Thursday, January 24, 2008

American Idol?

So my wife and I have been watching bits and pieces of the first episodes of the new American Idol season. Let me point out that we don't care who wins, don't follow the careers of past contestants, or watch the show after they move to the "Hollywood" phase. We only watch to see how god-awful horrible some of the first contestants can be. Now of course there are always a few clowns who try out with some horrible routine in an effort to have their moment on television. They know up front that the judges will never pick . . . but if they're sufficiently outrageous, maybe, just maybe, they'll end up on the broadcast. Nevertheless, there are those performers who earnestly believe they have talent. They can be tone deaf, or have no sense of rhythm and stage presence, let alone a talent for the difficult exercise of a capella vocals. Yet they step before the judges and the cameras convinced that they deserve a chance to move on to the next round. And when they are rejected they cry and stomp their feet and appear genuinely hurt that they've been sent packing. (Let me add that there are plenty of contestants who have moderately pleasant voices and will do just fine singing in their church choir, performing in community theater performances, or serenading their family in the car. Their voices, however, aren't up to belting out a ballad or sustaining the latest pop hit.)

What always amazes us is how serious the worst of the contestants can be. They often truly believe they possess some rare talent that will be obvious to the judges if they're just given a chance to sing! How did they get this far in life believing they could become professional singers or the next music sensation? Several forces could be at work here. Some of those auditioning have likely never received truthful, constructive criticism of their singing talents - or lack thereof. They've been reassured - falsely - by parents and teachers and friends that their singing is "lovely" or "beautiful" in an effort to avoid hurt feelings and bruised egos.

The more likely cause of such unrealistic aspirations, however, is the cult of celebrity that has mushroomed into a global phenomenon. Thanks to reality television, YouTube, MySpace, and similar media outlets, anyone can put himself or herself out there and, with odds equivalent to the chance of being struck by lightening, become a star and thus enjoy the trappings of life as a celebrity. Indeed, there are just enough examples of success (Lily Allen, for example) to fuel the dreams of a herd of celebrity wannabes who would trade their mortal souls to grace the cover of People or the scores of celeb-obsessed magazines that now crowd grocery store shelves. But in a society in which no-talent "celebutantes" like Paris Hilton can be famous for no logical reason, it's easy to see how ordinary people might want to escape their seemingly mundane lives. There are even those who would trade places with the trainwreck lives of Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan just for the chance to be famous. It really is a sad commentary on the direction our society has taken in the last 20 years.

As we move into the third month of a writers strike in Hollywood, "reality" programming, already epidemic on many networks, only strengthens its presence. Sadly, however, there's very little that's "real" in these shows. Indeed, at best they offer only a parody of reality, whether one is watching The Bachelor or American Idol. At times like this, one is reminded of Newton Minow, chair of the FCC during the Kennedy administration, whom I've mentioned before on this blog. In a famous 1961 address, Mr. Minow observed:

"When television is good, nothing -- not the theater, not the magazines or
newspapers -- nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I
invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on
the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit and loss
sheet or rating book to distract you -- and keep your eyes glued to that set
until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast
To our discredit as a society, those words ring true nearly half a century later. Of course, the average person cares nothing about such arguments. And I'm happy to admit that I tend to be a cultural elitist, if not an outright snob. So bring on the off-key singers and celebrity wannabes. If we're lucky, a few gold nuggets will emerge from the dross; the rest will retire to their mundane lives and join the ranks of consumers, rather than the consumed.

1 comment:

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