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The Reality of American Idol

It’s time. I know many of you were hoping that we could avoid this moment, that we could avoid discussing reality television in general and, in particular, the ultimate in fan mania and mindless entertainment: American Idol. But for better or worse, American Idol has changed the music industry. It has changed the concept of interactive television viewing. It has changed the world. The change it has brought about does not necessarily match what we all hope for in the idealism of youth. Instead, we are confronted by American Idol’s all-consuming presence in pop culture. No matter where your water cooler is, conversation around it at any given time is likely permeated by American Idol love, hate, or something in between.

I am an American Idol fan. I’m more reluctant to claim this label than I was a few seasons back, but when it comes down to finale night, I still call myself a fan. (So … don’t even try to pretend you don’t watch. I know the drill.). Hooked since the middle of the first season, I have spent considerable amounts of time pondering this addiction I share with millions. Why do we tune in week after week, programming our DVRs on nights when life dares to interfere with real-time viewing? Though there are probably as many answers as Idol fans, for me American Idol is like the sky on a clear night. If watched for long enough, the stars will emerge.

So that’s why I watch. But I’m still puzzling over a couple of questions about the American Idol phenomenon. First, how, after eight seasons of brutal Simon Cowell honesty, can so many people who auditioned for season nine only think they can sing? Second, as the current season’s top 24 is methodically whittled down to the top 12, I wonder where all my emerging stars have gone. Any I’ve seen so far have been nothing more than brief glimpses.

I know it probably says appalling things about me that in a world of widespread poverty, famine, disease and disaster, I spend my time wondering about the First World’s lucky few who willingly subject themselves to potential ridicule on national television. As I write this, my parents’ voices call to me from childhood with reminders of "the starving kids in China.” But indulge me for a moment. While I agree that many other issues have greater social consequences and are, overall, much more deserving of our collective attention, none are as uniquely perplexing as the situation of ill-fated American Idol contestants. They walk into an audition room wall-papered with images of past Idol winners insisting that they are better than anyone who has won or at least more original. When they begin to sing, like fingernails on chalkboard the sound causes a visceral reaction. Then they dance. Wait … maybe those are stress-induced seizures. Either way, the pain of rejection is inevitable.

People around the world endure hardship and suffering because survival demands it, but no such demands are placed on Idol hopefuls. The humiliation of the audition process is not a life requirement. Why, then, do so many people without musical talent audition? After some thought, I have settled on three possible reasons. They took a wrong turn on the way to a comedy club. They failed to realize that blood relatives and bar patrons are equally bad judges of talent. Or they actually think they can sing. They couldn’t, could they? Most that audition are utterly convinced of their vocal talent. Most are sent home anyway.

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Those who survive this first audition still have a lot to prove…every single week. So far most of the current contestants are proving that they are good singers, but not great ones. Notable exceptions to this statement include Lilly Scott and Crystal Bowersox who have proven themselves to be strong, original artists. Certainly, what they have done is harder to accomplish than it looks for us as viewers. If it was easy, the other contestants would be shining just as brightly rather than disappearing into their shadows. There is, however, reason to keep watching. American Idol is a long competition, and who can say who will shine next week?

During the initial dream-crushing stage of the competition, I cringe and channel-surf as often as I laugh. Treating others as I want to be treated tempers my enjoyment (if only slightly). Because while it’s funny when the judges tell contestants they can’t and shouldn’t sing and funnier still when contestants blame the judges for overlooking such obvious talent, I would not want my aspirations deflated so harshly and publicly. I certainly don’t want to be informed that I should never sing again for the good of all humanity (whether it’s true or not). During these later and later stages, I sit transfixed in front of the television waiting each week for an AMAZING performance. It may take a while, but eventually someone will shine. Someone always does. That’s what makes the preliminary auditions fueled by delusions of talent worth enduring. It’s why I can’t truly discourage even the most hopeless of Idol hopefuls from living the dream. Because when Tuesday rolls around, I’ll be watching … laughing … waiting for the stars to emerge. 

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