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TV Review: American Idol 6 – Simon Cowell and the Bush Babies

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In 2003, the Department of Defense did a study to see what percentage of Americans between 16 and 23 would be eligible for the armed forces. It turned out that more than half of Americans that age would not meet the minimum requirements for entry. More than half of young Americans are either too obese, have a criminal record, a medical/mental condition, or haven't made it through high school. So what's this have to do with American Idol?

First, if you watch the auditions, they make it look like every young American who couldn't qualify for the armed forces showed up in stadiums and convention centers across America to try out for American Idol. Am I the only one who remembers back when judges used to sentence young people who maybe took a car out for a joy ride by offering them a choice of jail or enlisting? In fact, those are the exact circumstances that got Jimi Hendrix into the 86th Airborne. He was discharged about a year later after pretending to be gay.

Second, while everyone is talking about their "view" on Simon's "Bush Baby" comments (more about that later), no one seems to be talking about the other "Bush Baby" business. What's up with all the active duty people on reality TV lately?

Okay, a sample of three isn't exactly huge, but The Bachelor turns up a Navy doctor in Andy Baldwin, who gets time off not only to hang out in hot tubs and go on romantic one-on-one dates for Mike Fleiss, but also gets time to train for and compete in triathlons between duty assignments in Laos. Somehow, American Idol's Minneapolis audition turns up not one but two aspirants who show up in uniform.

One of them even serves on an aircraft carrier called, as it happens, the USS Ronald W. Reagan. This comes replete with some of the footage from the President's Mission Accomplished spectacular from a mere four years ago this May (boy, time flies literally and figuratively). As it happens, both armed forces singers who both sounded okay but not especially great happen to get sent to Hollywood because, in Simon's words, "America will love them."

Am I the only one who sees this stuff as a not so subtle embedded armed forces recruiting advertisement as in "Enlist now and see you won't get sent to Iraq, we'll even give you time to spend maybe four months on a reality TV show. Even if you serve on an aircraft carrier, we get to do morale builders like have Reagan Idol contests." So, what is the exact relationship between the FOX Network and FOX News?

Armed Forces recruiting product placements aren't that far-fetched. You do remember Armstrong Williams and the Lincoln Group's activities with the newly "free but paid for" press in Iraq? They do have people who sing who happen to be involved with, say, Gold Star Families Against the War, developing electric cars, suing cigarette companies, or teaching people the scientific facts about global warming. I've certainly been to rallies for things like this where someone gets up to inspire the crowd and sings pretty well. How come none of those back stories get on American Idol?

I do wish the various active duty service people on the show well on an indivdiual basis, but the Bush Baby thing that people should be screaming about is the sudden appearance of these happy singing active duty service people on reality TV.

So, say I'm one of those reservists who suddenly got a third tour of duty in Iraq and have discovered that an eight-year commitment really means the possibility of eight years of active duty. I flip on the TV and see Captain Andy surrounded by 24 attractive women in camo bikinis and these people in uniform in a setting where the scariest thing is Simon Cowell insulting your looks and voice. I'm going to say, "Wow, that's fair. The President wants 30,000 more of us to live in 24/7 fear of IEDs and you're getting four months off to be on a singing show? Hey, I feel good about this."

I should say though that life and war just aren't fair. Look at Ronald Reagan. He spent World War II shooting recruitment promos in Hollywood, then forty years later got to tell people that he spent time liberating concentration camps. Have we named any aircraft carriers for people who liberated concentration camps, by the way?

Okay, sorry to go so political, but tell me there's no creepy subtext with this stuff. To quote a famous pacificst and former Air National Guard member, "Bring 'em on!" By the way… why is it again that we're supposed to trust that guy with our children's lives and futures?

Back to the whole state of America's young adults thing. If you base your view of reality of on AI auditions, you would conclude that America consists of about three people who can sing and what appears to be 99,000 delusional and/or compromised people who all happen to tone deaf. The rest are either the world's worst sports or mentally unstable. If I were, say, a terrorist watching TV from a cave in the Khyber pass while wiring up Improvised Exposive Devices made from C4 rescued from unguarded munitions dumps, I'd actually be pretty encouraged. Despite the patriotic recruiting ad material, the FOX Network is letting our enemies know that America is vulnerable because most of its people are idiots.

I know it really isn't the case that there are maybe five people a year in this country who can sing like Kellie Pickler. I've heard church choirs, gone to school productions, even attended random talent shows. Singing is a rare talent, yes, but even little towns – not to mention places like Seattle and Minneapolis – have at least five people who sing well enough so that you'll want to listen to them. Also, most of the rest of us who don't sing so well are perfectly aware that thse other five people in town are a lot better singers than we are. Aren't there as many gracious individuals at these auditions as there are borderline psychotic poor sports and deluded ones at that? Again, what is the FOX Network trying to tell us about us and why the hell are we liking it so much?

