of California at Davis. "That's because good looks are configurational. Your dad may have a great nose and your mom a great mouth, but mixing and matching might give you plain Jane (or John)." Simonton believes the same applies to behavioral mannerisms: "I think what we call charisma is a configurational trait. A person has to inherit a certain set of expressive behaviors that are so well-matched that they create an exceptional impression."
A major component of charisma is what psychologists call "expressive control,"the ability to impress and entertain others, to engage effectively in role-playing, to mimic other people, and to practice deception successfully. As it turns out, identical twins (who share all of the same genes), reared apart or together, have levels of charisma that correlate very closely, whereas fraternal twins (who share only half of the same genes) are no more alike in this way than any two people selected randomly from the general population.
Other emergenic traits that surely offer an edge on Idol include the ability to influence others (referred to as "social potency") and a creative personality. All these traits are certainly influenced by the environment. And yet, "although some of these may be learned, not all can," notes Simonton. "Those who have 'it' most naturally, without self-conscious effort, will prove to have the edge over those who attain 'it' only through a painful struggle."
Non-emergenic factors, such as the "Big 5" personality traits, are also important for Idol. These are major dimensions of personality. Idol contenders who are too neurotic (anxious or easily upset) may have a difficult time handling the constant demands of performance. Agreeable people can garner support from the other contestants, while those who are disagreeable run the risk of alienating voters. Those who are conscientious will practice their songs and will be less likely to forget their lyrics. Hopefuls high in openness to experience will be more likely to take risks with their song choices. Finally, extroverts may be able to "own" the stage better than introverts.
Some of my personality traits were indeed a hindrance at the auditions. My neuroticism contributed to me forgetting the starting key of my song! My agreeableness caused me to break audition etiquette and talk to the judges before I sang: "Hey, everyone here is saying I look like Simon Cowell, what do you think?" They were not impressed.
All of these personality and ability-related traits must be present in one person for the elusive Idol X-factor to emerge. If just one component is seriously lacking, then there is no X-factor.
Fairly or not, physical features play a role on Idol: A contestant possessing charisma and musicality but whose appearance is off-putting will lack the X-factor. (One need not be supermodel material; "cute enough" qualifies.) Or consider the hopeful with a pleasing voice who delivers a boring performance. No X-factor. Or the singer who oozes charm but hits too many sour notes. Or the good musician whose high neuroticism leads him to buckle under the pressure. The X-factor is special because it is so unlikely for someone to have all that it requires. Yet we see it as a total package, and we recognize it instantly, without thinking too much about its many components.
And sometimes even possessing the X-factor isn't enough. A person's particular combination of traits must also match what is commercially viable in the music industry that year (it wasn't musical theater my year), what will make for interesting television, and what the producers are looking for in terms of demographics. Even if you tick off all the boxes, if they already filled that quota earlier that day or in a previous city that season, you're out of luck.
THE TOP 36
Once it's finally time for the public to vote, the judges present America with a cast of 36 contenders who are diverse in terms of musical style, background, hometown, age, and ethnicity. (Last season featured a cute Southern college boy, a hunky oil rig worker, and a beautiful single mom.) Since all the contestants at this stage are extremely talented, committed, and charismatic, other factors now become more important.
As the musicians in Subotnik and Jarvin's study got closer to "elite" talent, technical proficiency mattered less and the following factors rose to prominence: self-promotion skills, having a good agent, capitalizing on strengths, overcoming self-doubt, exuding self-confidence, good social skills, persevering through criticisms and defeats, and taking risks. According to an assistant producer I spoke to who wished to remain anonymous, every contestant who makes it this far gets their own publicist who carefully helps them hone a unique "brand."
A large part of each contestant's image is developed through their personal backstory, which can strengthen their connection to the audience. Danny Gokey from Season 8 lost his wife shortly before he auditioned for the show. His moving story elicited sympathy that made people want to root for him. "We want the best man or woman to win—not just the best singer, but the best person," says Pamela Rutledge, Director of the Media Psychology Research Center. "Narratives are the way we make meaning out of life. Idol represents an archetypal narrative: the journey, the quest against all odds." It's a story onto which we can project our own hopes and dreams.
One theme that appears every season in some form or another is that of the underdog doing well. For good reason: It gratifies our deeply ingrained desire for justice. "We would admire an Idol who performed well and received a deserved positive outcome," notes Norman Feather, a psychologist at Flinders University in Australia.
In Season 8, the blind Scott MacIntyre sang and played piano with all his heart. Some voters may have felt that he deserved success more because he had to overcome more in order to showcase his talent. Leach notes that a lack of perceived obstacles have the opposite effect: "Schadenfreude happens on Idol when a contestant who is viewed as arrogant or as succeeding for the wrong reasons (e.g., stunning looks, sucking up to judges) does poorly."
Voters also want to see growth. Contestants who peak too soon may not be seen as equally deserving of success as the person whose inspiring story unfolds across the season. Such a dramatic unfolding may contribute to the voters' feeling that they played a supporting role in the fate of their beloved contestant. "We identify with people who try hard—especially when they become successful. We think, 'That could be me up there—if I had the talent'," says Norm Wiener, a sociologist at the State University of New York at Oswego. There is an interesting irony here: We want the person who has the X-factor but who also appears deserving of such talents. This requires contestants to strike a delicate balance—showcasing their abilities while simultaneously connecting with large segments of the voting population by making their skills seem attainable.
