Worshiping those Bible Belt Idols

magazine 4covers2You just know that there has to be a religion ghost in there somewhere if the oh-so-cynical folks at the Washington Post Style section are going to get all worked up about a story that pits those strange folks out there in red-zip-code Middle America against the befuddled elites in dark-blue zip codes. Sure enough, God, church, family, Wal-Mart and who knows what all (where was Mama?) make special appearances in reporter Neely Tucker's "Who Put The Y'all In 'Idol'? The Competition Is National but Its Finalists' Accent Is Unmistakable," which ponders the mystery of why so many American Idol hotshots are from the Bible Belt, of all places. Let's go ahead and, with a giant wink, get the opening of the story out of the way:

What is it with this Southern thing on "American Idol," anyway? Here we go, a national singing competition. It's lousy with Juilliard proteges, Hollywood High sensations, right? Top-notch overachievers, best-that-money-can-buy training? Um, no.

For five years, the most wildly popular talent contest on American television has been dominated -- thoroughly, totally and completely -- by kids from Southern Hicksville, USA. Seven of the eight top-two finishers in the first four years were from states that once formed the Confederacy, and five of the seven remaining finalists this season are, too.

Bubba!

And guess what? While the Bible Belt folks -- for some strange reason -- eat this stuff up like cornbread with milk and honey, the math shows that the mega-vote folks in the big-city rating zones (mostly blue) also appear to like those golden-throated warblers from, what was that phrase again, "Southern Hicksville."

Now please understand, I say all of this as a person who has, of his own free will, never (it may be dangerous to say this, scientists may want samples of my brain tissue as a control device) seen an episode of American Idol. I mean, if I liked that kind of music I would attend a megachurch.

But what is going on out there in the heartland? Could it be that ordinary Americans like over-the-top emotions when they are woven into shows that do not go out of their way to offend people who think the Tony Awards have gotten a bit, well, strange? Does this have something to do with Baby Boomers liking songs with three chords and a hook? Or is there something deeper? Is America a land of simple people who yearn, bless their shallow little hearts, for simple things?

... (A) softer Southern accent persists, as does the cultural memory of things long gone. There is still an emphasis on church and family, both entities that, in the course of Southern life, heavily influence music, particularly among the working class.

"There's still an awful lot of old-school singers who got their starts in church, and many mainstream country musicians still do a gospel album," said John Reed Shelton, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of North Carolina and one of the region's most respected observers. "Everybody tends to go to church, and Southern evangelical Protestantism, both black and white, emphasizes and rewards musical performance."

Ain't that sweet?

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