Seth was nice enough to give me the floor today to discuss “American Idol,” so if you’ll pardon my indulgence, let’s begin. But before you flinch at the expected screed against the televised epitome of Middle America (the mindset, not the geographic location) or a diatribe against the Wal-Mart of the small screen, allow me to confess: I have seen every single “American Idol” episode since Season 2. For four glorious seasons, it was the guiltiest of television pleasures, a show that happily preoccupied much of my Tuesday and Wednesday nights (and, during certain parts of the season, Mondays and Thursdays, as well). It was often a codependent and abusive relationship, to be sure, but I have many fond memories of our time together (elitist coastal Anglophiles — take your smug indifference to “AI” and shove it).
I’ll admit that I steadfastly refused to tune in to the first season, ceaselessly mocked those who would deign to waste hours of their life watching the next generation of “Star Search,” and wondered confusedly why it warranted so much press and absorbed so many of the brain cells allotted to our collective pop consciousness. And then, completely by accident (honestly), I found myself sitting in front of the first episode of Season 2, transfixed by a series of hopeless wannabe singers with absolutely no self-awareness who were willing to completely and unknowingly humiliate themselves on national television — it was televised bliss. I was hooked. Mesmerized. Addicted. Simon Cowell was like a sanitized, dumbed-down British version of every character that James Spader has ever inhabited, and I adore Spader characters — the acerbic wit, the disdain for the prosaic, the casual hatred of the ordinary, the general dickishness, all wrapped around a soft-gooey center of surprising humanity (you can see it Tuesdays at 10 EST, on “Boston Legal.”) Cowell was the man we loved to hate, and also loved to love -a caustic voice of common sense in a world gone mad.
But then, a really surprising thing happened — I found myself being drawn in to the drama of the show’s characters. After the entertaining and often needlessly amusing/cruel series of auditions, you get to know the contestants a little — sure, it’s all done through “packages” of insipid sound bites that sound about as authentic as a post-game baseball press conference, but I couldn’t resist falling for favorites. Goddamnit, I actively rooted for certain contestants. I loved the whole Horatio Alger-Democracy in action idea behind the show, the notion that some impoverished unknown single-mom from South Carolina might get a record deal and somehow still be the same person after the show, only richer and more famous. Hell, I even picked up the phone a few times and called the 866 number.
There was always one underdog who for whom I could cheer. During Season 2, I liked Joshua Gracin — he couldn’t sing for shit, but he was a heartland kind of guy that I totally dug (inexplicably, “AI,” like sports teams, appeals to one’s geographic origins). Indeed, by the time the show finally got down to Ruben and Clay, I barely cared who won — they both seemed like nice enough guys (if only Clay would wake up and realize he was about as straight as a bed spring), though by the end, it appeared that Ruben couldn’t give two shits himself — he looked like a guy who just wanted to go back home and sit in front the television and sleep for years (and for all I know, that’s what he did until he reappeared during last night’s show — how much money did they have to shove up his ass to get him to smile through “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”?). In Season 3, I had a soft spot for the soulful George Huff, enjoyed watching Jon Peter Lewis embarrass himself week after week (that Elvis song - gah!) but ultimately was won over by Fantasia Barrino’s story and the way she created magic out of that awful song written for the finale, still the highlight of the entire run for me. Over the course of all six seasons, Fantasia may be the only authentic character to come out of that show, even if her musical career hasn’t really taken off (I hear she’s great in The Color Purple on Broadway, though). During Season 4, the welcome rock element was finally unleashed, as we got to enjoy Bo Bice’s daring A cappella number and Southern rock roots, though in the end I had no problem seeing Carrie Underwood take the title — she was a pretty, simple farm girl; kind of dull, but likable all the same.
Season 5, of course, was the show’s apex — the best overall season, in which a misfit underdog convinced us to adore him with his tics and twitches and a soulful Michael McDonald thing, though I admit to being partial to Bucky Covington for the first half of the season (what can I say? I like the talentless country-music bumpkins — they remind me of home), but I did take immense delight in the surprising boot of Chris Daughtry, who had become the show’s obnoxiously preening diva, even if he was the most talented singer to come out of all six seasons (and even if my wife was taken in by the charm of his “I used to work at Best Buy” story). Of course, like most everyone, I pulled for Taylor in the end, only to realize my mistake the very next day — he’s got a great voice, but the guy was a sideshow act who, now robbed of any integrity or “soul,” is probably struggling to sell out the very same dive bars he performed at before “AI.”
Every year, too, there was a villain, or at least someone’s teeth I wanted to kick in for lasting as long as they did: Scott Savol, John Stevens, Trenyce, and Kevin Covais. These were the people that kept the show interesting, even after it degenerated into horrific theme weeks, replete with guest judges trailing a catalogue of embarrassing moments in American musical history. No matter. “American Idol” — with all its manufactured drawn-out drama, its simpering hokum, and its uber-charismatic emcee — offered a sometimes not-so-brief respite from real world responsibilities or the need to think.
The joys of watching “American Idol” rarely had much to do with the actual talent on stage — I simply loved the way a cross-section of America was represented, and then immediately dissected and judged by millions of teenagers with text-messaging capabilities and their grandmothers. There was a certain unpredictability to it — at least in the beginning. What would be the nation’s mood? Would we pick the popular, good-looking contestant (Carrie Underwood), or gravitate toward the lovable loser with crazy teeth? (Elliot Yamin). Strangely, in a pool of mediocre talent, it was almost always the story that won out, and I appreciated that about the show. It also never bothered me that there hasn’t been a single contestant whose album I might even consider purchasing in “real life,” (though, at this point, I can see the appeal of Kelly Clarkson) it just mattered that, for a couple of hours, I could completely shut down my brain and toss aside those nagging thoughts about the awful film I was set to review, the impending cancellation of a favorite show, or the horrendous state of affairs in Hollywood.
