My essay on “American Idol”
Recently, I was talking with a 17-year-old boy about our mutual desire to front a rock band and our mutual realization that such a fantasy will remain just that. He articulated our problem quite well: “I love to sing, but singing doesn’t seem to love me.”
I had long thought that I’d be a good singer if I just learned how. When Rob and I were preparing to get married, I decided to ignore those who’d told me I was tone deaf (including a Tony-nominated music director) and sing to him at our wedding. I chose “When You Say Nothing At All,” Rob’s favorite love song. It was to be a surprise, and I had a secret lesson with my best friend Curtis, a songwriter and music wunderkind who told me that if I practiced enough, I could get away with the performance. (Obviously, he said I wasn’t tone deaf.) I got into the habit of singing along with Randy Travis’s version on my iPod as I walked to and from the subway every day. I convinced myself that I sounded great—some odd vibration in my jaw and skull led me to believe I was harmonizing with Randy. Of course, I wasn’t, and, thankfully, I chickened out at the wedding; I didn’t need to humiliate myself in front of all of my family and friends. And when I finally sang to Rob in the comfort of our own home, I sounded worse than the worst lambs-to-the-slaughter on “American Idol“.
Even though I rival Bono and Eddie Vedder in my imagination—a wonderful place when I am a billionaire, have Steve Kelso’s body, and have invented vaccines for cancer, HIV and Evangelical Christianity—I am well aware that no one should ever hear me sing, except maybe the drunkest people in a karaoke bar. I only sing under my breath in the car, and only if Rob is there to sweetly ignore my crimes against music.
I think that the vast, vast majority of people who fantasize about being a rock star or an R&B diva know that they really belong in line at Tower Records. But based on the televised “American Idol” try-outs, it would seem as if thousands of the deludedly grand audition without being able to hear a key change, let alone the difference between a sharp and flat note. As we watch, we wonder, How can they possibly be that nutty? Some, for sure, are making idiots of themselves to get on TV, but others actually believe that they’re better than Whitney Houston, Kelly Clarkson or Stevie Wonder. (Not dissimilar to the woman I met a writers’ conference who told me with a straight face that she was better than Joyce, Pynchon, Bellow and Morrison.) Some, it seems, are being over-praised by parents or friends, or taken in by vocal coaches who are really just con artists. But others are bizarrely incompetent, and must suffer from actual, and psychotic, delusions of grandeur. It doesn’t help that one of Idol’s judges is Paula Abdul, who sold millions of records with the thinnest of voices.
Why does Idol put them on TV? One of the judges, Randy Jackson, once said that audiences love train wrecks. Apparently, we love mass humiliation, the televised guillotine. What I find especially appalling is that the producers are not just showing us the good with the bad—they seek out the nutcases and the weirdoes and the effeminate boys that Simon Cowell can deride for looking like girls. We don’t see all 100,000 contestants. We see the contestants the producers want us to see, the ones that make the best (or worst) TV. So, we get the future finalists, the most insanely deluded, and the kids who foolishly think they won’t be treated like cannon fodder. It is a form of bad faith; the producers allow these contestants to be seen by the judges knowing full well that the audition will be terrible and then used on TV for the laughter of millions.
Bad faith permeates the entire contest. After the initial “open” auditions, 150 or so quarterfinalists audition again in Hollywood and the judges eventually weed those down to 24. At this point, the audience starts voting, by phone, for whom they want to continue on the show. Until there are 12 left, the four people with the lowest number of votes are kicked off each week, and then it’s the person with the lowest overall. We don’t decide whom to vote for based on the performances alone, but also on what the judges say. Randy Jackson tends to focus on the actual singing, and he’s the whole reason 30 million people now use the word “pitchy” in casual conversation. Paula Abdul inarticulately repeats Randy’s comments and then says something bizarre, providing many people reason to believe she is either drunk or stoned or insane. Finally, Simon Cowell says something extremely positive or extremely negative, usually without any specificity. He likes statements like “that was simply atrocious!” or “that was brilliant!” The comments are almost never helpful, and, especially in Simon’s case, inconsistent from week to week. One week, he’ll say a contestant is singing songs too old for her, and then next, too young.
The judge’s comments and reactions frame how viewers think about the contestant and their performances. The criticism is almost always unfair. Randy is the only one of the three whose criticism is based on fact; when he says someone was off-key, he’s always right, and the contestants know it. But the rest of the criticism is based on the judges’ beliefs about pop star style, authentic performance and, most problematic, “song choice.” Until the finals, when there are only 12 of them left, the contestants don’t have professional stylists—they only have what they packed in their suitcase. And when the stylists show up for the finals, the styling is often harshly criticized by the judges, who were hired by the same people. Except when a celebrity shows up to coach the singing of the contestants (like Barry Manilow and Kenny Rogers did), the audience doesn’t know who is coaching the performances, the dancing or singing or emoting. But the judges’ comments seem to make any perceived error, judgment or technical, all the fault of the contestant.
What irks me the most is the “song choice” problem. The judges heap most of their criticism on the contestants for choosing the “wrong” song, and the choice is either made by the contestant alone, who is an amateur, or by the contestant with help from the producers, who should know what the “right” song is. Either way, it’s not reasonable criticism. No pre-packaged, corporate pop singers—which is what “American Idol” bluntly admits to wanting to produce—ever choose their own songs until they’ve proven themselves with several hit albums. Expecting these young, green contestants to know the right song for the right moment on a week’s notice is ridiculous. If the producers are involved, and the judge’s trash the choice, then it begs the question: Are the producers favouring certain contestants by giving them better advice? All of this then begs an even odder question: Are the judges criticizing the contestants or the coaching of the contestants?
Of course, the contestants are under a gag order. While they are on the show, they are not allowed to talk to the press and only appear on the show while performing, receiving their lashings or in carefully edited mini-interviews. Not only does this allow the producers total control over how the contestants and their all-important personalities are perceived, but it also allows the press and public to say whatever they want about the contestants without them being able to respond. A few weeks ago, the rocker Chris Daughtry sang Johnny Cash’s “Walk the Line” in a way most people thought was utterly original, and when he was praised for his originality, he smiled and took the votes. But it turned out that the arrangement was first used by the band Live, and the blogosphere (and then the press) accused Chris of fakery. On the next episode, he was allowed give Live a shout-out just before his performance. But when the soul diva Mandisa was accused of being anti-gay for idolizing an evangelical preacher who supports the ex-gay movement, she was not given an opportunity to respond until after she was kicked off the show (for, according to Simon’s theory, a bad song choice). Her response didn’t win her any friends in the gay community, but she should have been allowed to say something before it effected her status on the show.
On old-fashioned game shows like Jeopardy! or Wheel of Fortune, the winner is the person with the luck and skill to end up with the most money, or points, at the end of a half-hour. Some new game shows, like Survivor, allow the contestants to vote each other off. Project Runway is the opposite: the judges make all the decisions. In all of these shows, we’re just spectators. The winner of “American Idol” is chosen by the viewers, but we’re manipulated by the judging and the invisible machinations of producers. The viewers all know, or at least suspect, this, and the web is full of conspiracy theories and angry diatribes against the judges and the producers. (After Chris was kicked off two weeks ago in the biggest “American Idol” shocker ever, the theorists got more ammo.) But they still watch, vote and obsess about the show. Even though I hate “American Idol,” I watch every week and spend a bizarre amount of energy blogging about the shows minutiae. It’s because Idol sells an addictive fantasy: Shower singers, car singers, and secret singers can all show up at an audition and a few months later be singing for 35 million people. We think that if we love singing enough, someday it will love us back.