“American Idol” has now entered its 9th season, and in spite of the better angels that call to me, I, like 30 million other people who tuned in for the premiere, still persist in watching the stupid show. I don’t want to, but I do. Inconceivably commercial, it’s a manipulative and cloying enterprise in which an original voice is discovered, and then systematically stripped of all originality and sold back to the viewer. I swear to God, it’s actually an insult to the intelligence, but there I am, always watching.
“American Idol” fatigue has been settling upon many of us for years. The show, which seems to be on TV constantly, has taken on the joyless characteristics of one long, drawn-out election campaign. The contestants, having studied the show for years, are now as savvy and spontaneous as Hillary Clinton. The would-be idols who are trotted out each night aren’t crazy kids born with a song in their heart, but cold-blooded narcissists executing business strategies that they’d mapped out well in advance.
In spite of solid ratings, the anecdotal evidence has been suggesting that fewer and fewer people actually care about the show. It no longer feels like some Godzilla that stomps across the nation stuffing Elliott Yamin CD’s down our throats. No, it seems almost vulnerable, and after Paula Goodspeed—a cruelly excoriated contestant from season five— committed suicide, “American Idol” vowed to get nicer.
What this meant was that they decided to have fewer “funny auditions.”
Of course, what they meant by “funny auditions” was in fact ” pathetic auditions.” Within the masses clamoring to get on “AI,” there are always some whom for whatever reason have not a glimmer of self-awareness. These people are set-up to fail, and to fail miserably in front of an absolutely massive audience. It’s cruel, and it might even be evil, and watching these people, I always felt like I was participating in making fun of somebody with a mental illness, which is exactly what was taking place with Paula Goodspeed.
Unlike “AI,” the British versions of the same, like “Britain’s Got Talent” and “X-Factor,” realized that audiences preferred uplifting underdog stories to the public destruction of the mediocre and over-confident. Where “Idol” seeks to conceal a lack of talent by glossy presentation (Kellie Pickler!), the ascendant British model seeks to unearth talent that’s overlooked due to homely presentation. This was illustrated with biting clarity by the stories of Paul Potts and Susan Boyle.
For the two of you out there who don’t know, Boyle was the 47 year-old who appeared on “Britain’s Got Talent” with the dream of making it in the world as a professional singer.
Unemployed and living with her cats, she had an overdeveloped forehead, hair like steel wool, and a coarse accent. She moved about with a graceless practicality and it was easy to imagine that she grew up as the first person hit in every Dodge Ball game.
Like Paul Potts before her, she was being set up on the show to be the next miracle. Potts, if you’ll recall, was a portly, insecure looking guy who sold cell phones, but when he took the stage and began to sing, well, angels fell from the sky, and he became an instant sensation, and so now, every season, we see a contestant who is sculpted to perform against expectations.
In the YouTube video that has been viewed nearly one billion times, we’re cued up for nasty laughs as Boyle takes the stage. The audience mutters darkly to one another and rolls their eyes as Boyle says she wants to be a singer.
This, of course, is supposed to represent a short hand of her life. Unloved and unlovely, the world has been against her from day one and nobody has ever believed in her. Of course, we have no idea if this is true, but it’s the story we’re being sold.
Before Boyle even begins to sing, the producers have already put a soft focus lens on the camera. We see the blonde judge resting her arm on her head, reclined in a beatified position, her eyes glistening with happy anticipation. The entire audience is leaning forward, expecting another Paul Potts. Boyle begins to sing a Broadway song from Les Mis, and when she strikes the first note, everyone cheers and rises. This had nothing to do with her actual singing, which was fine— if lacking in character and depth— and everything to do with, well, marketing.
The song finishes, and as the accolades are being delivered, the music continues in the background, forcing the audience to live in the moment that has just passed. Simon looks like the Grinch after his heart has grown three sizes, and a jubilant Boyle does a masculine little dance, as if she had just scored a touchdown.
It’s an appealing vignette, as we all need to imagine that we can transcend our circumstance and the rigid, unyielding opinions that help confine us to them, but it was also a terribly insincere and condescending one, too. Her singing was confidently in key, but if she looked any different, she would have received a terse “no thanks” from Simon. What’s remarkable is not that this Ugly Duckling myth exists, but that so many people need it to be true that they willingly suspend their disbelief in order to create a miracle from the mundane.
At any rate, this is the direction that talent shows must now go, and Simon Cowell, the gravitational center of “American Idol,” has announced that he’s ditching the operation after this season in order to foist his show “X-Factor” on the American public in 2011. “Idol” will not be the same without our favorite mean-jeans.
Not even close.
This season, we’ve already been stripped of the pleasure that is Paula Abdul. Reliably incoherent, Abdul could always be counted on to project a positively infantile persona out of the decaying body of a cougar. Whacked on whatever Hollywood cocktail she’d been consuming, she’d typically wave her arms about and slur away, blinking like she needed somebody to drive her home. It was creepy and pathetic, but in small doses, it was also utterly captivating.
She was sort of replaced last season, by Kara DioGuardi, and I have to say that I can never remember her name and always refer to her as “the new boring Paula.” However, judging salvation is supposed to arrive in the form of Ellen DeGeneres on February 9th, when she’ll officially become a part of the “American Idol” panel. Warm, smart and funny, there’s little doubt that she’ll be winning, but “Idol” became the television Death Star that it is on the wings of toxicity and dysfunction, and if the kinder, gentler model is now ascendant, than it’s Cowell and his new show that’s likely to succeed, and not “American Idol.”
Well, until saint Ellen rides in, “American Idol” is going to rotate a series of celebrity judges. On the first episode, in which auditions were held in Boston, we saw Victoria Beckham. As cadaverous and alien looking as a Tim Burton creation, Posh Spice sat there pleasantly, adding little more than a British accent. The next show was in Atlanta, and it featured Mary J. Blige. She sat there trying not to laugh, listening as a variety of crackers belted out country songs.
Simon Fuller, the creator of “American Idol,” acts all confident discussing the future of the enterprise without Cowell, insisting that the biggest stars in the world are lining up to replace him. Personally, I’d like to get a dose of Tom Cruise crazy each week, or perhaps Samuel L. Jackson could rain some hellfire and brimstone down.
I don’t’ know, there are a million excellent possibilities, I think, and I’d love to hear any you might have, because I aim to send them all in, as the show’s on Fox, and hell, anything could happen there.
Michael Murray is a freelance writer. For the last three and a half years he’s written a weekly column for the Ottawa Citizen about watching television. He presently lives in Toronto. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.