First of all, let me just get the confession out of the way. Yes, I watch American Idol. I blame my friend Rachel for getting me hooked, but I’ve thought long and hard before writing this about what it is about the mostly insipid reality show that appeals to me (and how I can justify it to you and to myself). I came to realize that it makes total sense that I enjoy it. I mean, yes, it’s about the contestants’ singing talent, but more than that, it’s about their stories. As a writer I am a hoarder of stories. I will get into deep conversations with a stranger online at the supermarket and leave having gathered a bit of their tale, a glimpse of their life (maybe I’m closer to a story vampire).
Well, American Idol is about watching and rooting for the people you get attached to and hissing at the ones that annoy the shit out of you. It’s about learning their stories, bit by bit every week, and feeling you know them. And this past week I have gotten very attached to the first Puerto Rican to make it to the top twelve (or this year, thirteen), Jorge Nuñez. But along with my attachment I’m also very concerned about the beginnings of what I see as the show’s Charo-ization of him.
If you aren’t familiar with the history, during the marathonish Hollywood week the judges told Jorge he should work on getting rid of his accent. That was bad enough; I for one was relieved to hear a slight (very slight) accent in his singing voice after years of Ricky Martins and Robi Rosas who have no discernible accents while singing in English. But then the poor guy works with a dialect coach, does a beautiful job of singing Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me,” and Simon says he should sing with his accent because it makes him different. ¡Ay Dios mío! But the worst part was yet to come…
After Simon’s 180 degree turn, Paula Abdul tells Jorge to speak so they can hear his accent as if he were a performing poodle or something. Not that anyone would say that Paula Abdul is the brightest bulb in the batch, but it sure raised my hackles. As my jaw fell to my chest I was reminded of Charo. A stretch, I know, but hear me out.
Charo is a comic footnote in the annals of American television. Forever known as the cuchi-cuchi woman from Laugh-In or The Love Boat, the curvy Spaniard was ghettoized before the term even existed. Most people don’t even realize she is one of the finest Flamenco guitar players in the world (she studied with Segovia). Yes, some of it was her own doing (marrying bandleader Xavier Cugat who was three times her age and her wild stage persona didn’t help her any), but it was the mockery of her accented English that molded the stereotypical celebrity she was to become. After this week it really hit home that we haven’t come very far from those debased 1970s variety shows. Especially when we are subjected to the other Puerto Rican contestant — the unbearably annoying, born-to-be-on-a-telenovela, Tatiana Del Toro — who in her wild card round/last ditch effort suddenly developed an accent since it seemed to work for Jorge.
Over the past few weeks we’ve gotten a glimpse into Jorge’s story. We know he auditioned because his recently deceased great-grandfather wanted him to. We know he has put his study of law on hold to take this journey. And we know he is inordinately proud of his island. In other words, many of us have already gotten attached to him. I for one would like to see Jorge Nuñez succeed on American Idol. Do I think he’s going to win? No, but I do think he has a stab at lasting a few weeks and building a career for himself. He is a lovely, open-hearted young man who I fear could be manipulated and molded by the music industry machine, an age-old and clichéd story, but one that happens every day to us Latinos. I know, I know, I’m getting melodramatic, but if you watched his eyes fill when he was voted into the top thirteen you undoubtedly feel as protective of him as I do.
So Jorge, take some advice from this Latina story-vampire who is older and hopefully wiser: sing proudly with your accent and dance however the music moves you. And do me a personal favor, the next time Paula asks you to speak so she can hear your accent, ask her to speak so we can all mock her ignorance. Oh wait, that already happens every week.