“I'm the Next American Idol”: Cooling Out, Accounts, and Perseverance at Reality Talent Show Auditions
Drawing on fieldwork at American Idol auditions, I describe how contestants come to accept their fate after being cut from the competition. I revisit Goffman's metaphor of “cooling the mark out,” especially the cooling out strategy of offering people another chance to qualify for roles at which they failed. Contestants' desires to audition and audition again after failure are driven by meritocratic ideals. They develop accounts in line with these ideals to explain how despite being rejected they are talented and can still excel in the future. This study contributes to literature on “cooling out” by highlighting how people draw on larger systems of meaning—ideologies supporting meritocratic values in the case of Idol contestants—when making sense of their failures.
Contemporary media is increasingly participatory, providing ordinary people with a variety of means to gain media exposure. Reality television in particular has received a great deal of popular attention for making stars and celebrities out of ordinary people. A healthy literature has emerged attempting to conceptualize the role ordinary people play in professional media production (Collins 2008; Curnutt 2009, 2011; Jenkins 2006; Kjus 2009; Shufeldt and Gale 2007; Teurlings 2001; Turner 2006, 2009; Ytreberg 2004, 2006). Existing studies suggest that people have a variety of idiosyncratic motivations for appearing on television (Andrejevic 2004; Aslama 2009; Gamson 1998; Grindstaff 2002, 2011; McElroy and Williams 2011; Priest 1995; Syvertsen 2001). However, studies have paid less attention to how people deal with rejection from reality TV and other contemporary modes of fame seeking. Although contemporary media production provides ordinary people with more opportunities to become famous than ever before, far more people aspire to gain this status than actually achieve it.
The reality TV singing competition American Idol premiered in 2002 on Fox Television Network and has aired fourteen seasons, with a final fifteenth season planned for 2016. For most of its run, it has been by far the most watched show in the United States of any genre or network. American Idol is a particularly appropriate setting to explore questions of loss and rejection, since the show can be seen as a series of eliminations. Each season begins by documenting initial auditions: first open calls in each of seven audition cities, then call backs in Hollywood, CA. After contestants compete in Hollywood, and the semi-finalists are determined, the show resembles a traditional stage talent competition. Contestants sing popular songs and are evaluated by celebrity judges. Viewers are then invited to vote for their favorite contestants. Each week those with the fewest votes are eliminated. The last remaining contestant wins the competition, receiving a management and recording contract on a major record label. Although many tens of thousands of hopefuls audition for the show each season, only about 2% of them make it past the very first round, let alone become a finalist or winner.
This study focuses on how Idol contestants deal with rejection during the very first round of the competition. I find that failed contestants often plan to return and audition again. How do contestants come to accept their loss and persevere, continuing to reach for their goal of becoming the next American Idol? I draw on the concept of “cooling the mark out,” which Goffman uses to explain how people cope with role loss, extending the concept by highlighting how people draw on larger systems of meaning—ideologies supporting meritocratic values in the case of Idol contestants—when making sense of their failures.
CONFIDENCE GAMES, COOLING OUT, AND ACCOUNTS
Sociologists have long used the confidence game as a metaphor for human behavior (Goffman 1959, 1974; Grazian 2004). One element of confidence games that has drawn particular sociological interest is the process of “cooling the mark out.” In classic con games, operators rope a mark into a business venture or gamble by convincing the mark that the operation is fixed in his favor. In fact, the operation is fixed against the mark and inevitably goes wrong at the last minute, after the mark has invested all of his money into funding it. When the mark loses out on what he was confident was a sure deal, he might raise a squawk, contact the authorities, or otherwise react in ways that could be detrimental to the criminals' operation. So, con artists employ “coolers” who “cool the mark out,” teaching the mark to accept the loss and move on in an agreeable manner.
In his classic essay on the concept, Goffman (1952) argues that cooling the mark out is not limited to the criminal world, but rather is a regular process in different contexts where people experience role loss. In classic con games, a mark does not simply lose money. By participating in the venture, the mark believes he has outsmarted the system. His loss threatens his status as a clever person. Thus, cooling out is an effort to help the mark save face and resuscitate a damaged sense of self due to losing the status associated with his role in the operation. Outside of traditional con games, people also experience role loss and use various strategies to regain composure when that loss threatens their positive sense of self.
Previous studies have applied the concept of cooling out to describe how people come to accept involuntary loss or failure in a variety of situations: mothers coping with their children's Down's syndrome diagnoses (Thomas 2014), college admissions (Clark 1960), women refusing men's advances in nightlife venues (Snow, Robinson, and McCall 1991), animal adoption workers rejecting applicants (Thompson and Young 2014), recovering from alcoholism (Petrunik 1972), nurses managing emergency room patients (Akerstrom 1997), filling undesirable careers (Becker and Strauss 1956), failure in sports (Ball 1976). One study of particular relevance to this article is van den Scott, Forstie, and Balasubramanian's (2015) analysis of how contestants in a variety of competition based reality television shows save face when leaving the show after elimination. The authors discuss a particular form of cooling out they term “eulogy work” in which contestants cope with their loss through an emotionally laden public performance. However, in using television text as data, van den Scott et al. focus on the experiences of public figures who have already been cast on reality shows, rather than those of people striving for this status. While they describe televised, public rituals of loss, Idol contestants cope in more private ways that include individually tailored meaning making strategies that Scott et al. do not acknowledge.
