May 26, 2003  •  Post A Comment

If you watch American Idol with the sound off, which is probably the best way to watch it, you will see what looks like reaction shots from a horror movie. In close-up, young women and men have their eyes tightly closed and their mouths open wide in what looks like a pained, desperate scream. But they aren’t screaming, they’re “singing.” They’re trying to obey the new rules for how singers are supposed to look-which is about the same as they’d look if their hearts were being plucked from their chests.
American Idol is a chorus of cries for help, or at least attention. On June 1 the show will celebrate its one-year anniversary, having started life as a low-budget summer series for which hopes can’t have been terribly high, even if, under the name Pop Idol, it had already been a hit in England. Everybody watched in England, but England is such a small country compared with the United States. But that was one of the nice side effects of American Idol: It made us feel like a small country again, a close-knit community where things are eminently manageable.
The show is a commercially canny fusion of the karaoke fad, which must be 20 years old at least, and reality shows. Fox and the producers gave “edge” to what was essentially just an update of the Amateur Hour by having one of the three judges, Simon Cowell, make snide and withering remarks to the most unmistakably talentless of the contestants. A young audience watching at home had apparently never heard words like “abysmal” and “atrocious,” words that critics have been using for decades, and mistook Cowell’s carpings for wit. He would get a roar of laughter just saying somebody was the worst singer he’d ever heard, even if he said that two or three times a night.
Last week, American Idol finished its second season on an ear-splitting shriek of triumph. The numbers were huge, as fans tuned in to learn what they essentially already knew: that 350-pound “Mound of Sound” Ruben Studdard would beat out spindly sprite Clay Aiken for the 2003 title. Since it had been announced in advance that both would get recording contracts anyway, and Studdard was the clear populist favorite, the suspense was actually minimal. But this was now bona fide event television, and viewers wanted to see it happen in front of their very eyes.
Some of us were cheered to see a fat guy win. And it had to be encouraging even to the nonfat, because from the beginning the show has placed as much emphasis on physical appearance as on singing ability. (The singers virtually all sound the same-tortured, in the masochistic manner now popular in pop music.) Cowell once told an only slightly chubby contestant that she ought to “lose a few pounds” if she wanted to succeed. And now here was a clinically obese truck of a man winning audience approval and the proverbial kudos from the judges-Cowell as well as preening Pollyanna Paula Abdul and simperingly sappy record executive Randy Jackson.
“You are both winners,” Jackson told Aiken and Studdard. “You’re both my dogs.” Jackson, you see, is hip to the latest jive. The show’s randy dandelion of a host, Ryan Seacrest, chimed in later when Studdard had won: “How you feelin’, big dog?” One thing about American Idol is its celebration of amateurism is so thorough that the alleged professionals come off as amateurs too.
The audience at home is continually addressed as “America.” Arsenio Hall picked up this habit, and on CBS’s shameless Idol imitation, a revival of Star Search, Hall is always looking into the camera and telling “America” that its vote (votes?) is what counts. Of course three-quarters of America isn’t even watching and arguably couldn’t care less, but the shows offer the comforting fiction of a nation unified and harmonious. The music business and its audience have splintered off into so many finite factions-there must be 14 subcategories within the “country music” genre alone-that the idea of there even being one American Idol is absurd, but it’s also nostalgic, a reminder of good old days gone by, and people find that comforting.
To further emphasize the Americana aspect, the show’s finale included live shots from giant rallies held in the contestants’ hometowns. Vast crowds assembled with banners and flags supporting their local heroes. This show that pretends to be hip is really as quaint as one of Grandma’s old tea cozies. And that isn’t meant as a negative; it’s another thing to like about the show.
Whoever directs American Idol, and it might as well be a computer, punches up at regular intervals shots of the audience reacting to the performer. This is now standard stuff even in concert films featuring actual stars. No matter what is happening onstage, the director will cut away to one of 17 cameras trained on the crowd, either for an intimate shot of one screaming face or a wide shot that shows us a sea of mindlessly bobbing heads. American Idol may succeed in erasing the difference between amateur and professional, even help bring about the downfall of “show business” as we and our parents and their parents knew it, but the notion that the crowd is as important as the performer has already been established in dozens of other TV shows.
Why? Perhaps partly because modern-day performers just aren’t as fascinating as the great stars of yesteryear, even when they haul out truckloads of lasers and explosions and other stage effects to help them. But also because television is such a cajoling, pandering, butt-kissing medium. The motto of the whole reality craze might be, “We’ll show you what you most want to see: Yourselves” (or at least surrogates of ourselves). Thus even American Idol is about the watchers as much as the watched. Things have changed. Now, the audience is the show. The audience is the star. The audience is its own “idol.”
Is that good? In a word: No.