Track-wreck TV and the American Idol phenomenon

Oh Simon, what have you done?On Tuesday and Wednesday night this week, I sat for two hours in front of my television confused, bewildered, and morbidly fascinated. I’m referring, of course, to the premiere episodes of American Idol.

I don’t know why I watch. After all, I never keep watching once the actual competition gets going, because I have little or no interest in who actually wins the damn thing. Even putting aside the obvious criticisms (lame song selection, awful theme nights, telethon-like production values, stretching out results shows to mind-boggling lengths), the fact is that most of the performers year after year are woefully boring. I’ve always believed that an interesting voice is infinitely preferable to a technically superior one, and the Star Search bullshit that goes on during the actual performance shows are, almost without exception, entirely forgettable.

But like a ridiculous amount of people (Tuesday’s premiere was the second-most watched episode of the series EVER), every year I watch the opening episodes. In these audition shows, Ryan Seacrest and the judges travel to major American cities and sort through thousands and thousands of auditions in each town to select performers to compete in Hollywood. These episodes tend to highlight two types of singers: the quality ones who get to celebrate as they’re handed their golden ticket, and the awful, abysmal ones placed before the cameras purely for our enjoyment.

The show’s clever editing never reveals the program’s dark secret (although it’s common sense, really): that only a small handful of auditioners actually make it through to see Randy, Paula and Simon. They have to go through two previous rounds of judging before that, where the show’s producers filter out anyone who isn’t going to fit into one of these two extreme categories. They’re not looking for good singers; they’re looking for good television, and anyone who might fit the bill on either extreme gets through to the final round of judging.

In fact, over the past five seasons the “laugh at the crappy singers” part of the early episodes has not only become far more prominent, but more calculated. In the past, if there was a certain song that a lot of people were butchering, they would put together a montage. Now, they specifically GIVE a song to all of the bad singers to sing so they can put one together (on Tuesday night, it was Prince’s “Kiss,” Wednesday “Don’t ‘cha” by the Pussycat Dolls). Any pretense that these people are doing this on their own accord without producer interference has been almost completely abandoned.

All of this begs two questions: why do people put themselves forward to be embarrassed, and why do we keep watching?

Let’s deal with the second one first, and it’s not a pretty answer: we’re all elitist pricks. We can tell that these people can’t sing, but that they have no clue about their own inabilities. Ergo, we get to laugh at them for our superiority, the self-fulfilling knowledge that we, armchair arbiters of vocal quality, would never be so foolish as to misjudge our own talent in such a way. We laugh at them because we think that we’re smarter. Of course, the show builds this false sense of superiority through editing: with musical cues and camera shots, we can usually tell if the contender is a talent or a joke the moment we first see them. Aren’t we smart?

Until this season, that is. Watching the first two episodes, I noticed a significant change in the editing, and while it wins points for realism, it also violates the emotional disconnect that allows people to laugh at the show. Normally, when the producers take the time to give us an auditioner’s backstory – that her boss flew her to the competition so they could be a star, that her husband was fighting with her because he didn’t want her to audition – it means that this is a serious contender worth cheering for (or at the very least, a so-so singer who heartbreakingly won’t make the cut). But this year there are several times a night where the viewer is treated to an emotional/inspirational story only to have the singer turn out to be a piece of crap.

Without the editing to indicate a joke, the whole endeavor becomes tragic instead of comic. And while on some level I appreciate humanizing someone who otherwise would have been nothing but laugh at the water cooler the following morning, I really question whether such editing decisions go over well with an audience used to not caring about the object of their amusement. Don’t worry too much, though: by the episode’s end, we had returned 100% to full-blown mockery of cartoon auditioners.

So why do people put themselves forward to become a Simon Cowell punchline? The number of people who don’t realize that they can’t sing is staggering; my theory is that everyone is walking around singing along with their iPod blasting in their ears, or their stereo cranked up to 11. In other words, they’ve never actually heard the sound of their own voice.

