What Politicians Can Learn from American Idol

At a time when polticians and public figures are often accused of pretense and misdirection, it seems a fair time to point out they all have something to learn from “American Idol” (hereinafter AI) , the popular television talent show teaches us there is one way sure way to put yourself into position to win an election, whether it be for singing superstar or public office: be who you are, not who you think folks want you to be.

 But, first let’s backtrack…many of you have already seen this clip of Hillary Clinton speaking in Selma, Alabama:


Senator Clinton spoke at the First Baptist Church in Selma as part of the commemoration of the Montgomery to Selma Civil Rights march that ended in bloodshed at the Edmund Pettis Bridge.  After listening to Mrs. Clinton, several commentators suggested she attempted to adopt a “southern accent” as part of her speech.  Although I am no Hillary fan, let me state that the suggestion is ridiculous, but it draws attention to why she does need to pay more attention to AI.

One cannot adopt a southern accent.  A southern accent is felt deep to the bones, and is the product of living in the region.   In fact, I suggest there is actually more than one type of southern accent.  The outlander may think they all roll together, but the typical non-southerner will assume you have an accent even if all you do is say “y’all”.  I bet you could put your native New Yorker in a room with folks from Tidewater, Richmond, the Piedmont, the Southside, the Valley, and Big Stone Gap and he would identify each one as having a southern accent.  What would be ignored is the subtle differences in pitch, pace, and tone that a native of Virginia would readily identify.  Imagine the range that would kick in if you included folks from other states in Dixie!

Perhaps the final word is best left to Johnny Cash and Tom Petty, who generations apart once sang:

There’s a southern accent, where I come from
The young’uns call it country, The Yankees call it dumb
I got my own way of talkin’ But everything is done,
with a southern accent Where I come from

What Hillary did attempt to do is to imitate call and respond type speech pattern that is native to the Southern Baptist church and used by a wide number of churches across Dixie. It is easy to recognize but takes a little instinct to accurately execute. The basic idea is that the speaker puts out their idea in a rising ladder of signicance, and audience response grows louder and more involved as the speaker builds toward a mighty conclusion.

I first encountered the style up close and personal at the 1988 Mock Democratic Convention at Washington and Lee University. Mayor Andrew Young of Atlanta, former Congressman and UN Ambassador, was the speaker. I was sitting down front with Powell Starks, a W&L seven year man and native of Louisville, KY.

I noticed that Mayor Young seemed to be getting annoyed with the predominantly anglo crowd, even though it was being respectful and responding frequently with loud applause and cheers. I mentioned this to Powell, who said, “He is upset because we are breaking his rhythmn.”

I said I didn’t understand. Powell said, “Politicians disguise sound bites as speeches. They want to have their speeches broken up by applause, and plan them that way. Mayor Young is an ordained minister…he wants us to to respond in a lower key fashion-and “amen” might not be inappropriate”-while he builds to his conclusion. Then he gets big applause, and he starts in on his next major point. That way he builds up momentum, and part of the momentum is the rhythmn. By applauding as frequently as we are, we are breaking up his rhythm, and that is why he is annoyed.”

If you listen objectively to the Hillary C. clip above you can see that is exactly what she is trying to do. However, this is a pattern and practice that is so identified with the South that when someone who does not have the right accent-instead, has an accent from Chicago cross bred with almost a lifetime in the North-it sounds like an attempt at an imitation. She comes across as trying to be something she is not.

Which brings us back to AI…

Devotees of AI (hello, Vivian!) regularly see the eager applicants attempt to sing songs they like or that they think the judges will like without giving much thought as to whether they can actually sing the song well. Each season someone rolls out Whitney Houston songs and Celine Dion songs, and almost all of them crash and burn because they don’t have the big vocal presence to make it work. Contestants pick songs they like, and not necessarily songs they can sing well. Contestants pick songs they think the judges will like, rather than songs they can sing well. Contestants try to be what they think the judges want to see, instead of being themselves and impressing the judges with their talent.

Political candidates are the same. They do all type of superficial things to make us feel a connection, when what we want is a leader. We want to be impressed by quality of their ideas and the content of their character, and not whether they ate crabcakes in Baltimore or a Po Boy in New Orleans or a Cheese steak in Philly w/o getting cheez whiz on their tie. Those who want to lead us focus on the superficial while ignoring the fundamental. They try to be what the voters want them to be and tell the voters what they think voters want to hear. What we want is for them to be honest and show us who they are and where they want to lead us.

Is is my hope that as the campaign season rolls on toward Election Day 2008 that the ever narrowing number of candidates will consider AI and all those failed contestants who focused on what they thought the judges liked. I hope those that aspire to the nation’s highest offices will choose to trust the will of the voter and not the siren of their ambition, and be straight with us about who they are and where they want to go.

If you don’t, Simon Colwell-the mean AI judge- may just end up with a new career as a political consultant. Hillary, take heed!


2 thoughts on “What Politicians Can Learn from American Idol

  1. Pingback: University Update

  2. Pingback: What politicians can learn from American Idol « Vivian J. Paige

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