Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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On the Boob Tube

Last night on "Lost" we were introduced to another character taken straight out of the history of political theory. Joining the ranks of Locke, Rousseau, and Hume, we now have Edmund Burke. Unfortunately he was an insignificant character, the ex-husband and boss in the "pre-island" life of one of the more central characters. And he was a creep, and (stop reading if you don’t want the ending of last night’s episode spoiled) he was promptly killed off, being hit by a bus.

While I’m on the subject, I must confess that one of my guilty pleasures over the past few years has been "American Idol." Hokey? Cheesy? Absolutely. But in among all the garbage there are some genuinely great performances by extremely talented vocalists--much better than highly-synthesized mediocrities like Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake.

Well, I don’t think I can any longer in good conscience contine to be an Idol fan. It seems that now the audition shows--that is, the episodes based on the screening process by which the judges narrow the pool down to a relative handful of contestants--have become the be-all and end-all of the program. Moreover, these episodes had traditionally featured some of the best and some of the absolute worst of the bunch. This year the audition shows have been nothing more than a procession of talentless wannabees making idiots of themselves for our amusement.

And then there’s the general sense of nastiness. In previous years everyone understood that Simon Cowell was there to make unkind comments. Now it seems that everyone--even goody-twoshoes Paula Abdul--has gotten into the act. It’s one thing when some braggart is taken down a peg or two, but now we’re seeing perfectly ordinary people being insulted and, in some cases, brought to tears. Making matters worse, some genius at FremantleMedia came up with the brilliant idea of locking one of the double doors leading out of the audition room. Why? For no other apparent reason than to humiliate those trying to exit the room after having already faced the embarrassment of being told they’re not good enough to appear on the program. In fact, the producers put together a montage video of these unfortunates trying to push open the wrong door. Sorry, I consider myself an aficionado of trash television, but even I occasionally find some standards. "American Idol" is now officially off my viewing schedule.

Discussions - 12 Comments

On American Idol: I also sort of liked it last year; the finalists were all excellent, as John said, and seemingly competing in a meritocratic and very intense way etc. And they mostly had edifying rags to riches stories, were interesting personalities etc. Having glanced a bit at the opening rounds shows, I agree that there’s nothing entertaining about humiliating people who can’t sing at all. And the odd combination of freaks and really talented people w nothing in the middle casts doubt on the show really being meritocratic or not being fixed as yet another way of staging "reality" circuses for the rubes.

Like John, I have enjoyed watching American Idol as a guilty pleasure through all the seasons. But I have to say that this "development" he sees is not a new one--or at least not new to this season. There was plenty of this humiliation thing going on in years past. The difficulty with it is this: telling the difference between who is putting on and therefore deserves to be spanked and who is actually delusional. I think it is impossible for anyone--even Simon--to get that right every time. And then there is the inevitable playing to the cameras that comes from both the contestants and the judges--so you do get the occasional exaggerated insult where simply telling the person that their services are not wanted would have been sufficient. Worse than any of the judges, in this, is Ryan Seacrest--whom I have always found to be condescending and creepy. If the show demonstrates anything, it is the fact that there is a myriad of ways for people to delude themselves about their abilities.

I think the shows creators delude themselves if they think that Simon’s appeal comes strictly from his ability to deliver a cutting remark. His appeal comes from his honesty and his unflinching (dare I say manly?) nature when confronted with the conflict between truth and hurt feelings. I have rarely seen him act in a way that is deliberately cruel (occasionally he has, and more frequently now, he comes close) but he will not placate feelings unless he has reason to believe the person is so fragile as to be beyond reason. If he’s being gentle with you, it’s probably a good sign that you need some kind of mental health intervention. I think people admire his love of what he does--he loves it so much that he works zealously to protect it from pretenders. I think people admire his forthrightness. I think people find the appeal to reason over feelings refreshing and just shocking enough to invigorate--like an occasional cold shower. Paula and Randy must be catching on--the problem is that they’re not good at it. Their judgment is not as good as Simon’s and their playing to cameras is artificial and visibly so. That’s what makes them unappealing. Still, they probably can’t go back to being as they were because they’ve been influenced just enough by Simon to see that their former aspect was lacking. They are Simon "wannabes" but they can’t pull it off.

I will still watch when it gets interesting again, but I agree with John that the audition shows are not what they used to be when the contrast between Simon and the other judges was more palpable. I also hate these new "guest" judges who are almost never interesting. I won’t feel any more guilty for an occasional peek, but I think I’ll derive considerably less pleasure from so doing. It won’t matter, in the end. How much longer can the show last if old people like us (and even my mother-in-law) are the ones watching? I think it’s more popular with our demographic than with the kids. The kids I know (but for very young ones, i.e., children) scorn it as "pathetic" and "inauthentic." In other words, in this the show is very much like Britney and Justin.

I agree with Julie, on the whole. The audition shows, while somewhat amusing in places, are just as often quite sad. Some of these people have really convinced themselves (or been convinced by family members too polite, or should I say cruel, to tell them the truth) that they have star qualities. The desperation in their eyes is sometimes heart-breaking.

