Wednesday, February 01, 2006

It's Idol time again, so today I give you an essay I wrote last year on the subject. Now you know what a geek I really am. If you had any doubts.

My Idol
Jordan E. Rosenfeld

On pause from my usual television fare—DVDs of old X-Files—in a freak channel surfing fit, I tuned in to the first show of the 2004 American Idol season. I was vaguely familiar with it from a volley of office gossip at my last job, two of my colleagues in absolute thrall over who had been "wronged" by being voted off each week. I decided offhandedly that it was another avenue for vanity and delusions of grandeur, helping the already beautiful and successful become more so. I had reached the Reality TV maximum line in my brain. Just that lurid icon: FOX (famous for shows like "My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance, and "Joe Millionaire")) flashing at me from the screen, if not a commercial for the Simpsons, was enough to make me flee the living room for the last few television seasons. I'd grown weary of shows that demean and debase, that incite couples to cheat and cheaters to feel unrepentant.

Little did I know, that American Idol, with its now famous triumvirate of judges, and former nobodies—like the perky Kelly Clarkson whose weight was always in question or the dark horse with lungs of steel, Clay Aiken—would get under my skin, and in the long run, remind me why shows like this, which have a long tradition (Lawrence Welk, Soul Train, Star Search), are actually good for us. And I do mean us. You and me. Us here in California, them over there in Minnesota, and Florida and the Dakotas.

First of all, the show has everything one goes to see a good movie or reads a good book about: Complexity, drama, intrigue, clashing personalities, errors in judgment, roads not taken, all tied up in a bow with glamour, and the chance for fame and fortune sprinkled on top. Oh, and let's not forget singing.

Last year 70,000 people auditioned in cities all over the country, from Hawaii to Los Angeles. They came in sparkly tights and slutty cat suits, in mumus and velvet pants. At their worst, they butchered pop music and choked the soul out of soul music. Thousands of throats were cleared to no avail. Faced off with the reality of the judges, countless wannabes lost their courage, or found the strength to flip off the ones who deemed them unworthy.

Yet even the worst singers, those doing chintzy jazz "skat" routines or ventriloquism, had a certain gleam in their eye that was recognizable: they had dreams. Dreams that allowed them to risk the tremulous cracks and volleys of a song out of tune, warble their tuneless voices in front of three of the most successful (albeit--unlikeable) people in the music business: Randy Jackson former base player for Journey, Paula Abdul—the eighties choreographer/singer with a heart of gold, and Simon Cowell—a British music producer with a mouth of pure vitriol. Auditioning in front of them took courage, man. Courage which, I asked myself, would I be capable of mustering? I mean, I can carry a tune, and I can occasionally be persuaded to do it at birthday parties or for singing lullabies, but I would sooner get dental work without anesthesia than put myself in the shoes of those auditioners, doing so with millions of people watching.

But this show is not designed by total morons, much as I'd like to give television producers little credit. It is hip to us. It knows about that good old feedback loop by which we put out our greatest dreams and hopes and it feeds them back to us telling us that these ideas are original. There's nothing original about it, actually, which is what makes it work so well. We know this routine! It's a sure thing. Like life, some of these people will go on to great joy and many of them will have their hearts broken. It's a life lesson, in a way, that actually contradicts the message that you must already be beautiful and successful to win.

You know those adorable clips of famous people they show where the now stylish, hip person was once a little bit awkward, with too-thick eyebrows and uneven lips, zaftig and sexy before the plastic surgery…in a word…normal? These are the majority of American Idol contestants. They haven't been through the Hollywood glamour machine yet. Some of them have literally just faced puberty. There's sweet baby fat on some young faces, the mortal coil is in evidence left and right, egos popping up like pimples, and yet, strangely, it's endearing. These people are real, which means—hey they could be like me, and you. They didn't have to know somebody to get an audition, they simply had to wait in a very, very long line.

And while their auditions are nerve-wracking, occasionally even painful when someone's garage-band dreams are crushed by Simon with a glib or cutting remark, they were just preparation for the emotional investment I would soon begin to stake in the final twelve contestants.

The final twelve is an important number. These twelve disciples, from the first person voted off, to the eventual winner, record an album and go on tour together when the show is done. By the time these twelve had been narrowed down, the show had gotten under my skin. Before, I was still taking the stance of independent viewer.

When all was said and done, I gave ten months of Tuesday and Wednesday nights to American Idol. I put off reading for graduate school, dinners with friends, walks with the hubby. Oddly enough, hubby and friends were supportive. They didn't tell me I was a bad person or a television junkie. They didn't suggest I was shallow and silly for watching. Some friends were excited and relieved to talk about the show when I brought it up. Millions of us were sitting alone in our homes nibbling our nails as we waited for Ryan Seacrest to deliver the results. We shared the same chills when Fantasia Barrino, the nineteen year-old single mother compared to both Macy Gray and Aretha Franklin, sang "Summertime." We invested our own hopes and dreams along side them. Or am I just giving myself away?

Here it is, season four (FIVE actually! another year!), a year later, and I’m at it again. Lord help me.


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