Why Vote for the Worst was just like American Idol

The web site Vote for the Worst announced on Sunday that it will shut down after nine years, following the end of American Idol‘s 12th season. Founder Dave Della Terza wrote that “American Idol is really no longer relevant” and proclaimed, “We helped kill American Idol, but even more so, American Idol helped kill itself by refusing to stay relevant.”

The site was founded in 2004 with a mission “to support voting for the entertaining contestants who the producers would hate to see win on American Idol. We vote en masse for the contestant that we feel provides the most entertaining performances that go against what the producers want in a winner and that annoy the viewing public.”

As a result of this antagonistic, welcome approach, Vote for the Worst–which never truly convinced enough viewers to vote for the worst singer–became a phenomenon despite being disconnected from its stated goal. Sound familiar?

Yes, it’s just like American Idol, which has persisted despite not finding an actual idol for years. (Arguably it’s only done so twice, with Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, though Jennifer Hudson is a non-winner who’s gone on to idol-level success.)

Vote for the Worst never truly convinced enough viewers of the show to keep the worst singers. Idol isn’t like Big Brother, where a large, potentially influential group of its fans are active online; it’s the reverse, actually. If VFTW’s members are truly convinced they’re responsible for Sanjaya Malakar or other awful singers advancing, that’s more the result of overestimating the power of a small community than that community’s actual impact.

Vote for the Worst was, however, excellent at promoting itself and getting attention. Sound familiar?

When a bad singer the site supported was voted off, that would seemingly illustrate the site’s inability to truly affect the show, but instead, it claimed victory and then cleverly switched to supporting a new person. It even cleverly floated conspiracy theories. Of course, the new target had survived on their own up to that point, meaning they already had considerable support–all the better to make Vote for the Worst seem powerful. The media lapped this up.

That both American Idol and Vote for the Worst succeeded despite not being successful at their stated missions wouldn’t be notable in either case if the media wasn’t so collectively awful at actually understanding this, instead viewing both through a bizarrely myopic lens that insisted Idol was only about singing and Vote for the Worst was responsible for wrecking that.

Both are laughable assertions. Idol is a television show that thrives on drama from its cast of regulars and new blood, generating news and cash year-round. Though it has been dethroned as television’s most-watched show, being number two isn’t bad, especially since it still remains a hit for a broadcast network when few broadcast networks have big hits that permeate our culture.

Vote for the Worst excelled at so much, particularly in its witty take-downs of the show and compelling arguments about the hollowness of the show’s rhetoric. Along the way, it aggregated and even broke news about the show.

More importantly, it formed a community of people passionate about hate-watching a show years before hate-watching became fashionable. Witnessing the end of a community is tragic, and Vote for the Worst will be missed, because dissident voices are always important, even–especially–when their target is American Idol.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.