One cooling out strategy that Goffman discusses in his original formulation of the concept is offering marks future opportunities to retrace their steps and try again to qualify for the same role at which they failed. According to Goffman, this is not a popular cooling out strategy: “In general, it seems that third and fourth chances are seldom given to marks, and that second chances, while often given, are seldom taken. Failure at a role removes a person from the company of those who have succeeded, but it does not bring him back—in spirit, anyway—to the society of those who have not tried or are in the process of trying. The person who has failed in a role is a constant source of embarrassment, for none of the standard patterns of treatment is quite applicable to him. Instead of taking a second chance, he usually goes away to another place where his past does not bring confusion to his present” (1952:458). However, American Idol contestants are invited to audition as many times as they want, and my respondents expressed strong interest in returning to auditions to try again after failure. I will argue that this cooling out strategy is particularly meaningful for them due to their belief in meritocratic values.
Furthermore, I will describe how Idol contestants maintain the enthusiasm to come back and try again by accounting for their losses in ways that diminish their embarrassment or confusion. Scott and Lyman define an account as “a linguistic device employed whenever an action is subjected to valuative inquiry” (1968:46). Accounts are used to explain behavior that is “bad, wrong, inept, unwelcome, or in some other of the numerous possible ways, untoward” (1968:47). For example, previous scholars have discussed how Christians who do Mixed Martial Arts account for participating in potentially immoral leisure practices (Borer and Schafer 2011), how people account for ending romantic relationships (Doering 2010), and how LGBT Christians explain their religious beliefs (Sumerau 2014). I argue that accounts are mechanisms through which broader ideologies make perseverance seem reasonable for individuals when faced with loss. Idol contestants draw on meritocratic values when making sense of their failures, developing accounts to explain how despite being rejected they are talented and can still excel in the future.
Thus, this study expands sociological understandings of cooling out by arguing that cultural values shape how salient particular cooling out strategies are in helping marks accept their fates, and proposes that accounts are one key means through which such values are sustained during the cooling out process. Previous studies have described how societal values create conditions that necessitate cooling out. For instance, studies have discussed how gender ideologies create situations in which women frequently must reject men's sexual advances (Snow, Robinson, and McCall 1991) and how the high value placed on higher education can make attending junior college feel like a failure (Clark 1960). However, previous literature has focused less on how culture influences the actual process of cooling out.
After a methods section and a brief description of American Idol audition procedures, I begin by discussing the meaning of meritocracy among Idol contestants and describe how various people in their lives rope them into auditioning by building confidence in their talent and the belief that they will be rewarded based on their merit. Next, I describe three key cooling out strategies that help contestants cope with being rejected during the first round of auditions: (1) venting emotions, (2) minimizing significance, and (3) offering future opportunities. I argue that the last strategy is particularly salient for contestants given their meritocratic beliefs. Finally, I describe how contestants account for loss in ways that maintain their identities as talented singers by attributing loss to (1) idiosyncrasies and biases in judging procedures and standards and (2) not singing to their full potential due to temporary or correctable mishaps. In doing so, accounts help contestants explain why it is reasonable to persevere and take future opportunities to become stars, especially the chance to audition again for Idol.
METHODS AND DATA
I conducted fieldwork during the first round of American Idol auditions in Orlando, Florida, and Denver, Colorado, during the summer of 2009 and in East Rutherford, NJ, during the summer of 2010. Data from this fieldwork includes participant observation at auditions and interviews with contestants.
Auditions in each city take place over three days in a large sports stadium: Amway Arena in Orlando, Invesco Field in Denver, and the Izod Center in East Rutherford. The first two days are registration days and the third day is the actual audition. I arrived at approximately 5:00 am on the first day of registration and stayed approximately seven hours in each city. In Orlando and Denver I arrived at approximately 8:00 am on the second day of registration and stayed for approximately three hours. I did not attend the second day of registration in East Rutherford. I arrived at approximately 5:30 am on audition day in each city and stayed approximately ten hours. At each audition venue I closely observed and interacted with contestants inside and outside the stadiums. Furthermore, I not only observed contestants, but also auditioned myself. Prior to conducting this research study, I had also auditioned for the show out of personal interest and advanced several rounds in 2004.
I interviewed forty-three contestants: nineteen in Orlando, eighteen in Denver, and six in East Rutherford. I recruited respondents at the audition venues while they were waiting to register or audition and as they exited the stadium after auditioning. Although sampling was nonrandom, the group of individuals I approached approximated the auditioning crowd in terms of gender, race, and style of dress. Interviews were semi-structured and resembled conversations contestants were having among themselves as they waited, focusing on why they wanted to audition, how they prepared for auditions, and their thoughts and feelings about the experience. These interviews lasted between 15 minutes and 1.5 hours, with most lasting approximately 30 minutes. While I conducted fewer interviews in East Rutherford, these interviews, which covered similar topics, lasted approximately 1 hour.
Within a month after each audition was over, I followed up with contestants. I was able to reach twenty total contestants for follow up, six through email and fourteen over the phone. Follow-up questions focused on audition outcomes, thoughts and feelings about the overall audition experience, and clarifying or elaborating on remarks made during initial interviews. Most follow-up interviews lasted approximately 30 minutes. Both initial and follow-up interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed by either a hired transcriber or me.
AMERICAN IDOL AUDITION PROCEDURES
In order to give context to subsequent discussions, it is first necessary to describe how American Idol auditions operate. Each summer, initial “cattle call” auditions have been held in seven cities across the United States. Although the most recent seasons of the show have made the process more transparent, in the years up to and including my fieldwork, the show depicted contestants meeting with the main judging panel (which has consisted of various celebrities including Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban, etc.) at this very first audition. It depicted enormous crowds of people lining up in stadiums, leading directly to the panel. Although initial auditions do, in fact, consist of enormous crowds in city stadiums, contestants actually have to pass through at least two rounds of auditions prior to meeting with the celebrity judges. During the first auditions, which take place inside the stadium, contestants are randomly assigned to one of approximately thirteen sets of producers. Among the approximately 10,000 contestants who compete in each city during this first round, only approximately 200 make it to the next round, which is judged by the executive producers of the show.1 Only approximately half of these contestants make it to the following round, the first round featured on television, with the celebrity judges.
