Wednesday, January 14, 2009

American Idol: Cultural Phenomenon and Personal Commentary




If you or I were a contestant on American Idol, would it surprise you more to hear Simon Cowell pronounce in front of the millions-peopled audience that “I don’t think you’re as good as you think you are” or “That was a terrible song-choice” or “I think you need more confidence”? The response to that question would reveal as much about you or me as it does any judge’s subjective opinion.

While America has crowned the Brit, Cowell, the critic people love to hate, his friends Randy Jackson and Paula Abduhl often disagree. Like the nose on their face, people bring their opinions with them wherever they go. A balance of power teetering on a panel of judges.

Now in its eighth season, American Idol has added a fourth judge, Kara DioGuardi. Yet Simon Cowell sets the gold-standard for on-the-air, recording industry criticism by telling the truth—as he sees it—which is what he gets paid to do. Simon says, “Do you want to get better or do you want to whine?”

That’s entertainment.

The producers of American Idol confer positional authority to these judges —the power both to select and to reject—which makes the judges’ opinions more influential than yours or mine. 

The audience gets glimpses but never really knows the person behind the fa├žade, contestants or judges. We see what the camera wants us to see. The producers, directors, cameramen, writers, editors et al piece together an emotional collage to promote a following, attract sponsors while the show’s viewers hold the wild card.

The whole celebrity phenomenon boils down to what Ted Koppell termed, “Vanna-tized,” a play on the name, Vanna White—card-turning face on the long-playing TV game show, Wheel of Fortune. People see what they project onto the celebrity, not the person who exists in real life.

Idol’s popularity derives from viewers’ fascination with the contestants who dress up, dress down or flip out to vie for national attention. A chance for Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame or as it turns out 15 seconds of face time on network television baits a tantalizing hook.

All contestants have convinced themselves they can sing while those who cannot sing don’t even know how to blush. People who presume they have talent continue to fill stadiums, vying for a chance to audition. 

Who hasn’t told these people the truth before now?

Astonished audiences feel embarrassed for deluded people. Some watchers delight to have a laugh. Judges let the ax fall where it must. 

A cultural phenomenon gives way to personal commentary: “Do you want to get better or do you want to whine?”

Maybe I’m not as good as I think I am. Maybe at a moment of extraordinary opportunity I will make the wrong choice. Or maybe I lack the confidence to risk challenging people’s opinions. Only when the TV gets turned off can I see my own reflection.

American Idol succeeds though because it gives the audience a stake in the outcome, harnesses the audience’s imagination, and somehow manages to make the contestant’s goal seem worthwhile. 

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