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Bad Tribes 

Flick Chick

Like many a non-media-savvy member of the public, you may labor under the naive delusion that a critic's professional duties are limited to watching screeners of movies and TV shows at home in his underwear while everyone else is talking about movies and TV shows around the water cooler at work.

OK, that's true. But what you might not realize is that media critics have rules to live by just like you do. We are not the renegades and free spirits you probably think we are. For example, I just received a stern warning from the critics group to which I belong. It seems I've put my membership in jeopardy. Have I plagiarized the work of another reviewer? Of course not. Am I late in paying my dues? Well, yes, but that's beside the point. The reason I'm in hot water is that, after all this time, I have yet to write a column on "American Idol."

Evidently I'm the only media critic in the country who hasn't. I had hoped to keep it that way, too. After all, it isn't as if the program's phenomenal popularity hasn't been duly noted. Can there possibly be anything left to say? I guess we'll find out.

Before railing against the many things about "American Idol" that annoy, offend or revolt me, a disclaimer: I love the show. Like virtually everyone else in this entertainment-obsessed nation, I'm hopelessly addicted. And I'm not sure I understand why.

The songs, for the most part, are an easy-listening nightmare. The young contestants range in ability from comparatively competent to wincingly inept. And, when it comes to the judging process, all I can say is, there was less rigging on 19th-century ships.

Clearly, Randy, Paula and every celebrity judge who's ever appeared on the program have taken an oath of obsequiousness. To heighten the entertainment value of Simon Cowell's truthful and occasionally brutal comments, the show's producers seem to have stipulated that everyone else on the panel find something nice to say about each performance.

The people responsible for the show have now gone totally overboard with this, as with almost everything else. Current promos tout Cowell as the show's "villain." Consider the message this sends to impressionable young viewers: Lie like a rug and you can be the leader of the free world; tell the truth and you're a bad guy.

I mentioned the program's increasing tendency to take a good thing and run it into the ground. The unfortunate fact is that, over the past three years, "American Idol" has mutated from an homage to celebrity into an orgy of exploitation, cross-promotion and unchecked greed. Things started out innocently enough. At the end of season one, 20-year-old Kelly Clarkson was the last one standing and the first "AI" alum to put out her own album. Thankful failed to leave most reviewers feeling that way, but it sold like hotcakes due in part to the singer's frequent promo appearances throughout season two.

In the meantime, some behind-the-scenes smartypants got the bright idea that what Clarkson and fellow finalist Justin Guarini needed wasn't more talent but more exposure. And, faster than you could say beach blanket boneheads, moviegoers were avoiding From Justin to Kelly in droves.

Not that flopping at the box office discouraged the show's producers from attempting to milk every last cent from their well-known but essentially indentured servants. To the contrary, it seemed to send them into a frenzy. Several of the 2002 season's unsuccessful contestants were also sent into recording studios to work on solo releases. Ten were rounded up to produce a group CD. And still program management wasn't finished with them. The group was then bussed off on a cross-country tour. Loserpalooza!

Season two was even weirder. Ruben Studdard came in first with voters, but it was runner-up Clay Aiken whose record made number one. His Measure of a Man has sold more than 1.4 million copies, while Studdard's Soulful and a collection of Christmas standards performed by another assortment of "AI" nonwinners failed to meet expectations. At least nobody made a movie.

Which brings us to the current season, a shameless pyramid scheme of unprecedented broadcast opportunism. Where to begin?

How about with the fact that "AI" has turned into a contest without losers? Ejected contestants virtually walk out the stage door and into a recording studio. Remember, that was the prize Kelly Clarkson fought for throughout the whole first season. Now former hopefuls are rushed into sound booths so product can hit the malls before teen shoppers have a chance to forget them.

The morning after minimally gifted Jon Peter Lewis was given the boot, I watched him philosophically explain to Katie Couric that he didn't have time to be bitter. He was too busy working on his album.

How about the fact that a release featuring all 12 of this season's contestants -- American Idol Soul Classics -- is already in stores?

How about the way the show's producers have started attracting sponsors by arranging for contestants to perform in their commercials? Recent episodes have featured spots for Ford in which remaining members of the lineup perform the Devo chestnut, "Whip It." An "American Idol" breakthrough: celebrity endorsements by kids who aren't even celebrities yet. Aren't there child-labor laws against this sort of thing?

And then there's that "American Idol" spin-off known as "On Air with Ryan Seacrest." A "TRL" clone that also airs on Fox, this show raises blandness, fawning and corporate shilling to new heights.

Even Seacrest had to chuckle, though, at his bosses' obviousness during the April 20 installment of "Idol." "You won't believe it," he announced in mock shock. "There are stars from another Fox program in the audience!"

While bean counters at "Idol" have sunk ever lower in recent months, they presumably have struck rock bottom with the sideshow exploitation of the spectacularly talent-free William Hung. The Chinese-American engineering student was one of thousands who tried out for the current season and failed to make the grade. In a cruel twist, however, his rendition of the Ricky Martin hit "She Bangs" was so comically awful that show producers sensed it had the potential to make them mountains of money while they made fun of him. The upshot: The show aired Hung's clueless performances over and over, he's become the country's unofficial anti-idol, and, of course, he's released an album.

I'm far from the only one who has been offended by this manipulation. "Hung's moment in the pop culture sun should have ended [with his audition]," wrote David Browne in his Entertain-ment Weekly review of Inspiration. "But such is not the way contemporary entertainment -- or anything associated with 'American Idol' -- works... Even in a business with a high threshold for shame, Inspiration is shameless."

If there is anything weirder than a guy like Hung even having a moment in the pop-culture sun, it is the way "AI" gains prestige as it gets cheesier. Paul McCartney is considering a request to do guest-judge duty next season. Bob Dylan's people have already called the program's people.

Joni Mitchell once had a line about "the starmaking machinery," and she meant it disparagingly. But these are different times, and the notion of a performer privately honing his art over years -- or even aspiring to be an artist -- is out of date. Today we're not concerned with artists so much as with stars. We like our stars prepared as quickly as our Big Macs, and "American Idol" has become the golden arches of fast fame.

I get a kick out of watching these kids dress up and play showbiz legend as much as the next viewer. What takes some of the fun out of it is the sense that they aren't getting their fair share of the fortune being generated. Some are probably flipping burgers before their CDs have even hit the discount bins. That's gotta be a rough rollercoaster ride for young Americans whose egos we've all helped to supersize.

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