Smile Politely

A reasoned response to American Idol

I realize there are some places you won’t be willing to go with me, and American Idol might be one of those places. Admit it. If you don’t watch it, you’re about to stop reading this, which is what I would do if I were reading someone about to give an impassioned plea for CSI or Two and a Half Men (I have never been able to get on board with a single CBS offering outside of sports coverage and occasionally 60 Minutes).

There are some TV shows that you’re either into or you’re not, and if you’re an avid TV watcher, you’re bound to develop opinions about the TV-watching tastes of other people. An example: my mother, like a lot of people, loved Star Trek: The Next Generation with a passion. In its mid-’90s syndicated heyday, she watched it all the time, she discussed its plot points and tried to get the rest of the family into it. And I’ll tell you now, for The Borg alone, it was an excellent sci-fi show, well-acted, well-written, not as depressing-looking as the original Star Trek. But the mere mention of Star Trek: The Next Generation probably put all sorts of stereotypical images in your head about the type of person who would actively choose to watch the syndicated 10 p.m. airing of the show every night. The thought process, the private moment one turns the channel to the station, watching the credits, staying tuned for scenes from next week! One person’s passion is another person’s weird habit.

So if I say, “I watch American Idol, you should too,” and your initial reaction is disdainful (for all the appropriate reasons, up to and including, American Idol is cheesy, manipulative, fake, and trite), let me offer you this reasoned response:

  1. SONGS: Simply put, everyone loves songs. I love songs. I love watching people sing songs. I love watching people sing songs in all the canned ways the judges on American Idol love it. “You made it your own,” “you could sing the phonebook,” “you were off the hook,” etc. No one can argue with songs, and sometimes, the sadsack contestants on the show sing really good songs really well. I’m not lying about this. Contestant Matt Giraud sang “Who’s Lovin’ You” this past week, and he, um, blew it out the box, and it reminded me how much I absolutely love the Jackson 5 version of that song (initially introduced to me when I was little on some Jackson 5 Greatest Hits record owned by the afore-mentioned Jean-Luc-Picard-loving mother, so her tastes are somewhat reliable), which I have promptly listened to 57 times since last Wednesday. It was a total win-win, because I listened to an awesome song all week, and Giraud made it to the Top 12, excuse me, Top 13 (scripted American Idol shocker!). We’re both happy. And I’ll admit, for every awesome song, there’s someone singing “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” That’s when you fold your laundry or check to see if it’s gonna rain tomorrow. American Idol satisfies your need for songs and allows you to multitask.
  1. REALITY SHOW BS: Reality shows are popular for a reason, even if you’re not into them. The backstory, the idea that at least some of these people had a life somewhat similar to yours and mine before they entered the public consciousness in this way is fascinating. It’s a whole new breed of celebrity, and a viable career option for people who have some interest in the performing arts. Some reality shows handle and manipulate this reality better than others (see all the Bravo shows and probably Survivor and The Amazing Race, but I don’t really watch CBS shows). American Idol is not one of them. The show has been on for almost a decade, the production values are high, and the people in charge know what storylines work. Contestants’ stories are horribly mangled and managed, and part of me sees the reason for it — a lot of money changes hands every night American Idol is on, and certain things need to get said. I can generally handle the nefariousness of that, though it can seem hellishly evil when you’ve watched the show for the third night in a row. That said, I sure as hell couldn’t get up and sing a song and banter live on TV, and some of those kids have great backstories that sell Coke and play well in 30-second clips. Someone has diabetes or was on welfare or is a single mother with a baby daughter (American Idol loves the single mothers with baby daughters), etc. And now they’re living out their dream! And they get more polished as the weeks go on. And sometimes they blow songs out the box! I’m not arguing that it’s anything more than basic immensely appealing underdog stuff. It’s okay and heartening to care about some of the contestants. I promise.
  1. IMMEDIACY: Funny, sad, exalting, weird, uncomfortable, the show is on live twice a week (three times early in the season), viewers are supposedly responsible for who stays and who goes (I won’t lie, I’ve called and voted for Anoop … and Carly Smithson … and Latoya … and Elliot Yamin … multiple times), the judges offer immediate and unintelligible critiques that supposedly sway viewer votes, and someone gets kicked off the show every week. It’s a tiny bit exciting in its immediate gratification. (It would take a dissertation to discuss the American Idol judges, so I’ll just assume media saturation has given you some idea of what Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson, and Simon Cowell do and say. There’s also a new judge this year, Kara, who was supposed to up the rationality of the panel, but thus far, I’m not so sure.)

My point is, this is the time of year when American Idol gets good — the Top 12 or Top 13 or whatever. Mostly good singers will sing songs from theme weeks (Motown, Queen, Songs from the Year You Were Born), and there are some really good singers this year (Anoop, Allison, Matt Giraud), and you should try to watch it for a few weeks. And when it gets cheesy, manipulative, fake, and trite, because it will, you can always fold your laundry or flip the channel to your weird habit — QVC, Rock of Love, that weird car auction show, the sell-your-house shows on HGTV, Battlestar Galactica, sigh, Jon and Kate Plus Eight. …

A postscript:  My last column lowlighted my nervous TV-watching habits. American Idol is near the top of the list of things on TV that make me nervous, and it’s on FOX, multiple nights a week until at least May.

A second postscript: I hope Anoop doesn’t mess up.

A third postscript: I love spring TV. All new shows almost every week, and some AMC-type channel inevitably plays The Quiet Man and Ten Commandments. I love spring TV.


If you enjoyed this article, Smile Politely also recommends:

+ Surviving the Oscars
+ I heart Nancy Grace
+ Hot or Not: last week’s The Office
+ January: a return to watching TV by myself
+ Wasting time (until LOST) with Create TV
+ Bloodlust

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