This paper focuses on the very first “cattle call” audition. The audition takes place over three days. The first two days are dedicated to registration, where contestants come to the stadium and receive a paper wristband and seat in the stadium corresponding to the order in which they will eventually audition. After registering, contestants are told to return early in the morning on audition day and prepare 30 second portions of two songs to sing a cappella for the judges. On audition day, contestants arrive at the crack of dawn and wait in an enormous line outside the stadium, where camera crews film the crowd. A few hours later, contestants are let into the stadium, where they take their seats, are given instructions, do “warm ups” as a group, and are filmed. The actual audition takes place on the stadium floor. Section by section, contestants file onto the playing field where approximately thirteen tables are lined up in a neat row. Behind each table there are one to three judges. Contestants stand before the judges in groups of four, singing one after the other. Contestants who pass through the round are directed toward a “winner's exit,” where they fill out paperwork. Others have their wristbands cut off and immediately go through the “non-winner's exit,” out to the parking lot.
AMERICAN IDOL AUDITIONS AND MERITOCRACY
While other sub-genres of reality programming might not claim to produce stars who achieve fame through their own merits (Holmes 2004a), talent competitions rely on a “success myth” in which achievement is democratically rewarded to those who work hard and have talent (Dyer and McDonald 2008; Holmes 2004b). Scholars have specifically identified such meritocratic ideals in American Idol and other localized versions of the Idol format (Stahl 2004). Simon Cowell and Idol co-creator Simon Fuller, in fact, explicitly pitched the show to television networks as “the great American Dream … somebody who could be a cocktail waitress one minute, within sixteen weeks could become the most famous person in America” (CNN 2006). Time and again, American Idol shows that true talent and/or determination and a positive attitude through adversity results in triumph. That the show provides an opportunity for everyone with talent and determination to succeed is illustrated through its winners: Fantasia Barrino was a poor, single mother and Kelly Clarkson, indeed, worked as a cocktail waitress and lost her apartment in a fire immediately before her Idol audition (Meizel 2011).
Contestants view American Idol as offering an opportunity to gain access to and find success in an industry that is otherwise difficult to penetrate. However, contestants do not only see Idol as a practical way to reach a career goal. The show is also meaningful to them insofar as it represents meritocratic ideals, including equal opportunity:
Julian: It is interesting to see how some folks are regular Joes at first who start off like me, you, everybody else, neighbor down the road, and come to stardom just by being on this show.
Contestants emphasize that anybody could potentially find success through the show, despite their regular Joe backgrounds. Furthermore, contestants attribute success on the show specifically to individuals' vocal talent. Rather than creating celebrities who are famous for being famous, Idol celebrates people based on their singing abilities.
Janet: I would like to be on American Idol because I love to sing and just being recognized for your ability to sing and getting to meet other people like myself.
Like other contestants, Janet understands American Idol as a competition in which talent is “recognized” and she is motivated to audition because she wants to showcase her voice and be part of a community of other people who appreciate singing. Although contestants are certainly attracted to the prospect of becoming a celebrity more broadly and the glamor and attention such status provides, their desire for celebrity is given meaning and context by their love of singing and desire to be recognized specifically for that talent.
Many people I spoke with were confident they would advance at least one or two rounds, and quite a few were certain that they had the necessary talent to become a finalist. I asked Maria to explain why she was auditioning:
Maria: To prove—cause I know I have the talent and the dedication and the ability to be able to become the next American Idol.
Some had less lofty expectations. Still, contestants who believe their chances are slim are not deterred from trying to realize their dreams.
Nick: Even though it's very picky-choosy, very lucky, there's still the chance to change your life. And that's a chance I'm not going to pass up.
Even when contestants believe that there are slim chances of success, they still believe the competition gives them some chance to succeed, enough of a chance to convince them that auditions are worth trying. Once again, contestants' belief that they have a chance is rooted in a belief in their own talent.
Interviewer: Would you audition if you thought you had zero chance?
Meredith: Probably not. I don't think so. I mean, if I had zero chance, I'd probably be like one of those silly people who knows they—well, some people don't know they can't sing.
Meredith is confident that she has a chance at advancing on the show, specifically because she has the vocal talent necessary to do so.
Thus, contestants are driven to audition and emotionally invest in American Idol because they believe that they are talented and that Idol will reward that talent. They come to such understandings in part through their own interpretations of American Idol as television text. However, contestants' subjectivities and behaviors are not simply the product of individual psychology or media messages. Rather, contestants are surrounded by various actors who collectively sustain their ideals and build their confidence.
During the auditions, American Idol producers interact with contestants in ways that invite them to imagine themselves as celebrities and support the idea that they are capable of winning. Cameramen wander the stadiums, interviewing contestants about why they are auditioning and what they plan to sing. Producers frequently direct contestants to shout with gusto into roving cameras, “I'm the next American Idol!” At the New Jersey auditions, season four finalist Constantine Maroulis introduced American Idol host Ryan Seacrest:
“You know him. You love him as the host of the biggest show in the world, American Idol. Ryan Seacrest!!!” Ryan ran onto the stadium floor like a rock star and greeted the crowd, “Hello New Jersey! Let me say, first of all, that this is unbelievable. This is a record crowd for American Idol. So we are excited. I know you packed a punch for this audition. I know you're waiting to get that golden ticket to Hollywood. I know you are gonna show us your skills, New Jersey. Who is gonna be the next American Idol?!” The crowd cheered wildly. (Fieldnotes)
Like the many producers who interacted with contestants before him, Seacrest invited contestants to imagine themselves as the next winner of American Idol.