In the meantime, if you want a nicely written article on how "unreal" the audition process is, I strongly recommend Whitney Henry's article. As she puts it, "You're trying out for reality TV, it's not a talent tryout." Her MP3 attached to the article also speaks volumes. She clearly sings better than many of the "America will love you" types who get sent to Hollywood.

Frankly, I think genuine acts of kindness between strangers makes for great reality TV. Instead, AI makes fun of it. Let's back up to the monumental tastelessness of the other Bush Baby and large pantsed Friend, aka Kenneth Briggs and Jonathan Jayne. It turns out that Kenneth Briggs is mildly autistic. Nick Zitzmann who unchained the melody and agonized over the difference between being from "around" the SLC area and being "from" the SLC area also appeared to be on the autism spectrum (I don't know, nor do I know if it was also maybe an act). There's no question that AI jumped the line into simply mocking people for being disabled.

Yes, we do laugh at the cluelessness of Napoleon Dynamite and Borat, but we're not mocking real people, just characters played by actors. Paula, Randy, and Simon claim to be America's musical tastemakers. Is it now okay for Americans to openly laugh at the disabled? People complain about The Simpsons and South Park. Geez, people even get offended when Barbara Boxer mentions that Condi doesn't have children. If America is going to be the country that revels in humiliating the disabled on national television, I'm going to start rooting for Al Qaeda. When they tell us that we are corrupt, godless, and venal, it isn't always just about our letting women wear short dresses in public and encouraging them to go to school. They might have a point.

Ironically, music has traditionally been a forum where differences don't matter. We see any number of AI hopefuls sing Stevie Wonder, has anyone who actually was blind ever made the Hollywood rounds? American Idol's notion of Ray Charles is to swipe the sound and even the jerky movements and turn him into a sighted white guy from a suburb of Birmingham. They actually could have taken exactly the same material, Jonathan Jayne choosing to sing a song like "America the Beautiful", and made it a heartfelt patriotic moment that might have been even better TV. The same thing is true with Jayne and Briggs's apparent decision to join up that day. Take out the laugh track, kill Ryan's commentary, the sitcom music, and the footage is genuinely touching and inspiring in its way. Unfortunately, that would have taken the kind of imagination and subtlety that most reality TV lacks.

Saddest of all, being proud of being American doesn't seem to be on the actual agenda for American Idol 6. Given the incredible popularity of the show, I'd argue that the producers in this mode are as dangerous to what's important about America as any terrorists.

Random Notes:

I really liked the brother and sister who were  AI's take on if Norah Jones (Ravi Shankar's daughter) had a brother who sang, too. Again, is it the smarminess of the show that wants to bring on the whole sibling rivalry thing? Hey, let's see if the quest for fame can destroy an actual family. If they want to do that, why not just bring back the Brittenum twins?

The girl whose father was an NFL cornerback sounded very good. She may be the only one so far who's a lock for the final 24.

The thing that bothered me with the lady who was 6'4" tall and sort of shouted her way through "Respect", though pretty well, was that Simon's "giraffe" comment was so obviously calculated to reprise that whole Mandisa "need a bigger stage" thing from last year. I suppose they have an extra mean streak for African-American women who don't look like Beyonce. Remember how Simon kept harping on Jennifer Hudson not having the look to be the Idol? Whatever happened to her anyway?

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About Chancelucky

  • mcewen

    Borat – best laugh I’ve had in months.

  • Patsy

    I have a disabled son. He also looks “different”. What Simon said to that young man was dispicable. I haven’t been this angry in a LONG time..

  • handyguy

    Up to now, I had completely avoided Idol, but decided to tune in this season to see what all the fuss and zeitgeist is about. It turns out that I found the first two audition shows irresistibly awful, like a train wreck. Intending just to sample, I watched every appalling second. And I kept wondering: Didn’t anyone, a friend or a relative, try to talk these people out of it? Doesn’t anyone care enough to tell them they’re about to make fools of themselves on national television?

    This would certainly apply to Mr. Jayne and Mr. Briggs. It’s not like Simon Cowell’s Mr. Acid-Tongue act is a secret. [And it is just that, a comedy routine.] Anyone who goes on the show must know what’s in store.

  • chancelucky

    thanks for reading it.

    I have a disabled family member as well, who actually doesn’t look different, but who could easily have wandered into a situation like this.

    I think there are those who should know better and there are those who maybe can’t know how it’s going to be played. I’m not that worried about the former. I do find myself angry about the latter. For instance, I thought the bit with Randy Jackson insulting the music teacher was in bounds. The Kenneth Briggs and Jonathan Jayne segment was clearly wrong in so many ways. As I said, I would have happily watched their auditions, it’s just the way they treated the material.

