Even though we got a lot of mileage out of the first go round of American Idol, I had no intention of watching the show’s return. What’s the point? But 24 comes on at 9 and we turned on Fox early just to make sure we wouldn’t miss anything. The debut of Idol was on, and in fact preempted 24 for the week. Dawn wanted to see it, so I ended up watching it too.
My feelings about the show are mixed and function on a few different levels. As a production, the show was slick but not greasy; moved quickly enough to keep my interest; and had inherent drama in the hopes and dreams of singing aspirants and in the interplay between the judges Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson, and the hitman, Simon Cowell. As such it was mildly compelling and superficially entertaining. And for a reality show, at least the concept is relatively uncontrived: unknowns competing to be a pop star. No one ate donkey dung in Death Valley for a chance at cash and prizes.
BUT, I have to keep coming back to my age-old reality show complaint: these are real people and their emotional needs are being exploited for our voyeuristic amusement. Editing is always a subjective series of decisions, but is it coincidence that we saw either the best of the lot – those selected to move on to the next phase in Hollywood – or the very least talented in all their wretched glory?
And running counter to the overall tone of geniality (even Simon seemed defanged, his insults felt rote and impersonal, the evil gleam in his eye was dim) were moments of real cruelty: the deluded young man in Miami who was sure he would win because he had “had a dream,” and couldn’t wrap his head around the fact that his feral caterwauling did not earn him a trip to Hollywood. He rejcted the rejection and simply got back in line, when discovered there he lied, then when tossed onto the street he still managed a “see you in Hollywoooooooo…,” as the door slammed shut on his appearance and his dreams.
This was all on-camera, with running commentary from the host Ryan Seacrest: mental illness and self-image pathologies aren’t really all that funny and, being reality, life goes on beyond the slammed door. Is it appropriate for real people – some certifiable – to be humiliated for our collective amusement? I find it painful. The “it takes all sorts” glibness of the show rings false in the case of people with obvious and real issues.
I admit to a small thrill at seeing the ones who “have it”: the young, confident but not cocky, smiling faces who seize their moment in front of the judges and run with it as opposed to the masses who are scared shitless (or the deluded, but we’ve already talked about them) and flapping in the breeze. But the best moment in the show was also its most “real”: A&R man Jackson didn’t much like a performer’s voice but noted his charisma, dancing and entertaining abilities.
Abdul and Cowell saw his showmanship as more than making up for his vocal deficiencies: Abdul (doubtless thinking of her own career) said “singing can be coached and he’s got the rest to be a pop star” – Cowell agreed. Then Jackson said, (I paraphrase) “So what you’re saying is you don’t have to be a very good singer to be a pop star – I guess that’s why the industry is where it is today.” They all just looked at each other for a moment, realizing they were all out of their neat little boxes. Give the editors credit for leaving it in.
So how do I feel about the fate of the contestants now? My whole critique of the “artist” contract made public last time around still holds … for artists. Virtually none of these hopefuls are artists in the sense of creating their own music reflecting their unique vision of the world: they are singers in a talent contest.
Are the winners better off than if they hadn’t participated? Of course they are because singers are a dime a dozen: exposure and the opportunity to sing before thousands is the most that they could hope for and what the show has given them. Artists have other needs entirely – the show isn’t for them. As long as each soul knows where he/she stands on the matter, everybody wins; but I feel for those who don’t know who they are and who get caught in the machinery.
More of the same tonight – milk it baby.