Prior to arriving at auditions, friends and family provide contestants with moral support and encouragement. Contestants frequently reported that people in their lives roped them into auditioning. Jared's experience is common: “Honestly, my whole family and everybody has been trying to get me to try out for American Idol since it came on.” Thomas and his stepmother describe how his family prodded him:
Thomas: I would get home and they would just tell me, “Are you doing it? Will you try out? You gotta do it.” … I don't get over to my dad's house as much as I'd like to, but pretty much every single time I went over there they would tell me.
Thomas's stepmother: I think I got online and told you, “For the love of God, can we please go?” [Laughs].
Contestants' friends and family did not simply tell them to audition, but also helped them imagine themselves succeeding in the competition and gave them confidence when they had doubts. Abby recalls watching the show for the first time with her aunt and grandmother:
Abby: At the commercial they were like, “Okay Abby, what are you going to sing for us?” I didn't remember, but I was in 4th grade like, “Oh I'll sing this.” Then I sang. Then [they said] like, “Welcome to Hollywood!” So that was my first American Idol experience. Ever since then I wanted to audition.
Contestants' identities as talented singers and worthy Idol candidates were thus not simply internal psychological constructs but also part of their social lives.
COOLING OUT STRATEGIES
There is more at stake for contestants at American Idol auditions than simply an opportunity for career advancement or financial gain. As I have just discussed, many contestants firmly believe that they are talented performers and have people around them that validate this identity. Contestants put their talent up to scrutiny when auditioning, so success or failure can confirm or deny a contestant's own sense of self as well as his or her identity among peers. Contestants and others around them—American Idol production workers, friends and family, fellow contestants, etc.—use various cooling out strategies to help them cope with being cut from the competition, alleviating contestants' loss of face and negative feelings due to their identities as talented singers being threatened. Three cooling out strategies in this context are (1) venting emotions, (2) minimizing significance, and (3) offering future opportunities. I discuss each of these in turn, and describe how the last strategy is especially salient in light of contestants' meritocratic ideals.
According to Goffman, one standard way to cool the mark out is to allow the mark “to explode, to break down, to cause a scene, to give full vent to his reactions and feelings, to ‘blow his top.’” (1952:458). Doing so allows the mark to have a cathartic release, and possibly helps him or her regain some face if directed at others who he or she believes unjustly caused the loss. Although I did not witness anyone cause a scene, many leaving through the “non-winners exit” were crying, angrily talking into cell phones, or otherwise visibly upset. Outside the stadium in Denver, an Idol cameraman filmed a young woman talking about her failed audition:
One young girl is red faced, tears streaming down her cheeks while being interviewed. An older man with a long white beard, perhaps her father or grandfather, stands beside her with a sympathetic expression. “I'm a good singer!” she insists through swollen eyes and gasps of breath. (Fieldnotes)
In a last ditch effort to save face, this indignant young woman blows her top on camera, asserting that her fate is not a reflection of her true talent. Similarly, Kurt called his mother after not passing through the first cut in Orlando:
Kurt: My initial response, in the call with my mom, “Ah! I just wasted a couple of days of my time. That was stupid.” Just kind of vented out my anger. And now, I'm just kind of like okay with it.
By venting his initial anger to a sympathetic ear, Kurt was able to cope with his emotions. However, while venting emotions can be cathartic, doing so is frequently insufficient since it does not necessarily change the meaning or significance of the loss. Indeed, Kurt and others relied on a combination of strategies to make sense of being cut in addition to venting their emotions.
Another set of strategies contestants and their coolers used to cope with being cut and to preemptively cool out a future loss involves minimizing the significance of or the impression of their investment in the competition. According to Goffman, people preemptively cool themselves out by making sure they are not completely committed to a role they might lose, keeping their commitment secret from others and from themselves, and maintaining a joking or unserious relationship with the role. “All of these strategies,” Goffman says, “give the mark an out; in case of failure he can act as if the self that has failed is not one that is important to him” (1952:462).
Some contestants avoided telling people that they were planning to audition as a preemptive face-saving strategy.
Meredith: I haven't really told anyone because, you know, a lot of people I know that come here are pretty good singers and then they never make it, so, and then everyone thinks, ‘Oh, they must not be that good.’
Rather than telling everyone about their plans to audition, Meredith and other contestants told only close friends and family. By keeping their participation a secret, contestants can quietly deal with their loss alone, or rely on particular people who they can trust to treat their loss with the sensitivity they need.
Contestants also downplayed the significance of the audition or their expectations for success, allowing them to frame failure or potential failure as relatively unimportant. They claimed to audition “just for fun,” “for the experience,” or “just to see what happens.” Samantha explained after being cut:
Samantha: I watched the show but kind of tried out for fun to see how it would go. Me and my brother drove out here. Of course, it sucks he made it and I didn't, but I'm not going to go commit suicide or something. It's just something for fun.
Samantha minimizes her investment in the competition and thus takes her loss less seriously, or at least maintains the impression that she is cool with it. Contestants' friends and family also helped them make light of failure by encouraging them to minimize the importance of outcomes. Alice is a karaoke bar regular who received encouragement from bar patrons and proprietors:
Interviewer: What kinds of things would they say to you?
Alice: Just, “Good luck.” “You have the talent so you can do it.” “Doesn't matter if you get through or not. You're always going to be talented. Just go out there and do your best and if you make it you make it, and if you don't you don't.”
