Aspiring "idols" wait in line before American Idol auditions in Birmingham, Alabama. © Fox Television, 2006.
Like 37.3 million other Americans, I spent four hours of my life this week watching countless people make buffoons out of themselves on national television. The season premiere of American Idol began, as is now its habit, by showing thousands of people lining up in cities across America, eager to belt their hearts out in search of a "golden ticket." No, this is not a reference to the Roald Dahl book about a chocolate factory, but it might as well be, because like many of the characters in that beloved childhood classic, Idol tells a tale of greed, improbability and illusion. Sorry: make that delusion.
Which may be precisely the point. The draw for viewers clearly lies in a kind of vicarious thrill, in the overwhelming sense of relief that comes from the full knowledge that it's not you up there. There's that explicit, over-the-top embrace of humiliation writ large, the tears and the pleading and the full-frontal failure that all-too-common televisual strain of schadenfreude that is the purview of most (if not all) reality programming.
Yet oddly, in this case, it's the very hold on reality that's slipping. The lure of American Idol, in these early weeks, lies in precisely this shaky space: that illusory bubble populated by thousands of fame-seekers who fervently believe in their own righteous, if highly fictional talent.
I call this the karaoke effect.
Karaoke comes from the Japanese "kara" which means empty and it's probably no exaggeration to say that the vast majority of Idol hopefuls are, quite frankly, all about the void. In this sense, American Idol is rather aptly named (after all, it's not called "American Talent") casting a kind of pious light on the whole enterprise. Indeed, for these people people who deify the Top 40 and long to be the target of the popularity polls, not to mention the paparazzi it's (idol) worship that's key: ergo, stardom as religion. Thus brainwashed by pop culture, they follow the fantasy mecca to cities all across America to prove their worthiness, as if worthiness only matters if people are applauding for you.
Such an emphasis on the contrivances of fame is on one level completely unsurprising. Basically, it's no different from the mania surrounding the Beatles first broadcast appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, except that the screaming fans are screaming for themselves. Future pop-cultural anthropologists, take note: in an era that is likely to be remembered for its unique emphasis on self-love, these supplicants might just be the next logical step on the evolutionary chain of fandom.
Barring the presence of the Oompa Loompas, the land of Charlie is a lot more realistic. After all, Wonka's story operates on a simple premise: your chance is as good as anyone's because it's all a lottery. But in the land of American Idol, the golden ticket (a goldenrod-hued sheet of paper that is handed out to those who make it to the next round) is awarded for something called musical ability. It is not a game of chance. It is a measure of that very rare thing called talent which, in case you were wondering, is seldom in evidence here. There turn out to be a staggering number of people in this country whose talent is inversely (make that perversely) proportionate to their ambition. At least the Oompa Loompas knew their limits.
Not so on American Idol, where people of all shapes, sizes and degrees of questionable sanity endeavor to beat the odds. They croon and hiss and, God help us, dance in front of the judges. They forget the words. They falter, stumble and weep. What's astonishing is what got them there: the exalted, fetishized celebrity worship that supplants any speck of self-awareness; the misguided notion that their morning-shower sing-alongs were ever fit for public consumption; the stoic, if tragic self-affirmations that follow the inevitable trios of "no" from the judges sappy monologues that could have been lifted from the diaries of Al Franken's legendary Stuart Smalley.
The karaoke effect is the result. It's cultural fallout: just as the karaoke singer imagines him or herself live and in concert before the screaming fans, so, too, does the illusion of grandeur persist once the microphone is turned off. Cell phones chirping with customized ringtones, satellite presets on the car radio, and TiVo catching whatever you think you might have missed, you're buffered from reality at every turn. In go the earbuds. Up goes your MySpace page, your Flickr album, your IM icon all of them players in the juggled perpetuation of the mediated self. Life's just a mobile cocoon, feathered with digital ego-enhancers, a hermetically sealed entertainment playspace in which YOU are the star, the center of the universe, the triumphant hero. From there, imagining your Grammy acceptance speech is, quite frankly, a no-brainer.
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