Researchers Penelope Lockwood and Ziva Kunda at the University of Waterloo found that stars whose success was relevant to people and seemed attainable to them evoked inspiration. In contrast, if the star's success seemed unobtainable, some subjects reported that they felt deflated. Therefore, Idol contestants can isolate themselves from large swaths of the voting population who have aspirations for fame (probably a sizeable chunk) by making their talent look too out of reach. Last season's runner-up, Adam Lambert, may have alienated some voters because he started the show with prior successes (having appeared in the Broadway touring cast of Wicked) and because he showed amazing talent, nailing impossibly high notes every time.
In a study conducted by Richard Smith and his colleagues, college-age students read stories from The National Enquirer. Students reported high levels of emotional gratification when reading about high-status individuals suffering negative events. And they reported liking stories about average people experiencing good fortune. "We aren't going to identify with celebrities," says Smith. "We're going to identify with someone from our state." That's why the judges try to get representation from different ethnicities among the top 36—they know that people will rally around their in-group.
Finally, it's important for hopefuls to remain humble. Besides increasing likability, it can diffuse the hot button of high status. Season 6's Melinda Doolittle came to the show with extensive experience as a backup singer. But every time she received positive feedback from the judges, she seemed genuinely shocked and appreciative. Her response made her sympathetic, in spite of her past successes.
Humility works only up to a point, though. While too much confidence makes one seem cocky and unappreciative of success, people respond to a healthy dose of self-confidence; belief in oneself typically leads other people to believe in you.
GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT
"By the time the Top 10 comes around, people know who the top 4 are going to be, at least within a small margin of error," Young observes. "Leading contenders in the Top 10 tend to stand out right away." The X-factor shines through.
But as the competition gets down to the final four or so, who-ever does well is a "good barometer of mass culture's taste," notes Jake Halpern, author of Fame Junkies. By definition, the winner of American Idol appeals to the most voters. And while such tastes can change from year to year, two common types have emerged in past seasons: those who stand out through their wild risks and flamboyance and those who are nonthreatening and down-to-earth.
Both of these styles represent drives that are deeply rooted in human psychology because they provided an important evolutionary advantage for our ancestors: "Uniqueness-seeking" behaviors can increase social status, whereas "similarity-seeking" behaviors can increase affiliation.
Some people have a naturally high need for uniqueness while others tend to want to blend in; American Idol auditioners are an interesting lot because they are extreme in both drives: They strive for uniqueness just as intensely as they strive for acceptance by the larger group. This paradox parallels their struggle to show off their talents while appearing relatable to the masses.
In Season 8, the final two contestants each represented one of the evolutionary poles. Leslie Heywood and Justin Garcia argue that 27-year-old Lambert's theatrical singing style and sexually ambiguous fashion sense made him seem less familiar and potentially more selfish than this year's winner—cute, clean-cut, 23-year-old Kris Allen. Allen came across as accessible, familiar, conforming, and potentially more likely to contribute to society. (The cameras often panned to Allen's cherubic blond bride and solidly middle-class parents while he sang.)
It may have been Lambert's willingness to sing "I'm gonna give you every inch of my love" while wearing skintight pants and green-glitter "guyliner" that hurt him, notes Mark Harris in an Entertainment Weekly cover story. That probably made a lot of viewers a tad uncomfortable. "A cultural mandate to not be flamboyant, to not stand out and not consume as many resources, seems to be an attitude that is in the air, linked to the current economic recession and concerns about the environment," Heywood and Garcia write.
And yet, that doesn't mean the pendulum couldn't swing in the direction of uniqueness this season, which brings to light the magic of American Idol. While all the components of the Idol X-factor are theoretically identifiable, the components can combine in so many ways. Such unpredictability guarantees that every season will be interesting. I've passed the Idol age limit, but maybe sometime in the future I'll be able to rally around an inspiring, break-dancing white boy with an Afro who can sing a mean rendition of "I Want It That Way" by the Backstreet Boys, operatic vibrato included. He can count on my vote. —Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D.
Scott Barry Kaufman's PT blog is Beautiful Minds.
American Idol Archetypes
The Ivy-League Gangster (Lil Suburbinus)
DESCRIPTION: Sure, Dad's a dentist, but that doesn't mean he can't express what it is to be down, out, and heartbroken.
TALENT: Drops beats like bombs. But is he true-blue, or just a poseur?
SECRET WEAPON: Trust fund.
Glam Rocker (Adamus Ambisexualis)
DESCRIPTION: This peacock lives for the stage, the spectacle, and the scariest mix-and-match fashions conceivable.
TALENT: He touches our hearts, when he's not freaking us out. S ECRET WEAPON: His glass-shattering high-C note.
Country Cutie (Escapistis Trailerparkum)
DESCRIPTION: Has a pet horse named "Lucky" and enough sass to take down a cheatin' man with a single hair toss.
TALENT: Her voice is like honey in her own genre, but she falls flat on disco night.
SECRET WEAPON: A push-up bra.
Boy Next Door (Krisallenia Milquetoasticus)
DESCRIPTION: A safe object of affection for preteen girls, he's been plucking out indie-folk songs in his bedroom for years.
TALENT: Solidly musical and easy on the eyes, he's entertaining yet not threatening.
SECRET WEAPON: Cute toddler son.
R&B Goddess (Hysterica Melodens)
DESCRIPTION: She's in control of her impressive pipes and her feminine power.
TALENT: Her range is astounding. But her Mariah/Whitney/Fantasia complex makes her fall short of original.
SECRET WEAPON: Warm rapport with judges.