Although Alice's friends preemptively cooled her out by downplaying the importance of outcomes, their simultaneous encouragement and affirmation of her talent and ability—“you can do it”—suggests a difficulty with minimizing investment as a cooling out strategy. Contestants are not dupes. They understand that given the number of people auditioning there is a good chance they could be cut. But most are also driven to audition by a strong belief in their talents and are surrounded by people who build their confidence and are enthusiastic about the audition process. So, despite understanding the low odds of success, they continue to maintain a strong faith and excitement in the possibility that their talent can transcend the odds.
Focusing on future opportunities was a particularly salient cooling out strategy for contestants since it aligned with the meritocratic ideals that drew them to the competition in the first place. By focusing on opportunities that lay ahead, contestants do not have to abandon the idea that they are talented and that their talent will someday be rewarded. According to Goffman, one popular cooling out strategy involves offering marks “a status which differs from the one he has lost or failed to gain but which provides at least a something or a somebody for him to become” (1952:458). In light of their loss, some contestants emphasized that they have good opportunities outside of American Idol. A few planned to audition for other television talent shows. Others highlighted their potential for success in related performing arts venues, such as in musical theater or independent music production. When I asked Jim how he felt after his loss at Idol, he discussed his bright future on Broadway:
Jim: I've worked with voice teachers who have sung all over the world in operas, who trained Broadway stars in New York City, who judged talent in Miss America, and who are phenomenal and have so many connections. So, I know that with their support, that they said I have the talent to be a leading man in New York City … So, I know I have a good future if I keep on working hard.
While he may not be the American Idol this season, Jim's previous accomplishments tell him that he has other promising opportunities open to him outside of the show.
However, my respondents more often emphasized returning to American Idol when discussing future opportunities. This finding challenges Goffman's assertion that offering marks another chance to quality for the same role they lost is not a popular cooling out strategy: “In general, it seems that third and fourth chances are seldom given to marks, and that second chances, while often given, are seldom taken” (1952:458). Idol contestants are allowed to audition in every city, year after year, as long as they are in the eligible age range. Among my forty-three interviewees, thirty-eight commented on whether or not they would audition again. Among these thirty-eight, all but four said they would audition again, fourteen were actively planning to come back either the same year or for the next season, and seven had already auditioned more than once.
The opportunity to audition for Idol over and over again helped contents cool out. Alisha immediately planned to audition again after her failed effort in Orlando. When I asked her how she felt after her audition, she said, “I felt bad, but I was like, I'm not going to cry. I'll just come back.” Similarly, Katie had previously auditioned once before I met her at the New Jersey auditions. She enjoyed some success in her previous effort, advancing a few rounds to the point of seeing the celebrity judges, but did not make it to Hollywood. She said that immediately after she was cut she knew she would audition again: “I wasn't defeated or anything. I just have to keep my head up and try again.”
Having the opportunity to audition again resonated with contestants due to their belief in the meritocratic ideal that hard work and perseverance will bring them success. According to Lora, who had auditioned twice before I met her, “If you really want something, you don't want to give up on it. You want to keep trying. So, until I'm too old to audition, then maybe that'll stop me.” Contestants believed in not giving up despite setbacks. Dan had auditioned in Boston a month before I met him in Orlando. He explains why he decided to return:
Dan: There was a quote that I really liked I saw a while ago. It says, “It takes courage to have a dream and determination to make it come true.” And I feel like, well yeah, I didn't make it in Boston but now that I know what it's like, I've been through the experience and know what to expect, then I should keep going for it until I get it.
Dan frames his previous pervious failure as a learning experience, so that now knowing “what to expect” he is even more confident. Rather than becoming defeated, he finds inspiration in neoliberal ideology, a belief that with grit and determination his dreams can come true.
Idol producers supported similar ideals when interacting with contestants at the auditions. On audition day in New Jersey, contestants and their supporters were gathered in the stadium stands as a music director warmed up and directed the crowd in singing, cheering, and chanting in unison for the cameras. He preemptively cooled out the contestants:
“The hard part about today is that for some of you it's gonna be a no. But the truth is if this is really what you want to do, this doesn't mean that this is the end of your dream. It just means today is no to one of the many auditions to get to where you're trying to go, yeah?” The crowd cheers. “So, I said that to say that, when we tell you no, we're not gonna argue. It's just a no, alright? But that's ok, cause you take it, move on, and get better. Don't get bitter, get better, alright? Yeah?” The crowd cheers. I am sitting beside Lisa and her mother, who are listening attentively. Lisa's mom turns to her with a knowing look, and Lisa nods in sober understanding. (Fieldnotes)
The music director cools out contestants, making sure they don't become argumentative with the judges, by telling them that they have many audition opportunities ahead of them, and that to reach their goals they should strive for self-improvement. Evidently this rhetoric resonated with audition attendees, such as Lisa, her mother, and the cheering crowd.
Likewise, when delivering their verdicts, Idol judges, although brief, are polite and encouraging, typically telling contestants that they have nice voices but are “not quite strong enough” for the current season. Without saying more, such statements leave the door open for contestants to improve and come back for future seasons. I did not see, nor did my respondents witness, any judges telling contestants that they lacked talent or otherwise actively discourage people from pursuing their dreams. On the other hand, respondents did report judges encouraging them to return. Tammy describes what the judges told her group:
Tammy: They didn't want anyone from my group of four. We all sang once. That was it. And they called us up and said, “We appreciate you trying out today. Thank you for all of your hard work, and we'd like to see some more stage presence from all of you and we hope you practice and come back next year.”
For Tammy and other contestants, judges acted as coolers by affirming contestants' potential and inviting them to take another chance to audition. While doing so, they draw on meritocratic ideals, telling contestants that with some more work they can succeed in the future.
