On the eve of the American Idol finale, I'm re-publishing an article I wrote about a year ago. Funny how things don't change much in a year. Here it goes:
I have a confession to make: I love "American Idol." I know, I'm a 33 year-old straight guy, not exactly a member of AI's target demographic. But I love the show nonetheless. What's crazy about my guilty pleasure is that I really don't even like the type of music that most contestants sing during their tryouts. How many times do I need to hear "Fame" or "Chain of Fools"?? So why can't I get enough of this annual parade of talented (a few) and talentless (most of them) singers seeking their shot at a recording career??
Well, first, clearly part of the appeal of "American Idol" is the freakshow factor. For every aspiring Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, or Clay Aiken (contestants with legitimate singing talent) there are countless William Hung wannabes, seeking their own fifteen minutes of fame. Because of the "Hung phenomenon," it seems that nearly every contestant is looking for an angle, seeking to peddle their own gimmick to impress the three judges, or more importantly, get their face on camera. And with each increasingly bizarre performer, Simon Cowell's razor-sharp tongue seems to become even more brutal. His worst insults are usually preceded by the phrase "I don't mean to be rude but..." Of course you mean to be rude, Simon, and that's why America loves you. Effeminate male contestants - and damn, there certainly are a lot of them - are often the worst victims of Cowell's snide humor. Last week he told one male contestant: "Just what we needed: Sylvester Stallone's younger sister singing Paula Abdul." Another guy wearing green face paint was told that he looks like the "Incredible Hulk's wife." Affable judge Randy Jackson even caught some heat from a gay advocacy group last week when he asked presumably male (the jury is still out on this one - check out the picture below) contestant Zachary Travis, another reject: "Are you a girl?" Some people think the judges are just plain mean. A scowling Cowell was particularly venomous when he told rejected "Idol" wannabe Charles Berry: "I don't mean this disrespectfully... shave off your beard and wear a dress." Right, no disrespect there. Yeah, sometimes it's harsh, but it's always entertaining stuff.
Another appealing feature of "American Idol" is the format during the first round of auditions. Since contestants sing their chosen songs without the benefit of background music, the first round offers a forum for showcasing raw singing ability, or lack thereof. Consequently, during an "American Idol" audition, when talent is there, it's clearly apparent. And when it's not there, it's also embarrassingly evident. There's no bass player or sound engineer to blame for a lackluster song. I'd love to see Britney Spears or Ashlee Simpson in front of the three judges without the benefit of musical accompaniment to drown out their real voices. My guess is that Simon might have a word or two to say about them.Certainly many of the contestants audition on a dare or to try to seize their moment in the spotlight by adding to the show's freakshow factor. In many cases, these contestants don't seem particulary miffed when they're laughed off the stage by the judges. But it's amazing how many horrific singers seem legitimately pissed off - often to the point of tears - when they're told that they don't have what it takes. This is probably due to the fact that most of these 16 to 28 year-old contestants grew up in an era when public schools put greater emphasis on bolstering kids' self-esteem rather than judging individuals based on their actual achievement; thus, many are not accustomed to honest criticism from authority figures (but that's a topic for a different blog). In any case, how can they not know that they suck???? But perhaps the best feature of "American Idol" has nothing to do with the judges' caustic comments. Rather, it's the joy of watching previously unknown singers, most of whom have no connections in the music industry, take their shot at stardom. In auditioning for the show, many are trying to fulfill the biggest dream of their young lives. Whether they make it or not, many of them walk away knowing they gave it everything. "I gave it my best shot," many of them say, "I guess I just wasn't good enough today but I'll be back next year." And more power to them. Maybe they will be better next year, maybe not. What's important is that they had a chance at their dream and gave it their best. Wouldn't we all love that opportunity?