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January 24, 2007

15 Minutes

My friend Rod Dreher finally got around to watching "American Idol" and he didn't like what he saw:

I watched some schlub in the tryouts talking about how great she was, and how her husband didn't support her trying out because, in her view, he was jealous of her desire to soar. She talks for a bit about how much of her own self-worth and dignity and dreams and yadda yadda are riding on this tryout.

Sure enough, she stood in front of the panel of judges, and she's horrible. Excruciatingly bad. And boy, did they let her know. I'd heard that this Simon person is especially cruel, but it shocked me how harsh he was with that young woman. She begged for another opportunity to sing, but after the second one, they sent her away with a fusillade of insulting remarks. Offstage, she sobbed, which you knew was coming. She graspingly tried to salvage her dignity by saying that she was "sick," and that that had affected her voice. But she was, of course, completely untalented. She didn't realize that. She does now, most likely.

I did something I never would have done 10 years ago: I turned off the TV. The schlubby young woman was a fool, but it was unbearable watching her torn down like that. To be honest, it reminded me of when I used to be a critic, and would gleefully trash untalented filmmakers, actors and the like. Had a blast doing that. Never once thought about the real people with real hopes and real dreams, however tawdry and delusional, that I was bashing.

Peter Suderman, whose movie reviews appear, among other other places, at National Review Online, had a slightly different take on the issue:

The answer is more complicated than Rod seems to make it. I might agree with him that there's little need to lay into someone as deluded as the AI contestant. But when a filmmaker makes a product designed to waste your time, money, and thoughts -- when a filmmaker, either by intention or incompetence, makes a sucker of you, the paying audience, then I think there's a good argument that he or she deserves to be the target of scorn, if not ridicule.

As someone who subscribes to the philosophy that "Mean People Create A Partial Vacuum With Their Mouths," I'm inclined to agree with Rod and Suderman about the cruelty displayed towards the deluded contestant. (Save for a few episodes a few seasons ago, I don't watch American Idol.)

But only up to a point.

What neither of them takes into account is what might be called the "William Hung Factor." Hung turned a memorably awful "audition" into an improbable 15 minutes of pop culture celebrity and, in all likelihood, inspired many would-be imitators.

It's these Hung wannabes, I suspect, that account for much of the cruelty Rod witnessed. Many Americans are all-too-willing to make a fool out of themselves (especially on national television) for their 15 minutes. But few of us are willing to be humiliated for those minutes. I didn't see the audition that Rod wrote about but I have trouble believing that someone as "horrible" and "excruciatingly bad" as he describes could actually believe that her voice was going to make her "soar." More to the point, Cowell and company probably had trouble believing it -- to them, she was probably another Hung wannabe who was wasting their time and trying to make an end run around the system -- a system that Cowell, a renowned control freak, takes very seriously.

None of this justifies cruelty. I would have struggled to find a euphemism. Then again, I wouldn't be judge on a competition -- I'm not temperamentally suited for it. But I also dislike the narcissism and "we're all beautiful and unique snowflakes" mentality that pervades these auditions. One of the commenters at Rod's blog quoted the French writer Georges Bernanos who wrote that "L'humilité épargne les affres de l'humiliation" -- "humility will spare you the agony of humiliation." Sounds about right.


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I've never watched a minute of what should be called 'American Schadenfreude' -- no desire. Saw this at Beliefnet's blog too:

Snippet: "I don't think telling someone who is tone-deaf that they'll never be able to score a legimate record deal is a bad thing. (Let's forget about the William Hung situation for a moment, shall we?). America--and in particular "American Idol"--is spreading a culture of lies, and we, as a society need to decide one thing: Should we all live pretending like we can truly be anything we want to be, or should we be honest with each other, and ourselves, and admit that we can't do everything we might want to do?"

It's like Hung was set up as bait to bring in more delusional celebrity-wannabes for the judges' (?) and America's selfish pleasure.

When do all these "reality shows" end again? Not soon enough...

Gina Dalfonzo

All right, all right, I confess. I watch. Sometimes. :-) But the auditions really are horrible and, having seen some of them this year, I don't think I'll be watching that part again. I agree with Catherina that the really bad singers are brought on just so everyone can have a good time mocking them. It's a trap I don't want to fall into.

Greg Laurich

I don't watch AI until they get to the finalists. I dislike watching people making fools of themselves, and lets be honest, how kind would any of us be after hearing yet another horrible version of "Viva Las Vegas" or any other pop standard? In a way a empathize with Simon although I wish he were kinder to them.

David Cervera

I will say this about Simon Cowell - he may be mean, but he's almost always right. If you're bad, he will tell you you're bad and he won't sugar coat it. Consequently, if Simon praises your performance, it seems to hold a lot more weight than praise from Paula or Randy.

...not that I've watched the show! Just a couple episodes here or there...seriously! Don't give me that look!

Theron Keller

Quite by accident I have discovered at least one redeeming quality for American Idol. During show time, one may shop unencumbered at your local Wal-Mart. Seriously, no lines. Check it out for yourself sometime.

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