Contestants' friends and family also acted as coolers by encouraging them to take another chance and audition again. Dan, who previously auditioned once, said that his friends were supportive of his efforts to return:
Dan: People were nice. They were telling me that Jordan Sparks got rejected in three states before she made it through the first round … Somebody who won got rejected three times before she made it through.
Several respondents relayed the tale of Idol winner Jordan Sparks not making it through the first round of auditions, traveling from city to city before eventually making it through and winning. Such stories encourage contestants to have perseverance. Other contestants' supporters actively pushed them into trying again. Omar describes his mother's galvanizing efforts:
Omar: First audition I went to was in Dallas. Me and my mom and family drove to Dallas, didn't make it there. We came back. Mom said, “How about you just go to Orlando?” So she bought tickets and we went to Orlando took two days, then I didn't make it there… I went home like, oh my goodness, I don't know if they'll even pick me because they keep on rejecting me. But my mom was like, “No, you have to go to Denver.”
Omar's mother paid for his transportation and arranged his accommodations, materially allowing him to try again. But equally important, when Omar was feeling discouraged, she taught him that despite facing rejection he should have perseverance and not give up on his dreams.
ACCOUNTING FOR FAILURE
The final set of cooling out strategies I will discuss include ways marks and their coolers account for loss. Scott and Lyman refer to accounts as the discursive means through which people save face by explaining and justifying untoward behavior (1968). Idol contestants use accounts to help explain why they were cut or why they might be cut from the competition. They save face by attributing their losses to reasons other than a lack of talent. Particularly, some contestants attributed loss to (1) idiosyncrasies and biases in judging procedures and standards that impaired judges' ability to evaluate accurately and fairly. Contestants also explained that they were cut because (2) they did not sing to their full potential, reasoning that they were cut due to temporary or correctable mishaps.
Accounts are not simply face-saving strategies, but also are part of a cultural tool kit that helps guide future action (Doering 2010; Swidler 1986). As previously discussed, Idol contestants are roped into auditioning through discourses of meritocracy that give them confidence in their own talents and hope that they will be recognized. Accounts help contestants sustain these beliefs, despite their loss being evidence to the contrary. Offering failed contestants future opportunities as performers was a particularly salient cooling out strategy for my respondents. Contestants used accounts to explain why it is reasonable to persevere and take future opportunities. In this section, I will describe the two accounting strategies I listed above, and discuss how contestants use them not only to save face, but also to make sense of future opportunities, especially the chance to audition for Idol again.
Judging Idiosyncrasies and Biases
Contestants attributed loss to idiosyncrasies in judging procedures that impaired judges' abilities to evaluate accurately and fairly. One contestant mentioned that she was unfairly evaluated because she sang for only one judge, while others were evaluated by two or three. Several contestants theorized that people who auditioned at certain times in the day had higher or lower chances of success. Meredith believes her loss was due to auditioning late in the day.
Meredith: By that point I think the judges didn't give a crap anymore… He was like looking all over the place… it just seemed like he didn't care. He wasn't going to put anyone through no matter how they sang, it seemed like. He wasn't even listening.
Meredith externalizes blame for her failure, reasoning that she was not given a fair shot due to her late audition slot, a result of Idol's particular judging procedures, rather than because she did not display a sufficient level of talent.
Contestants also attributed loss to what they believed were biases in judges' evaluative standards, reasoning that they did not fit judges' specific criteria at the time:
Beth: Obviously, it's not so much about whether or not I'm good enough. It's about what they're actually looking for. I may not be what they're looking for.
Some contestants claimed that individual judges, audition cities, or seasons of the show either favored or would only select singers in some pre-specified genre. R&B singer Ellen told me she heard a rumor that “This year American Idol is looking more for like a rock, like a rock pop type,” which put her at a disadvantage.
Many contestants believed that judges were biased in favor of “bad singers.” Home television audiences see not only great singers perform for the celebrity judges, but also horrible singers and a motley crew of costumed characters. Going through the audition process, Idol contestants learned that not only the best but also “bad” singers are chosen to advance to the celebrity judges round. Most respondents hated the idea that people might advance for reasons unrelated to their vocal ability, because they were taking opportunities away from “good singers” who were more deserving:
Maria: I did have a friend that was able to go to the next level… she's not a great singer. She did it because of performance. She wore a crazy outfit. And it was shocking like, why would you come out looking like that? So, when she made it, that was like so not fair… I thought it was a silly thing like this audition is ridiculous. How is it that people dressed up in the lobster suit, pimp suit, and different outfits are capable of going to the next level, when you have really good performers and singers that are talented that didn't make it?
While contestants bemoaned the success of “bad singers” as an affront to their meritocratic ideals, they were also able to use this perceived bias in their accounts as evidence that they are talented despite losing. Contestants reasoned that they might have succeeded if “bad singers” were not taking spots away from good singers.
Kurt: At first there were a lot of good, normal people [getting through], and then after a while, like, by the time I got up there, it felt like—I don't know if I am just making up excuses for me not making it, but I felt like they were just letting the psycho people through.
Similarly, Damon suggests that he may have been cut because he did not fit judges' desires to increase ratings with “bad singers”:
Damon: There was a girl in there, no kidding, rubber boots, this shirt that kind of fell off her and bra strap, whatever … And all of a sudden she starts interviewing with this news reporter lady and then she starts singing … She totally sucked. Then later on when I was sitting down, I watched her go through. I was like, wow. It's just like all it is is ratings… makes me feel like [the judges saw me and thought] this guys too good. We can't let him go, cause he won't do good for ratings, because he's too good.
Damon spoke somewhat facetiously. Contestants do not believe that judges purposefully turn away all great singers. But rather they reason that letting in bad singers, along with other idiosyncrasies of the judging process, reduced the chances that good singers, including themselves, could succeed.
