American Idolatry

January 14, 2012

Originally published in Barrelhouse Magazine

Fall 2006

For twenty-seven years, I lived what I thought was a relatively happy and satisfied life. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there were good times and there were bad times, there were ups and there were downs, but through it all I considered myself fairly lucky to be blessed with the existence that fate had afforded me. I had a safe (if somewhat cheerless) childhood, which allowed me to feel the joy of overcoming some minor psychological obstacles and served as an excuse for all of my future failures. I was educated, traveled, and relatively well-read. Although I wasn’t wealthy, unlike most Americans, I was at least debt free. I was single, and since women are generally more caring, thoughtful, and intelligent than men, I always had girlfriends that were both more attractive and more interesting than me. Furthermore, I wasn’t gay, black, handicapped, or female, so I didn’t have to constantly consider how this successful life was perceived by the general culture. Sure, there was some white, male guilt wrapped up in there, but I had long since learned to smother that by listening to NPR and carrying a copy of Toni Morrison’s latest novel with me wherever I went. Yep, in 2002, I considered myself a relatively happy man.

But, apparently, I was wrong.

There was something missing in my life, even back then, only I didn’t know it yet. Those relationships and career goals that I had worked so hard to nurture were just proverbial carrots on a string, wild geese that I chased in order to fill the void while the true piece of the cosmic puzzle remained just outside my grasp.

Then, in the spring of 2002, it finally happened: a group of television executives at FOX imported a reality show from England that they renamed American Idol, and at long last my petty, little, inconsequential life was complete. At least, that’s what I’ve been lead to believe.

I don’t watch a lot of television myself, so I have never seen an entire episode of the groundbreaking show that has held the nation in its grasp for four long seasons, much like the taloned hand of Satan holding a still-beating heart over the eternal flames of Hell. It’s my theory that FOX teamed up with the CIA to test some type of new psychological weapon on the public that hypnotizes mass audiences through their television screens. Since I have never actually been able to sit through all sixty minutes of this mindnumbing marker of the end of civilization, my brain remains untainted. This is the only way that I can explain the overwhelming, almost cult-like following of such an obviously horrible show.

Even though I don’t watch American Idol, I know all about it. I know that Simon Cowell is rude and British; I know that Paula Abdul is always nice to the contestants, no matter how badly they suck; and I know that Randy Jackson used to be fat and he says “Dawg” a lot. I know that Kelly Clarkson was the winner of season one, Rubin Studdard of season two, and some girl with the unfortunate name of Fantasia was victorious in season three. Without ever listening to a Ryan Seacrest monologue, I know that there was a large lady named Frenchie who got kicked out of the competition because she once modeled nude for a website devoted to plus-size women. How do I know all of this? Because it is simply impossible to ignore American Idol in this country. The public will not permit it. I have told people time and again that I don’t watch American Idol, that I have never watched American Idol, and, in fact, that I loath American Idol. It makes no difference. They don’t understand. It’s like telling a Texan that you don’t enjoy the taste of beef or informing an entomologist that studying bugs is probably the must boring past time on the planet. They either a) think that you are lying or b) believe that you haven’t really given t-bones or termite collecting a fair shake.

Fans of American Idol stare at me in wide-eyed amazement when I tell them that I would rather dip my ball sack in honey and sit on an ant hill than listen to my favorite songs get raped by a group of future Vegas lounge singers. And, inevitably, they try to convince me to reconsider my opinion. I don’t know exactly why. Does it really matter whether or not I like their show? I love to read Hemingway but when I come across someone who isn’t keen on his prose style, I shrug and say, “Yeah, he’s not for everyone.” And then I get on with my life. I don’t follow them around reading passages from For Whom the Bell Tolls in the hopes that, through mere repetition, I will be able to make them see the error of their ways. American Idol fans are like newly inducted Jehovah’s Witnesses, forever stalking me with a copy of the Watch Tower in one hand and a Justin Guarini single in the other.

If it was merely the general public who watched American Idol, I might be able to let the issue go, but it’s not. Most of my good friends and respected colleagues watch it as well. This is, for me, the greatest enigma. Call me cynical or conceited if you want, but I have very little faith in the ability of the average Joe Shmoe to form an educated opinion when it comes to popular culture. In fact, I expect bad taste from the moron who cuts me off in traffic or the bitch that breaks out two dozen coupons in the express line at the supermarket. Most of us just don’t have the time or inclination to wade through the media blizzard and figure out that Britney Spears is a hillbilly Barbie Doll who would be more at home wrapped around a stripper’s pole than in front of a microphone. And to be fair, it isn’t really the consumer who has poor judgment as much as it is the executive in the board room who sacrifices quality for efficiency. It’s simply a lot easier to paste a pretty face on a bad idea than it is to worry about originality, talent, or content. I know that the general populace is too busy to make such inconsequential comparisons, but I expect more out of my close comrades.

