I had a few words to say about Simon Cowell last week, but last night’s American Idol season premiere just drove it home harder: Cowell has taken music, with all its infighting and obsession and Big Ideas and chaos, something that’s still basically, as Riff Raff has said, a niche, and he’s turned it into overwhelming mass culture, a spectacle on the level of the Super Bowl or something. It’s the most-watched TV show in America, a pretty mind-boggling little factoid, and much was made in 2004 of how more Idol votes were cast that year than presidential-election votes.
So is American Idol bigger than politics or sports or popular culture? Not quite. Ryan Seacrest, in last night’s hushed-awed introductory monologue, said that over a billion votes had been cast since the show first premiered, but he didn’t say how many of those votes came from 14-year-olds hitting redial every thirty seconds. The show still hasn’t managed to launch a Mariah Carey/50 Cent-level superstar, though Kelly Clarkson is starting to maybe get close. Still, it’s big. I don’t buy Seacrest’s weird introductory tangent about how the show’s auditions have become a “modern rite of passage,” how groups of friends go to audition every year. But last night’s shots of a Chicago stadium full of auditioners were pretty breathtaking; there aren’t too many bands left in the world who could sell out a space that size. Many of the people who made it on the air had come a long way (from New York or Maryland), so people are investing significant resources into getting to these tryouts, even though the chances of actually becoming rich and famous from the show probably aren’t much greater than the chances of winning the lottery. It’s hard to believe that anyone would see the show’s stringent weeding-out process as the quick-and-easy route to stardom, but it’s unlikely that this many people are actually recording demo tapes or forming bands. Which means it’s the show itself that’s captured people’s imaginations; the pull to get on TV is what draws out all these people.
And of course, this leads to most regrettable and attention-grabbing aspect of the show’s early part: the display of the hysterically untalented freaks who get up and screech in front of the judges and then have to stand there and do their best to maintain dignity while they get mowed down. Now that the show is in its fifth season and the attention-seeking horrible singers have been viciously lampooned on the WB’s Superstar USA, it’s hard to imagine that any of the fools who make it through actually believe they have a chance; some of last night’s William Hungs (the cop, the spazzing-out guy who actually made it through) had probably just lost bets. And still we have heartbreaking scenes of people awkwardly flirting with the judges, singing horribly, and then hopelessly protesting the judges’ verdicts. These scenes are more uncomfortably voyeuristic than anything on Trading Spouses: people hoping for and expecting approval, never sure how to react when it doesn’t come. Sometimes, as with the Ukrainian girl trying to get a visa to stay in the country and busting through a ridiculous set of Japanese-teen-idol dance moves, there’s a weird and sad cultural divide at work. But more often, it’s close-to-home, the car-wreck spectacle of egos absolutely demolished. (My girlfriend Bridget: “These people must have friends who hate them. Or no friends and a very, very deluded family.”)
Other than that, the show looks like business as usual: Paula and Simon beefing early and openly, Simon working the asshole angle hard and squeezing in a few homophobic digs at contestants, not quite as many aggressive drama-nerd types as last year, a clip of one dude with a horrible goatee repeated over and over to assure us that we’d get more dubious “rockers” this year. I wish I could say this wasn’t great TV, but it is.
Voice review: Edd Hurt on Carrie Underwood’s Some Hearts