Because biases in judging standards are a direct affront to contestants' meritocratic ideals, and evidence against their being able to succeed in the competition, some contestants used such accounts as justification for not auditioning again for American Idol. However, because such accounts also helped them sustain a belief in their own talents, contestants who would not return to Idol still remained hopeful for other future opportunities. After he was cut in Orlando, I asked Jim if he would audition for the show again:
Jim: I don't think so for American Idol. I think the audition processes are not very fair. You don't stand a chance to really—you're comparing yourself against their decision and their frugal mentality about what they want. I mean, I don't really know what another reality show's auditions are like—America's Got Talent—but those auditions feel like they're a little bit more fair and a little bit more legit. I considered doing that show. But as far as American Idol goes, I think I don't think I'll be doing anything … It wasn't based on talent. It was based on luck … I mean, you can clearly tell they were just kind of flipping a coin.
Jim says he would not return to Idol auditions because the auditions are based on luck rather than talent. However, he continues to have confidence in himself as a performer, and considers taking other opportunities in the future that might be more meritocratic like America's Got Talent.
Most contestants acknowledged and were frustrated about idiosyncrasies and biases in judging procedures, but rationalized returning to the competition by focusing on how although imperfections in judging reduced their chances, there was still some possibility for success. Maria, who criticized “people dressed up in the lobster suit, pimp suit, and different outfits,” ultimately decided to audition again after speaking with a friend who had also previously auditioned and planned to return. She describes their conversation about returning:
Maria: I'm like, “Why? You told me before you didn't want to do it ever again and now you're doing it again?” So, of course, you know, she was like, “No, I am. I'm gonna try again cause you never know.” And I said, “Ok, then me too.”
Maria and her friend decided to return, despite believing that judging was imperfect, because “you never know.” Similarly, when I spoke with Lisa prior to her audition as she observed the proceedings in the stadium:
Lisa: I was expecting that they let people that are crazy and can't even sing through just—I think it's just for the money, definitely. I was expecting this, but you gotta give it your all. See what you get. And if not, you can always come back next year.
While acknowledging certain biases in judging standards, contestants still believe they have some chance at succeeding based on talent. They retain the belief that the competition is largely meritocratic, reasoning that despite needing a few “crazy” people for ratings, judges still look for good singers as well. When I later asked Lisa how she thought someone could succeed at the auditions, she replied, “I think you have to be a good singer. I think you have to be confident in what you sing, and impress the judges.”
Another strategy contestants used to account for loss involved insisting that they did not perform to their full potential. These accounts helped contestants save face by highlighting how their loss was not due to a lack of talent, but rather their talent was unrealized at the time of the audition. According to Lauren, “My voice isn't what it used to be because I'm a coxswain on the rowing team, so I'm the one who yells at ‘em. So, my voice has been shot.” Lauren infers that if she were not a coxswain at the time of the auditions she might have made it. Similarly, Wes claimed he did not perform at his best due to the rule that contestants could not use musical instruments: “I did not sing as good as I could. They didn't let me play guitar and I never sing without a guitar. It was really uncomfortable.” A few claimed that weather conditions hindered their performances. Before I met him in Orlando, Dan auditioned in Boston where there was pouring rain on audition day:
Dan: My shirt and my jeans, everything weighed about ten pounds on me because it was soaking wet… The other thing was that it was cold, freezing. I'm a warm person, like I'm cold all the time. So, I think that was a factor. If it was the weather like it is today, I would be excited and dancing and all out for it but because I was so cold and it was rainy and miserable, it was like I just want to get in there, sing, and get out.
Focusing on unrealized potential to account for loss resonated with many contestants because it squared with their meritocratic ideals. Contestants paired their accounts of failure with discourses related to self-improvement and perseverance in the face of loss. Although some contestants like Dan attributed their unrealized potential to forces outside of their control, such as the weather, they also believed that they needed to improve themselves and work harder in order to do well at American Idol and elsewhere in their careers as performers. Admitting to one's own weaknesses and need for self-improvement might seem counterintuitive as a face-saving strategy, but contestants used theses discourses to highlight their potential: Their loss did not signify a lack of intrinsic talent. Rather, the mistakes that caused their loss were temporary kinks that they could work out. They have unrealized potential that once fulfilled through hard work and persistence would allow them to reach their dreams. For example, Ellen told me she was cut because she “messed up” and did not hit her high notes because she was nervous, a mistake she might have avoided with more practice.
Ellen: You definitely have to be prepared. Really, really, really prepared because, um, even if you're good you might just mess up. You just might not—if something goes wrong you gotta be really prepared because you just have to really, really practice before you go. And I wish that I had practiced even more than I did, you know?
Ellen believes that her loss was due to her lack of preparation, rather than her lack of talent. According to such logic, even people who are good singers can mess up.
Idol judges helped perpetuate the idea that contestants had potential that could be realized through practice and perseverance. Contestants used positive feedback from judges to help construct an account of their loss as barely missing the mark. According to Mike, who was cut in the first round in Orlando:
Mike: [I] almost got in. Seeing, you know, everyone gets their fifteen seconds then they cut you off. And they asked me to sing another song after that. They called over another judge and asked me to sing that song again. So I sang it three times. And the guy next to me said, “Yeah, you're going to make it.” Then I was like, “I hope so.” Then they called us all up, said, “We're all looking for something a bit different.” I was like, dang it, so close. But it went good. I learned a lot. Had a good time. And I felt so fantastic about it. You know, I think I could've put more time and effort into preparing my—not appearance but my performance. You know what I mean? I think I may have been a little awkward because I didn't focus on that. I just focused completely on vocal.