All of my good friends are college graduates, many of them with masters degrees and beyond, and they are all—absolutely every single one, without exception—smarter than me. Oh, I probably read more books and I have a specific talent for circular logic and sarcasm that makes me appear to be the victor of many dinner table debates, but this is not really intelligence. Have us all sit down in front of a game of Trivial Pursuit or Scrabble and you will see my IQ points drop like the Dow Jones on September 12th. This is what keeps me awake at night. I could understand if they watched the show with detached amusement for sociological purposes, but this is simply not the case. They love American Idol. They are invested in it. They groan when certain Idol hopefuls hit a particularly spine-wrenching note and they cry out in protest when one of their favorites is voted off. You would think that Pontius Pilate was sentencing the son of God to death instead of a bitter, pompous, English man making overly critical remarks about a group of well-dressed karaoke singers. It’s crazy.

After the Vietnam War ended, my uncle never even mentioned the horrors he witnessed on the battlefield, but it’s been a year now and I have a coworker who still tears up whenever someone speaks of the Clay Aiken/Rubin Studdard decision. I mean, come on, does it really make a difference whether they gave the title to the fat black guy or the skinny ambiguously-gay guy? Neither one of them can write their own music or play a goddamn instrument anyhow.

And that is the heart of my criticism, I suppose. American Idol is simply a larger manifestation of an endemic problem in the music industry, which is the fact that there are fewer and fewer musicians in a corporatized image factory that specializes in spitting out Britney Spears clones. Instead of artists, we are being overrun with entertainers. For every Tom Waits or Tori Amos, there are twenty or thirty J-Los and Hillary Duffs waiting in the wings, like sirens attempting to lure a nation of lost Homerian characters onto their island so they can suck out our souls through our eardrums. They are an army of backup singers posing as leads, thousands of David Cassidys who believe in their heart of hearts that they are really John Lennon. Instead of mastering guitars or pianos, future Grammy winners would be better off learning how to fit into hot pants and install hair extensions.

Which is why American Idol is not just bad, it’s evil.

Of course, my opinion on this issue is completely irrelevant. Reality television is fake and nihilistic, but so what? That’s what television is for, which is why we love it. No one wants to come home from an eight-hour day at a soul-crushing job and sit down to a David Lynch movie. We want brainless, clever entertainment that makes us laugh without humor and cry without depth. That’s the beauty of television and no one really wants to take that away—not even me.

No, I don’t necessarily mind that American Idol makes millions of dollars for FOX while the Bob Dylans of the world starve to death. That’s the way it’s always been, and Bob Dylan wouldn’t be Bob Dylan without a little hunger and heartache thrown in there. What really gets my goat is that I am personally unable to ignore the whole phenomenon. I have been denied my constitutional right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of apathy. My friends are hooked on American Idol and they won’t stop talking about it, which, according to my calculations, leaves me with three options: 1) chuck this whole society business, find a cabin somewhere in the woods next to a pond, change my name to Henry David, and spend the rest of my life eating trail mix and burning cow dung for warmth; 2) get some new friends; or 3) start watching a show that makes me want to stick a fork in my eye.

Number one would definitely be a possibility, except for the fact that I’m about as rugged as a baby kitten with none of its survival instincts. I can’t hunt or cook or really build anything more complex than a peanut butter sandwich.

Number two is out of the question. I don’t have a lot of good friends because…well, to be completely frank, I don’t like other human beings. Don’t get me wrong, I am not one of those people who believes that humans are intrinsically corrupt or evil, just that they are intrinsically boring. Most people have nothing new or interesting to contribute to my life, or even to a conversation. It’s not necessarily their fault and it doesn’t make them bad people, but it also doesn’t mean that I should be forced to pretend to be amused when they tell me a twenty-minute story about how their three-year-old daughter eats her peas with a fork instead of a spoon. I have six very good friends and I don’t plan to make any more. Unless sex is involved, I don’t want to talk to anyone outside my current social circle.

Which brings us to option number three. It’s really not asking too much, I suppose. All I would have to do is relax on the couch for an hour every week and keep my big, cynical mouth shut and I could make everyone so very happy. Just sit back and watch while a group of eager, beautiful young men and women compete for my adoration. Quietly observe while Ryan Seacrest—that middling, talentless, unfunny Dick-Clark-with-highlights—becomes the voice of the next generation. Simply turn my head and cough while society gets sucked down into a dark, ugly vortex of banality and bad taste, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the end of the disco era!

Or I could go take a note from my old pal Ernest Hemingway. When Hem discovered that the world was inevitably doomed despite his best efforts to save it, he put a shot gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger with his big toe. Let’s see, shot gun…American Idol? Shot gun…American Idol? It’s really a no-brainer, I suppose. Pardon me while I do some toe stretches.

2 Responses to “American Idolatry”

  1. I liked this so much, I am now tagging along as a follower of your blog. Thanks so much for the follow @Fey1IsleofSkye, now that I’ve read this, I’m happy to reciprocate.

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