  • Kaonashi

    Oh, please. Anyone who is trying out for American Idol should know by now what’s in store for them. AI has been around for 6 years, after all. If you don’t want to possibly be humiliated on television, if you don’t want your dreams shattered, then DO NOT TRY OUT FOR AMERICAN IDOL. Only the strong need apply.

    Anyone who tries out for the show and is torn to pieces by the judges has only themselves and/or their family members to blame. They are asking for it. Where was Jonathan Jayne’s family members to warn him not to appear on the show? Did they seriously think that he would be pitied and given special treatment? Or perhaps they were hoping to spawn another William Hung and profit off Jonathan?

  • chancelucky

    Uh, this is a little tricky because I don’t know anything about Jonathan Jayne’s and whether he actually has any kind of condition. I can however say that I deal with these issues a lot professionally.

    There are a lot of very compromised individuals who at some level are “easy marks”. They aren’t so compromised that it rises to the level of needing to declar a conservatorship, but they are dependent on the good will and good hearts of the people they happen to run into.

    AI could have treated them respectfully and shown footage of them or they needed to consider not showing them at all. I think if you work with individuals with TBI, developmental delay, autism, etc., you do learn that not everyone can be expected to take responsibility for all of their choices, because in some sense for people with certain disabilities they’re simply not choices in the sense that many of us think of choices.

  • Kaonashi

    I don’t think that the producers can tell if anyone has a special condition. I recently read an article on MSNBC about a girl who tried out. According to her, the contestants don’t even get to see Randy, Paula, and Simon on the first level of tryouts. In her case, there were about 10,000 people and 12 pairs of judges, one of which is a producer. Each person has about 15-20 seconds to impress the judges.

    Consider then, that these judges select not just people who are actually good, but those who will make great TV fodder- truly tone deaf people, people in costume, people who are good and have sob stories, and yes, different looking people. The judges have only 20 seconds to meet each person, so they can’t really tell if someone is different looking because of some condition, or because they just plain look odd. Incidentally, the girl who wrote the article didn’t make it, most likely because she didn’t stand out.

    And for the record, I don’t think that the guy who Simon called a “Bush Baby” has any sort of condition. In fact, he was arrogant and egotistical, even before appearing in front of the judges. He just looked different.

  • chancelucky

    fwiw, the article you’re referring to is already linked in this post (Whitney Henry)

    According to the Seattle Times, Kenneth Briggs is indeed on the autism spectrum.

    If the auditions were live, I might agree with you, but they have several weeks to look at the tape. I know a number of people who work with these conditions on a regular basis. Actually, you often can tell very quickly.

  • tink

    Here’s my take on the situation.

    1–very valid point is that this is not the first season that Idol is on. Not one participant should be unaware of the parameters of the show. Not even those claiming to have never seen it before.

    2–And this is a point that I believe not many have brought out in any discussion regarding this matter: No one appears on the show that has not signed a binding contract. If, due to a disability, a person is not competent to sign the contract themselves, then they surely have a representative in charge of doing such for them.

    In other words, there is no validity to the ‘I didn’t know/didn’t sign up for this’ mentality…regardless of age or other circumstances.

  • chancelucky

    The contract issue is something of a legal fiction. First, conservatorships present a very tricky disabled rights issue. Many individuals with emotional/mental disabilities want the dignity of being able to make decisions as “adults”. This does not mean that there aren’t situations where they can be taken advantage of.
    It’s one reason that many states have 3 day cooling off periods for certain kinds of sales.

    Simply because I got even a competent individual to sign rights away also is not an excuse for exploiting that individual. I know this defense works in the porn industry, but I would think the Fox Network observesa a higher ethical standard.

    I do know autism and TBI fairly well. Both often have an impact on what they call “executive function”. Essentially, it wouldn’t matter if an affected individual had seen earlier seasons, they wouldn’t be making an informed decision at the level that you have in mind.

  • Kaonashi

    fwiw, the article you’re referring to is already linked in this post (Whitney Henry)

    Oops! Yeah that’s right. I forgot that you actually referenced it.

    I know a number of people who work with these conditions on a regular basis. Actually, you often can tell very quickly.

    Ah, see, that’s the thing. You can tell because you have experience working with such people. And yes, people with certain conditions such as Down’s Syndrome have telltale facial characteristics. However, most people without the knowledge, or experience working with such people can’t tell the difference.

    I couldn’t tell that Kenneth Briggs can be classified as autistic. He seemed to be mentally capable of making his own decisions. Like I said, he even came across as arrogant and cocky, just like many of the other deluded contestants. To me, he just looked different. Consider William Hung. He didn’t look like a superstar either, but he didn’t have a special condition. He was an Engineering student at Berkeley.

