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Is it worthy?

by Mark D. Johnson
January 24, 2003

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'Idol'-Mania_Mark D. Johnson-Is it worthy? Many wondered if the show itself would be a one-hit wonder. Last summer’s surprise standout series, “American Idol,” had the young demographic in a frenzy as they voted Kelly Clarkson the nation’s “hottest” singing sensation. Competing networks were already planning their shameless knock-offs before Clarkson even made it to the recording studio. But before those imitators could hit the air-waves, here comes “Idol,” back for another round. Too soon? Not if you judge by the huge ratings this week’s two 90-minute episodes delivered. The masses just can’t get enough of those pop vocals, whether good or incredibly bad, and the three judges that callously weed out the latter. Tuesday’s premiere drew Fox’s highest non-sports ratings ever, and Wednesday’s continuation retained those big numbers. So why is it such a phenomenon, and how long before it follows “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” into prime-time oblivion?

Since I deplore much of what pop music has to offer, I determinedly sat out the show’s first run until the very end, and what I did see was largely fluff. Couldn’t get into it. In its second outing, not much has changed: the format is the same, the original three judges are back (Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, and Simon Cowell), as well as radio personality Ryan Seacrest as host. Changes: Co-host Brian Dunkleman is gone. New to the cast is “American Idol I” finalist, Kirsten Holt, who, so far, is completely redundant as the show’s “correspondent.”

This time around, feeling somewhat responsible as a TV columnist with an eye on television trends, I’m catching the first round of auditions, and it’s easy to see how this thing caught on. It’s simple and brilliant, though still largely fluff. Now, certainly these judges do not really need to sit through tens of thousands of auditions when the worst hopefuls could be eliminated by a tone-deaf intern. Certainly they could narrow the field from a more select group. But they don’t, which is a smart move. This way, viewers get the impression that everyone gets a fair shot who wants one. Over the course of a few months, the audience can root (and vote) for their favorite contestants, live vicariously through them, and possibly see them go all the way to become a superstar. And along the way, they can laugh at the awful singers, taking delight as the judges, Simon, of course, in particular, rip them to shreads, effectively flushing their hopes and dreams down the toilet in front of millions of viewers. Now that’s entertainment!

Um… let me rephrase that… That’s entertainment?!

Some viewers, and naturally the “vocalists” on the receiving end, despise Cowell’s unnecessarily harsh criticism, but there is no question that his barbs are a huge part of the show’s success. The majority of viewers are entertained upon seeing bad singers – who don’t know they’re bad – get cut down to size by being told matter-of-factly that they are “awful,” “ghastly,” and “one of the worst singers in the world.” Not surprisingly, many victims cry after this public humiliation. Some take it well, and it’s true that this destructive criticism is rooted in the cold hard facts of the popular music business. But there are times when it is uncomfortable to watch – when it seems that the put-downs are being delivered for entertainment’s sake, much like Anne Robinson’s insults on the old “Weakest Link.” But while Anne’s jabs were clearly tongue-in-cheek, Simon’s are sincere. He doesn’t have to put it so bluntly, or spend five minutes doing so – he does it because the audience likes it. If he only said, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you” after a bad audition, “Idol” would be a very different and much less popular show.

The big production numbers at the end of “American Idol I” were nauseating pop medleys seemingly recycled from a bad Brady Bunch variety show. But whatever you think of pop music, “Idol” does offer something as a kind of watered-down documentary on the slim chances of hitting it big in the music industry, and people who are dead certain they can be the next Kelly Clarkson ought to watch with more sobriety. “American Idol” may be the fastest way for a pop artist to reach the top, but the typical good singer’s odds are still slim to none. There’s that whole image thing to consider, and the judges are clearly judging looks as well as voice. Interestingly, the show also unintentionally underscores how bland and unoriginal pop music is these days.

How long before “Idol” wears thin with Nielsen families? Much may depend on how lasting the fame is for the winners. While Clarkson’s forgettable single, “A Moment Like This” became a number one hit, her debut CD has yet to hit the market, and her future success is far from certain. It will be interesting to see if the imitators – upcoming shows that will search for America’s new action star, country singer, supermodel, and so on – manage to draw “Idol”-esque ratings, whether they will do it with or without judges you’ll love to hate, or if “American Idol” strikes a uniquely sweet chord with the public. Eventually, like a pop hit that gets played over and over again on the radio, or like “Millionaire,” which wore out its welcome at three shows per week, people will get tired of “Idol” if it stays the same. Expect it to change slightly, but not significantly, over the next couple of seasons, and then expect something new to come along that is just as mindless, but fresh enough to steal away the nation’s attention. So it goes with popular taste...

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