Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Opera, it ain't

Hi-De-Ho Rene,

I have to admit to a guilty pleasure: American Idol.

Not the endless extra American Idol specials, like American Idol: Return of the Self-Unaware, or whatever, but the warhorse itself.

The format is ridiculously simple and often cheesy, and you usually have to sit through 32 minutes of pap and 24 minutes of commercials to enjoy 4 minutes of quality, but those 4 minutes are imbued with the joy of discovery – some kid discovering that he has “it,” that he really is able to connect with people, and that he’s not just deluded like most of his fellow semifinalists.

It’s interesting to watch the bar slowly being raised as the contestants advance, and to see how they respond to growing levels of pressure. When any one of the several hundred kids who “made it to Hollywood” auditioned, they all sounded pretty good. Then they got to LA, and suddenly many of them were obviously overmatched. Out they went, with much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Some were probably hearing for the first time in their young, pampered lives that they weren’t the bomb.

I didn’t watch the first season until the penultimate show, and by then it was so clear who was the best that I wondered what the fuss had been about leading up to the crowning event. If the other two they ran out there against Kelly Clarkson were the best alternatives the competition had to offer, why hadn’t she been declared the winner by TKO long before?

I watched a little more of last season, basically from the “wild card” round through the finals. In that season, there were two performers who stood way above the rest, so there actually was some suspense: Would America choose Rosie Greer or Howdy Doody? (That’s unfair, as Ruben is actually a cute, cuddly-looking guy, and Clay apparently appeals to girls in some way unfathomable to me. And both can belt a tune.)

This year, I’ve been with it from the beginning, and I think this season may be more competitive. While most of the semifinalists have been banal, at best, there are a number of real talents who have made it to the finals. But that’s what I think now. Perhaps the Peter Principle will continue to work, and kids who’d seemed great against milder competition will now sound like they’re auditioning for a backup gig at the Easy Times Lounge.

American Idol is an interesting exercise in meritocracy, and at least in the first two seasons, America proved with its speed-dialing fingers that it still believes in rewarding ability over appearances, or at least wants to believe in it, despite all the evidence to the contrary in the pop culture that spawned the phenomenon.


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