mariah_feudI haven’t been watching American Idol this season, but that’s about to change. In Sunday’s NY Times Magazine, Heather Havrilesky made a very convincing case for the show’s relevance, claiming that the current season has turned into an authentic instance of our collective idolatry of authenticity (pun couldn’t possibly be more intended) being worked out in real time, on a national stage, via the conflict between judges Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj. Their dynamic makes for a petri-dish of cultural law par excellence, that is, in their back-and-forth we see the Should’s and Shouldn’ts of the pop landscape articulated with astounding precision–and therefore astounding severity. Which means their conversation is about something much larger than potential record sales; they are arguing about what constitutes an aesthetically justified life, period (which makes sense, since they’re supposed to be serving as judges). The problem is that their criteria couldn’t be more divergent–or more deeply and personally held. In other words, this is not theoretical for either performer. Their very righteousness is at stake.

Set in relief to Carey’s (relatively) archetypal view of “what it takes”, Minaj’s self-understanding is clearly the more dominant one, both on the show and in the culture at large: Thou Shalt be Weirdly Excellent and Excellently Weird or Thou Shalt Be Oneself (and Oneself Only!) and That Oneself Must Be Effortlessly Wacky But Not Genuinely Irritating/Alienating. Call it the cult of the celebrity or the cult of the self, all the neon wigs and take-me-or-leave-me posturing can’t mask what is essentially a subverted form of secularized religiosity–one that, despite appearances or claims to the contrary, is considerably more crushing than its conventional antecendents. Havrilesky gets at this when she talks about determinism, i.e. you either have it or you don’t, and there’s little-to-no cultivation involved. Of course, the drama has a much wider bearing than the world of pop music, which Havrilesky spells out so well that I would only muddle things with more commentary:

These two pop stars represent polar-opposite approaches to love, fame, femininity, self-expression, sexuality and everything in between. Carey is an old-school diva. She’s a technical perfectionist with incredible range; a master of melismatic singing. Artistically, though, her work is the equivalent of an airbrushed photograph seen through a Vaseline-smeared lens. There is no irony, no sense of humor, no sly wink to her presentation. Her overwhelming superficiality — plucked eyebrows, spilling cleavage, baby-smooth skin, Barbie-doll hair — has been completely internalized. She also uses the word “class” a lot without irony. By her meaning, “class” implies that you sit up straight and smile sweetly and bite your tongue.

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Where Carey plays the perfect princess, Minaj prefers the role of evil queen. Minaj comes across like Eazy-E meets Lady Gaga; mob boss meets intergalactic gun moll. Her rapid-fire rapping is embellished with overproduced sugar-pop flourishes. And her overall fakeness — the constant rotation of purple, green and pink wigs; the visible yellow push-up bra; the seven-inch platform heels — is celebrated precisely because it’s fake. Minaj might view invocations of “class” as the Man trying to silence the street. Instead, she worships at the church of Keeping It Real: You say what you mean, swear openly, laugh wickedly and above all, never pretend to be anything different from who you really are — or at least be obvious in your pretending.

The Minaj-Carey ego collision presents an engrossing study in contrasts. Carey murmurs breathily and bats her eyes; Minaj condescends nasally. Carey dons a traditional bridal gown and veil with a 27-foot train in one of her videos; Minaj sports a green Medusa wig in a swimming pool of what looks like Pepto-Bismol, flanked by beefy men in boxer briefs, in one of hers. Carey’s album titles (“Butterfly,” “Rainbow,” “Daydream,” “Glitter,” “Charmbracelet,” “Music Box”) conjure a little girl’s vision of happiness; Minaj’s songs (“I Am Your Leader,” “I’m the Best”) conjure a bully’s delight at mercilessly dominating her foes.

The vast gulf between their perspectives comes through loud and clear in their comments as judges on “Idol”: while Carey often focuses on a performer’s talent, for Minaj, talent is malleable, and there’s always a workaround, an angle, a way to win over audiences. Where Carey gets teary-eyed over emotional songs, Minaj analyzes a performer’s lipstick shade, then openly asserts that these “fake” details matter just as much as what’s inside. (“If you wear pink lipstick, you’ll get more votes, I’m telling you.”) And while Carey prattles on about vague feelings for several minutes, then hints that producers have encouraged her to keep it brief, Minaj shows up late, leaves her sunglasses on, rolls her eyes and flirts openly with the contestants (“I am obsessed with you”; “You’re my wife”). She reduces her big thoughts to colorful sound bites. In short: Carey is a teenage girl’s rambling diary. Minaj is a Twitter feed…

On the surface, the show’s evolution from pop-star factory to unique-snowflake day camp merely reflects a shift in tastes. After all, America has clearly fallen out of love with the ’90s-era beauty-pageant style of pop vocalist belting out megahits. The Mariah Carey model — a big talent who must have seemed like a blank slate when she presented her demo as an unknown 18-year-old to her eventual producer (and husband) Tommy Mottola — is no longer the preferred path to fame. Pop stars used to be Barbie dolls; now they’re Ugly Dolls. Even the bubble-gum stalwart Katy Perry is trussed up in alien garb, like the dictator of a lady planet on “Star Trek.” Think of young Britney Spears, the fresh-faced student singing about love in a high-school hallway. Now compare her to Lady Gaga, who rarely appears in public without pleather pants, elevator boots and the elaborate hairstyle of a Monster High doll. Freaky fakeness on the outside — bouffant hairdos, gigantic shoes, bizarre outfits — is now interpreted as a sign of strength and realness on the inside.

Why? It’s an ascendant belief in the power of identity. Playing up your oddest quirks and most bizarre tics has become a way of signaling to the world that you believe in yourself in the extreme and refuse to be molded into a generic, consumable (and disposable) product. It’s the embodiment of the credo that Minaj told to Jay Leno: “When a person knows who they are, it’s like they can do no wrong.” Maybe, thanks to the online democratization of culture, talent and good looks aren’t enough to impress us anymore. Only exotic weirdos like the Korean pop star Psy can grab our attention. Or as Kelly Clarkson herself — the original “American Idol” winner, now clad in a glow-in-the-dark “Jetsons” dress and lizardy eye makeup — sang during a guest appearance on the show a few weeks ago, “We are all misfits living in a world on fire.”

It’s easy to cheer for the evolution of “American Idol” from Carey to Minaj; from manufacturer of pop widgets to the world’s most expensive group-therapy session. The show is certainly more entertaining. But there’s also a strange feeling of determinism in play, a sense that a performer can’t change his or her destiny. You’re either already a star or you need to get the hell off the stage immediately (as Minaj ordered three male contestants to do halfway through the season). Give us your real — no matter how weird — or take a hike.

Not so ironically, these are some of the insights I tried–with admittedly limited success (see below)–to convey in my talk at last month’s conference, for which I borrowed heavily from Ms Havrilesky herself, especially her observations about the Oscars. What I was trying to say is this: the more ascendent our “belief in identity”, the more anxious and desperate the discrepancy between who we Should be and who we Actually are will grow. And as that happens, the more immediate the hope in a God who justifies the unspectacular becomes.

I’m not quite sure how/why the church has “dropped the ball” so magnificently in this respect–it probably has something to do with worries about validating over-individualized or negative understandings of the world (i.e. a failure to meet people where they are)–but I’m grateful that our hope doesn’t ultimately rest on our ability to communicate or institutionalize it, that failure and weakness and need may actually be the conduit through which that hope is secured and even experienced. I guess you could say I’m glad the Gospel is good news for misfits whose misfit-ness extends beyond their fashion choices to their personalities and personal histories and, yes, even their vocal chords.