It happens every season: I rush into a crowded room, gushing about the newest piece of “American Idol” gossip.
Without fail, one person always reacts to my news with this enthusiastic response:
“Why should I care?”
Well, we’re talking about a reality TV competition that to a large extent is dominated by cheesy Ford commercials, producer-engineered drama and grating catchphrases like “you worked it out, dawg!”
OK, maybe I’m not building my case too well.
This week, “American Idol” starts its ninth season on Fox.
In recent years, the show’s ratings have (slightly) declined. Viewers have become more cynical, investigating contestants’ professional pasts in the weeks — and even months — before the show airs.
And even the series’ coveted champion title has lost a little of its luster, thanks to “Idol” standouts who have offered disappointing performances upon entering the real world.
(I’m talking to you, Taylor Hicks.)
But I haven’t stopped following “American Idol.”
In fact, call me more delusional than William Hung, but I’ll even argue you should care about the show.
For starters, it’s nearly impossible to ignore the series’ relevance in pop culture.
“Idol” has produced musical standouts like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood — singers who have topped charts and redefined their respective genres.
There are also the lower-placing finalists — names like Jennifer Hudson, Chris Daughtry and Kellie Pickler — who have sustained an entertainment presence despite not advancing to their season’s final two.
Beyond songs released by its contestants, “American Idol” has tremendous potential to resuscitate tunes that reached their initial heyday decades ago.
Due to the show’s format — which focuses on musical theme nights that cross decades — many tweens now know the words to classic rock tunes by acts like Heart and Styx.
Yet the defense case for “American Idol” is rooted in more than record sales and radio statistics.
If you believe the show’s outcome is genuinely determined by viewers’ votes — which I do — you can view “Idol” success stories partially as reflection of the attributes we value.
For instance, think about the occasions when a contestant fires back an angry line at judge Simon Cowell after receiving a negative performance critique.
The behavior sometimes jeopardizes the singer’s standing in the public eye, prompting an apology.
Then, there is another “Idol” staple — the contestant who boasts brilliant performances, but is constantly criticized for a lack of personality.
“Idol” contestants aren’t just singers competing for votes with “1-866” numbers. They are magnified versions of people with whom we associate daily.
At the heart of the “American Idol” value system: our perception of fame.
Since its early days, the show has billed itself as something that pulls talent out of obscurity, turning fast-food waitresses into recording studio divas.
Though that belief has been dampened a bit in recent seasons, “Idol” is still a major force in sustaining faith in an unconventional path toward public recognition.
I saw it when I covered the Season 9 auditions in Atlanta: Thousands of “Idol” hopefuls crowded outside the Georgia Dome. Many carried colorful signs and wore eye-catching costumes.
Under one lens, it was reassuring — proof that my generation has failed to succumb to a belief that fame boils down to whom you know and what you have.
Under another, it was scary — evidence that diligence, training and hard work have been replaced by the visual appeal of a sparkly poster or skimpy costume.
Hey, I won’t force you to watch “American Idol.”
But once you’ve accepted the show isn’t going away, you might at least want to have an opinion.
Other than “I don’t care.”
Sonya Sorich, reporter, can be reached at 706-571-8516.