Thursday, May 21, 2009

American Idolatry

Last night was the finale of season 8 of the television program "American Idol." I was lucky enough to tune into the last four minutes only, to see the winner announced. Other than the audition programs at the front end of the season, I skipped all of it, and haven't really followed the show in years.

"American Idol" has become the Junior-High-School-Popularity-Contest from hell, a big-budget student-council election on steroids. I have to admit a guilty pleasure in watching the shows early in the season where they go from city to city auditioning hopefuls for a shot at moving on to Hollywood. Those shows are truly the Parade of the Seriously Delusional. I find it hard to believe they audition like 10,000 people or more over a couple of days in San Diego or Houston, but whatever, they sure do deliver the chortles. The vast majority of the auditioners have to be unremarkably average. A smaller number are seriously horrible and talent/sanity-free. An even more minuscule number actually have talent. Needless to say we are shown the truly good and the truly awful, because that's what pulls in the ratings. And nothing ever happens on AI unless it's for ratings or profit. You have to watch some of those bad auditions and ask, "Can you even hear yourself? Who the hell told you can sing?" I sometimes get a mite uncomfortable and squirmy when someone comes on who is obviously mentally disturbed and the dream of being on "Idol" is the only sliver of hope in their unrelentingly bleak, tedious, dead-end lives. No matter, they are chewed up and spat out just like the contestant before them was and the one after will be. AI auditions are only about the 40 seconds you get to display your mental problems on national television - anything happening in your life before or after is pretty much irrelevant.

The American cultural imperative of "rooting for the underdog" is always present, as it was a couple of years ago when a marginally-talented, obviously over-aged Taylor Hicks won. That was my first tip-off that something was rotten in Idol-land when someone, who looks like the uncle that always mortifies the family at weddings by getting drunk and either dancing like he's in a dinner-theater version of "Saturday Night Fever" or croaking out an almost-unrecognizable version of "Bad Bad Leroy Brown," came out on top. And where is his career now? Don't know and don't care. And I tuned out early the next season when something called "Sanjaya Malarky" was upchucked into our living rooms and disgraced and debased the entire human race with not just lack of any kind of talent (other than self-promotion) but in fact an abundance of negative talent that I believe came close to scuttling the entire "Idol" franchise, which at that point would have been a blessing.

But the fact remains that when you let millions of pre-teen kids vote on who they "like" the best it's pretty depressing when they almost always choose bland and boring over different and (slightly) edgy. From the little I heard glam rocker Adam Lambert had a better voice than missionary kid from Arkansas Kris Allen. "Glambert," as he was called, had range and power and did a lot of screaming and histrionics, which in the world of "Idol" is almost universally mistaken for talent. The other one looked like he would be right at home strumming emo/folk tunes at a coffee shop in a Minneapolis suburb with a tip jar in front of him. They say "Idol" appeals to a wide range of viewers, but I don't think it can be denied that pre-teens and teens make up their biggest voting bloc. Other demographic groups don't stand a chance when those crazy kids can just pop mega-doses of Adderall and Ritalin and stay up for 24 hours straight speed-dialing the voting lines like 5,000 times each.

So, just as the eternally loathsome Sarah Palin is destined to rear her empty head and soul onto the American scene in the not-too-distant future, so will "Idol" return for (**shudder**) season 9 in January 2010. There are some minor things to look forward to - mainly the Theatre of the Damned that are the audition shows, and you can almost always count on Simon Cowell for a bracing, refreshing blast of vitriol and hatefulness on a regular basis. Paula Abdul is fun to watch for her vast, endless supply of pharmaceutical enhancements and her subsequent dotty, surreal behavior. Randy Jackson continues to mystify as to why he is even on that program as a judge, and I doubt that the fourth judge will be back next time so who cares. The Cowell-Seacrest "You're-gay-No-you're-gay!" snipefest is becoming a bit tattered, but still amuses. A little. But as long as the ratings and the profit and the publicity keep rolling in, "Idol" will take its place right behind death and taxes as one of the inevitabilities of modern life.

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