But as I was planning to write out this big, long essays about the attitudes that lead people to sign up for American Idol, I found that someone had already done my work for me. That someone is Alexandra Shimo, who wrote a fantastic article for last week’s Globe and Mail entitled, “The underachievers: flirting with disaster.” The whole piece is worth a read, but here’s an excerpt that says more about Idol contestants than I could:

Such big dreams — which becomes less realistic with each class she skips — are another characteristic of the modern underachiever.

Nick, for example, says he isn’t afraid to make it on his own — he just hasn’t got around to it yet. Over the past two years, Nick (also not his real name) has had 14 jobs.

At 22, he has worked as a retail clerk, a waiter, a delivery salesman, a gas-station employee, a gardener and a driver. He never gets fired. He usually quits.

For his mother, Irene, who hired a tutor when she could not help him with his homework, drove him to his baseball practices and took him travelling with her around the world (she is divorced from his father), Nick’s career progression was supposed to be a little different.

”Nick was the kid who was on track to go to university,” Irene says from her West Vancouver home, ”He even got several scholarships. He was on the Spartan honour roll in high school.”

Nick went to college, but dropped out after a month, deciding education wasn’t a high priority.

Irene worries, but Nick is unconcerned. He wants to work in the movies or in media eventually, and he thinks he will get what he wants in the end. He doesn’t believe that his résumé, which shows that he’s never stayed in a job for more than six months, will hurt him. His lack of experience is just a setback until he gets his first break.

”Why worry it hasn’t happened yet?” he asks over a beer at a downtown Toronto restaurant. ”I am an ambitious person. Just like everyone else, I have big dreams.”

And that may be part of the problem. A recent study at Florida State University found that high-school students’ expectations are increasingly out of line with reality. It compared the grades, ambition and job outcomes of young people today with the equivalent 20 years ago, and found that expectations have risen dramatically, while the drive to work to fulfill them has not.

Today, 63 per cent of high-school students believe that they will have professional careers, as doctors, lawyers or accountants. Yet only 20 per cent actually end up there.

”Across the board, girls and boys have become increasingly removed from what’s likely to occur,” Florida State sociologist John Reynolds says. ”Young people are both highly ambitious and highly unrealistic.”

There are societal forces behind these shifts. With de-industrialization and low-skilled jobs going to the developing world, the economy is now dominated by professional and specialized work. It’s no surprise students set their sights there.

But when they underestimate what it takes to get those jobs — whether under the influence of media imagery or simply their own sense of entitlement — they risk becoming part of the service industry and other sectors where wages have been stagnant or dropped.

So when 16-year-old Jason Anderson auditions while dancing and playing with devil sticks, and earns the scorn and despise of a grumpy Simon Cowell, he runs out of the room screaming, crying and cursing pretty much everything he can. And when his mother tries to console him by informing him that he was only 16, and has lots of time left in his life to becom famous, his reponse, bawling like a three-year-old, is: “But I want to be famous NOW!!!”

Don’t we all, Jason. Don’t we all.

You can learn more about Jason Anderson, and many other Idol successes and rejects this season, by visiting their MySpace pages. Yes, an enterprising blogger has taken the time to track down the MySpace pages of your favourite outcasts from the first two nights, which you can check out here and here. How’s that for a disturbing twist on the Idol phenomenon?

And no post about American Idol this year is compete without linking to Drunk Paula, now, is it? Check out the most watched video on YouTube this week:

Mid-Day Edit: The Associated Press has put out an article looking at the harshness of American Idol this particular year. It’s not bad, but really doesn’t delve into any of the significant issues surrounding the public embarrassment that the show involves. You can check it out here at the Globe and Mail.

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One response to “Track-wreck TV and the American Idol phenomenon

  1. Pingback: ...in which McNutt and McNutt discuss "Idol Gives Back" « McNutt Against the Music·

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