    If the general public can’t tell the difference, then certainly not a TV show producer/judge whose only goal is to find people for the show. Yes, I’m sure they go through all the footage they have of the contestants, but unless a medical expert is in the room with them while they look at the footage, they won’t be able to tell.

    I would think the Fox Network observes a higher ethical standard.

    HA HA HA HA HA!!!! With all due respect, this is Fox we’re talking about, remember?

  • chancelucky


    It’s really not that hard. One thing I do want to clear up is that people on the autism spectrum are often perfectly intelligent. In fact, those on the asperger’s end can be much more intelligent than average in conventionally-measrued realms. Oddly, many engineers and programmers often do have asperger’s. The disability is really about the inability to make social judgment and to approach the real world flexibly. Anyway, it’s one of the reasons that my product reference is to Lawrence Osborne’s book, American Normal.

    fwiw, there are also many individuals on the spectrum who are also developmentally-delayed.

    I almost revised my article to talk some about the difference between William Hung and this year’s auditions. I always got the impression that William Hung came across rather well. He couldn’t sing well and maybe didn’t know it at the time, but the reason he caught on was that he was so good natured with the judges and essentially was a very good sport and arguably gracious about the rejection.

    I also never got the impression that William Hung had an identifiable disablility. The show in trying to catch the same magic seems to be letting some individuals who are quite possibly emotionally disturbed onto the show. The Seattle auditions likely had some folk who are on the autism spectrum. I do think a good producer of the most popular show in America could at a minimum hire an expert to look over the tape.

    It’s also possible that Jonathan Jaynes and Kenneth Briggs are having a great time right now. and are enjoying the attention. I honestly don’t know.

    I guess we are talking about Fox and yes, it’s quite possible that their ethics are no better than your average San Fernando Valley XXX film maker. In fact, we might be slighting XXX filmmakers, many of them are actually quite conscientious, by comparing them to Fox.

    Finally, I’d mention that AI and Simon have British roots and there’s long been a vein of lowbrow British entertainment that observes a very broad line when it comes to being mean, racist, insensitive.

  • Kaonashi

    I always found the William Hung phenomenon interesting. Yes, he was indeed very well-mannered and accepted the judges’ decision graciously, but so have many other rejected contestants before him. Not everyone threw a temper tantrum at Simon when he cut them down.

    You mention that it’s not hard to be able to tell who is mentally disabled, but in the same paragraph you say that many engineers and programmers have asperger’s. It’s likely that the co-workers of these people would not know this. Most likely, they’d just consider them to be antisocial, nerdy, or unfriendly.

    It’s also possible that Jonathan Jaynes and Kenneth Briggs are having a great time right now. and are enjoying the attention. I honestly don’t know.

    Considering that they’ve been appearing on talk shows, I suppose that they don’t mind this little slice of fame too much.

    By the way, I’ll willing to bet anything that FOX will capitalize on this by having Jaynes and Briggs appear during the season finale. It’s been done before (I think 2 years ago?), with two similar people. They ended up meeting their idol David Hasselhoff.

    I never considered the British perspective influencing the show. Yes, many TV shows from countries are much less PC than the U.S. Have you ever seen Japanese variety shows? Many are not only incredibly stupid, but extremely sexist. There are whole shows that do nothing but feature up-the-skirt shots of giggling young women.

  • chancelucky

    Yes, I can see them coming back for the finale, particularly now that the producers want to show that it was all in good fun.

    I’ve never watched a Japanese variety show, just excerpts. I know that Fear Factor was a copy of a Japanese show and fear factor is basically about stomping on any notions of taste, dignity, etc. It also would convince you that all American women have fake boobs.

  • Insensitivity training

    I guess if American Idol gave every freak banshee that wandered in an album deal there would be a lot more CD’s to incinerate on!

    I agree with Chancy, Idol needs to be more touchy feely. We are all delicate snowflakes.

  • jay the great

    1 – Jimi Hendrix was part of the 101st Army Airborne, not the 86th

    2 – He got an early discharge from the army because of a broken ankle and because he was a shitbag, but not because he pretended to be gay.

    3 – The author of this article is a dumbass

  • chancelucky

    the information came from the Hendrix biograophy. Roomful of Mirrors. It included a look at the army psychiatrist’s reports iirc.

    Hendrix told the army that he was gay and that he was masturbating constantly while fantasizing about his fellow soldiers. He was likely faking it at the time, but there’s also some reasonable claims that he had sex with men from time to time after he became more famous.
    He did also break his ankle, but that would have gotten him out of jumping duties int he 82nd airborne, it wouldn’t have gotten him discharged completely.

  • chancelucky

    You’re right about it being the 101st airborne, btw. I’m not good with unit numbers, but I suggest you take up the other stuff with the author of Roomful of Mirrors.

  • xxx

    why do we care again?

  • chancelucky

    two years after the fact, I’m not sure we do.