And then came Season 6. I can’t pinpoint the root cause of my dissatisfaction with the show, but I imagine it was the culmination of a lot of things: The Antonella Barbera “scandal,” the whole Sanjaya situation (not to mention Sanjaya himself), the lack of interesting contestants, the ridiculously self-congratulatory charity event (“Idol Gives Back,” which hit perhaps its ugliest mark last night with the exploitative use of smiley African children in outfits trimmed with goddamn leopard) or, maybe, after nearly three years of writing for this site, I was no longer able to rest my critical faculties for even a few hours each week. Sure, I rooted for the tubby, somewhat amusing Chris Sligh for a while, at least until I found out about his Bob Jones past, but the show gradually began to lose its luster. I was no longer watching “American Idol” because I wanted to — it became a chore. A show I suffered through for the same reasons that Seth does — to keep up with the machinations of American pop culture. The seams burst; I began to notice — to focus on — the shows million gaping imperfections. They had always been there: Simon Cowell was still repeating himself; and Randy’s shtick wore on, but it all seemed to have worn thin. I was no longer capable of simply tolerating Paula and her pinched Quaalude grimace — I actively loathed her and prayed, each week, that she would at least show up shitfaced and make a pass at one of the contestants on stage. Anything, really, to liven up this endlessly tedious show, which I was now watching in the background while trying to complete a more pressing task, like reading the back of my cereal box. I doubt that any contestant has sung more than 10 songs that I might like outside of the show’s context, but the Whitney Houston, the Ed McCain, and the goddamn Donna Summer tunes began to take their toll. There was a Tony Bennett week, for fuck’s sake. I could feel the whole enterprise chipping away at my cranium, rotting my brain like Mt. Dew and meth does one’s teeth.
With the exception of the Bon Jovi show, (which of course made me gloriously nostalgic) each and every performance during Season 6 was like drinking castor oil — I swallowed it like homeopathic medicine, knowing that it would have absolutely no affect on the malaise that had set in. Hour-long results shows? Endless filter material. Maroon 5?! Alan Thicke’s kid? The embarrassment of seeing freakin’ Green Day and Joe Perry appear on the same stage with Sanjaya Malakar? Guh.
And how the hell did this Blake guy make it into the finals? For a show that often strings along the mediocre, Blake is the least talented guy to make it this far since Diana DeGarmo — he’s Taylor Hicks all over again, only there is absolutely nothing redeeming about that goddamn beat box. Granted, he’s good at it. But didn’t we retire that shit back in 1986, along with break dancing, hypercolor T-shirts, and Doug E. Fresh? Blake Lewis might have made a decent Flava Flav in a white boy-band version of Public Enemy, but that’s about all he has going for him. That Jordin Sparks won was neither a surprise nor a saving grace for the travesty of Season 6— she was merely the chirpiest of a sanitary bunch, forced to muddle through another horrendous written-for-the-finale number, only this one was clearly written with the intent of ensuring Blake would progress no further than runner-up. He didn’t have a chance from the beginning, not that I’m the least bit bothered he lost.
I’d made up my mind about midway through the season that regardless of the outcome, this would be the last “American Idol” I suffer through. I’m reclaiming my life, taking back those three to five hours each week. There’s too much of my life I’m wasting on this televised mockery, and I just won’t do it anymore, goddamnit.
Since coming to that conclusion, each subsequent episode has been like counting down the days until a prison sentence will end - until I get my freedom back. No more karaoke bar/lounge singer/wedding singer analogies. No more flat renditions of “I Have Nothing,” or “I’m Every Woman,” or “Inside Your Heaven.” No more “keepin’ it real,” or “Dawgs,” or “make it your owns.” No more watching the scripted tussles between Ryan and Simon or the mildly homophobic barbs they exchanged. No more two-hour spectacles, replete with Smokey Robinson, self-aggrandizement, balloons and Coke commercials. No more watching contestants flash numbers with their fingers like a four-year-old telling you his age. No more beat boxing. No more soul patrol. No more McPheever. No more impossibly cheesy Ford music videos. No more washed-up Bee Gees’ or reconstituted Herman’s Hermits. No more cutaways to C-list celebrities (or D-list, in the case of Kathy Griffin) in the audience hyping the next Fox television travesty or weeping to Bette Midler numbers. No more season-long makeovers, watching a contestant’s actual personality die a little each week. No more keys to the city or small-town mayors naming streets, not after important historic figures, but after people in a singing competition.
No more fucking “American Idol.”
I just don’t care anymore - in fact, I never should’ve cared in the first place. I wish I could take it all back. That I’d never found myself sitting in front of the show back in 2003. That I could’ve seen “American Idol” for what it was from the beginning — a life-wasting, 120-hour infomercial for a product I had absolutely no intention of ever buying. A toxic poison that seeped into my brain and flooded my thoughts with product endorsements and fakes smiles and terrible Motown renditions and big band music and Pop-Tarts and Old Navy.
That’s it, people. I have no illusions — I’m fully aware that this show will probably continue to exist for years or even decades. And it may well continue to be the number one show on television during that time. But I don’t care. From this day forward, “American Idol,” is dead to me. Stick a fork in it. I’m done. Jump up my ass. And good freakin’ riddance.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
"American Idol" / Dustin Rowles
Film | May 24, 2007 | Comments ()