Although the judges did not give him verbal feedback, Mike interprets their wanting to hear him sing multiple times as evidence of his vocal talent. He believes that if only he had put more effort into practicing his showmanship he could have advanced. Alisha was also given positive feedback:
Alisha: I was the only one in my group to get a review, because you go up there with the four, but I didn't make it to the second round, but the lady she said for me she'd definitely like to see me back next year just because I had good tone and good control but I just needed to work on projection and my stage presence because I looked more nervous than I really was and I don't sing very loud… she wants me to start singing louder.
Alisha's judge supplied her with an account of her loss that preserved her identity as a talented singer. She has “good tone” and “good control” and only needs to practice and improve her nerves and projection to find success.
Contestants used accounts of their unrealized potential to explain why it is reasonable to persevere and take future opportunities, continuing to strive for their dreams of becoming singers. Mike and Alisha were both certain they wanted to audition again because they believed that after improving themselves they stood a good chance of making it to the next round. According to Alisha:
Alisha: I'll take some voice lessons and meet with a vocal coach. See what they think. See what songs fit my voice to show that I do have talent and to make sure I have the right song. And the reason why I want to go again is because the lady when she gave me her review kind of gave me like a more of a confidence or ego push because she knows—she feels if I had confidence and change a couple of things then I would have a chance.
Similarly, Kevin cooled himself out by accounting for his loss as something he could rectify through more practice and preparation. He describes how he felt during the week and a half following his audition:
Kevin: There were possibilities behind my rejection… A, I was bad and I had to face it, that the constant praise I received from friends and family were illusions of my mother seeing the best of me, or people lying to me to make me feel better. I could believe this and my heart would crush knowing that I sucked at my one true passion. B, that I was good and was not right for the show. That I chose a song that was too Broadway and that wasn't what they were looking for. To believe this, it would make me hopeful for a second audition. C, that I was good and not even near close enough to be the next American Idol. This belief would drain my hope, and diminish my passion… It took me a lot of time to realize that it is B.
Kevin told me he had definite plans to audition again, explaining, “I don't give up on a firm belief. But I will practice, prepare, and search for a better song.” By accounting for his loss as due to choosing the wrong song, Kevin was able to maintain a “firm belief” that he is talented and that that his talents will be rewarded given hard work and perseverance.
American Idol contestants believe that they should audition for the show and continue to persevere after rejection because they are embedded in interactional contexts that affirm their ideals. Like marks in a traditional confidence game who are fooled into throwing money toward a false gamble, Idol contestants throw hopes and dreams into auditions with statistically minuscule chances of success. Rejection from the competition is an affront to contestants' identities as talented singers, and they cope with this loss of face through cooling out strategies that include (1) venting emotions, (2) minimizing the significance of their investment in the competition, and (3) focusing on taking future opportunities. The meritocratic ideals that drew them to audition shape how contestants cope with their loss, especially by making auditioning for Idol again a particularly attractive cooling out strategy. Accounts drawing on such ideals help contestants maintain their identities as talented singers who should reasonably except to find success in the future. Thus, culture—in this case meritocratic values—influences how salient cooling out strategies are for particular marks, and accounts are mechanisms through which broader cultural values are sustained during the cooling out process.
Besides extending sociological research on cooling out, this paper contributes to literature in the sociology of fame and celebrity. In response to recent calls for research investigating the micro-level dynamics of celebrity (Ferris 2010; Ferris and Harris 2011), I focus on the social psychological experience of fame seeking. Gamson (1994) finds that the idea of celebrity as a product of industrial manufacture is becoming increasingly prominent in relation to ones that explain celebrity as a product of hard work or true talent. However, his analysis rests primarily on celebrity texts, audiences, and interviews with publicists and other professionals who make decisions about celebrity media content. He focuses less on the experiences of aspiring celebrities themselves, who may be more concerned about achieving fame through merit, since their claims to fame are part of their personal biographies and thus likely contribute to their sense of self-worth. My respondents cared deeply about being seen as talented and being rewarded for their merits. The American Dream, the possibility of social mobility through hard work and merit, has historically been a prominent message in celebrity text and imagery (Sternheimer 2011), like it is on American Idol (Meizel 2011). Therefore, although more research is needed, it is reasonable to hypothesize that the cooling out strategies and the value of talent, persistence, and self-improvement among Idol contestants may be important for how aspiring celebrities make meaning of their career failures in other contexts.
Finally, beyond the topics of reality TV and celebrity, perseverance in the face of loss, and thus cooling out and accounting strategies similar to those I have described, might be increasingly important among workers in developed nations due to increasingly precarious and uncertain labor conditions. Neoliberal economics have made project based, contractual, and temporary labor—and thus job loss and the constant need to continue job searching—more and more prevalent. This is especially the case in the media and cultural industries, where workers frequently trade stability for the opportunity to work in what they believe to be creative, cool, fun, or glamorous jobs (Duffy 2015; Hesmondhalgh 2012; McRobbie 2002; Neff, Wissinger, and Zukin 2005). In line with recent efforts to understand the subjective and emotional responses of cultural industry workers to their economic conditions (Hesmondhalgh and Baker 2008, 2010; Wei 2012), cooling out and accounts can serve as useful concepts for future analyses of workers striving and failing to realize their creative talents.
I would like to thank the participants of the study for generously sharing their experiences. I also thank David Grazian, Randall Collins, Robin Leidner, Melissa Wilde, Guobin Yang, and the anonymous reviewer and editorial team at Symbolic Interaction for providing helpful comments as I developed the paper.
The numbers of contestants listed are based on my own estimates and an informal interview with the supervising producer at Idol auditions the years I attended.
Junhow Wei is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. His current research focuses on the production of media and popular culture. His dissertation is an ethnographic study discussing self, identity, and cultural value in the context of creating new reality television shows.