August 14, 2014 3:06 PM EDT

Let’s be clear: this is not the All-Time 100 Best Music list—any crimes against your ears and radio this show has committed are beyond my responsibility. But as a TV show, for all its cheese, filler and loopiness, Idol has done something rather amazing: it’s taken musical performance and criticism and turned it into a sporting event second only to the Super Bowl. Ed Sullivan was about taste handed down to America (and if you’re gonna give Ed credit for the Beatles, you’ve gotta remember Topo Gigio too). Idol is about America’s taste percolating up. The fact that that taste, in a given year, is reliably pretty lousy is beside the point; turning aesthetic debate—Why Is This Thing Better Than That Thing—into America’s single remaining mass weekly entertainment is good in itself. Now if someone could just figure out how to do that for politics.

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