But after last night, the auditions are done and the show will get on toward the part that truly is quality, the talented people singing. There is still drama. Some of them completely crack under the pressure of the Hollywood auditions, forgetting lyrics, behaving like idiots in their down-time, not working on their songs in the limited amount of rehearsal time they receive, etc. But this is all part of the meritocracy, in the end. The singing is only part of the gig. Being able to stand up to the pressures of the industry is a significant factor as well.

As for how much longer the show can last, I think it will last as long as Cowell will still participate. The ratings for it, I believe, are just as high as ever. And it has continually produced marketable singers which keeps audiences involved. The success of Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood in particular makes it clear to viewers that they almost certainly are crowning a new pop star with their votes. And I don’t think these singers are only selling CDs to the over-30 crowd. The downfall of some of the lesser "reality" shows is that they almost never accomplish what they claim they will. Silly shows like "The Bachelor," which aims to marry an eligible and theoretically desirable man to one of a bevy of apparently desperate women, was amusing for a while, but, to my knowledge, every couple that they have produced has broken up within weeks of the show ending. That sort of thing grows tiresome to an audience. But Idol produces successful pop stars almost without fail.

I’m sure Idol won’t last forever, but I think it could last a good long time if Cowell will stay involved.

First, I am glad I can share my interest in American Idol guilt free in this forum. Second, John, I solve the very problem you identify by not watching the first half dozen or so American Idol episodes of the season. The show doesn’t really get good until you are down to about eight people.

I wish the show was as meritocratic as some commentors suggest. But the screening process for American Idol has its biases. First, no one over 30 need apply. Second, they do not allow you to play an instrument. Also, they want people with "stories" or, to be honest, a look. I know a couple people who went to Minneapolis to audition and I guarentee you they are more talented than dang near anyone who made it Los Angeles. But they didn’t even make it pass the screeners to see the big time judges. Why? Who knows, but I am sure it has something to do with look and who will be good on TV. While this is a reasonable standard, this is not a standard of musical or singing talent. It is a talent to be a "star" of which actual singing talent is one component. At my small South Dakota university there are a half dozen music majors who can sing pop music better than most everyone who has been on American Idol, but they don’t have the "star quality" Idol looks for. Finally, Idol is based on fan voting, and let’s just say the fans don’t always have the soundest taste (Taylor Hicks!!!).

I realize I have spent this post bashing Idol. But I will be there, enjoying my guilty pleasure. But not for another few weeks.

Jon’s complaints are not uncommon, but are unfounded, I think. American Idol has never tried to be solely about musical talent or even solely about singing. They are in the business of finding a pop star. We all know that the way a person looks factors into their success in that field. Cowell, in particular, warns some of those auditioning that, despite their singing ability, they may not make it far because of their weight or nerdy look, etc. As for playing an instrument, while that does demonstrate a greater amount of musical ability, they always make it clear that this is a singing competition not a piano-playing competition. Maybe that means that the person who wins is not the most talented musician to have auditioned, but that’s not really the point.

When Lost has a character based on Sir. Robert Filmer or Joseph de Maistre then I will tune in. :-)

I don’t disagree with anything Dominick writes, which is why I referred to the "reasonable standard" of the American Idol judges. This is precisely my point. These are not the most talented musicians or singers in America by any stretch. So when we talk about Idol being a meritocracy, let’s be sure we know what merits we are judging them on. These people go a long way on being pretty and likable. That’s how you get last year’s finalists whose vocal talents were, shall we say, quite limited. On the other hand one was a pretty girl and the other guy was energetic. This shows one can be a pop star while being a mediocre musical talent. I guess that’s a kind of meritocracy, but it isn’t a musical one.

I think most of these shows pander to the worst instincts of people. True, if you like singing then Idol has its bright spots (I only catch snippets because of my teenage daughter), but overall there isn’t much uplifting about reality TV in general. Let’s bring back "Gilligan’s Island." Now THAT was entertainment.

Even with the Help of Paul Cantor’s Platonic spin, I can’t sit through Gilligan...But in general I’m for bringing back the fairly brainless half hour sitcom...One on today: Two and a Half Men...It may be too vulgar or even disgusting for some, but it’s actually critical of the directionless Malibu lives lives it portrays.

Oh, Peter...you can’t sit through an episode of GI. Have you no soul?

But I can sit through Green Acres, Andy Griffith, Dobie Gillis, and all but the last version of Bob Newhart. I can even sit through the early years Roseanne, Laverne and Shirley, and That Seventies Show. And, dain, you’re the guy who keeps telling us all we have no souls.

I agree with you on the Andy Griffith...timeless entertainment. As for "no souls," I’ve never said that. Indeed, there are even some versions of Protestantism that believe that the soul=spirit + body, and that the spirit is undifferentiated spiritual energy. This necessitates the Rapture and the resurrection of the body...we are only "us" when we have a body (I remember all this from a ’crusade’ I went to as a kid...perhaps 7th Day Adventists, but I can’t remember the denomination).

My point has always been that you can’t infer a soul (or a spirit) by the corporeal behaviors of Man. Religion can be neither verified nor falsified by science...period. I know people think otherwise (both religious people and the humanists), but they are wrong. The fact is, none of us will really know until we die...and if there is no afterlife, we won’t even know then. Life’s a bitch, ain’t it?

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