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.
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?