Imagine a world without Jennifer Garner.

Obsessive analysis of American Idol.
April 22 2010 9:58 AM

Imagine a World Without Jennifer Garner

Idol helps the needy.

Jennifer Garner. Click image to expand.
Jennifer Garner

I hate that I cry during charity telethons. You can talk all you want about corporate machines or celebrities seeking attention, but whether it's Idol Gives Back or Hope for Haiti Now, or Save the Telethons, the waterworks are as inevitable as the Idols' weekly Ford video. The minute you bring out things like phone banks operated by reality TV stars, or "HIV Positive" T-shirts, or, like, orphans, my mascara is pretty much done for. So in an attempt to keep from entirely betraying my cynical generation, this week I made a pact with myself that for every time I wept, I'd make a donation. That way, I'd be certain to give some money but would, I hope, rein in the sniveling for the sake of my shaky finances. I lasted a whole 17 minutes.

No, it wasn't the agony of will.i.am's out-of-tune Auto-Tune (is that even possible?) that finally did me in. To be fair, I had no chance against the combo of Captain Sully, gospel choirs, Jeff Beck, and our Idols singing that Münchener Freiheit song dressed all in white. (Because they were the brides of Idol? White knights come to rescue the world? There was a white sale at Macy's?) Oh, and the babies dying of malaria. Um, I'll be right back—I think I left my … thing that I need … in the other room, by that box of Kleenex. Well, as long as I'm there, I might as well grab some, you know, just in case you need one.

Advertisement

I should have known I was doomed back on Tuesday when Crystal's tough facade crumbled at the end of her stunning, Eva Cassidy-inflected "People Get Ready"—an actual inspirational song, written in response to a moment of tremendous national crisis and not for a Spider-Man film. Jeff Beck and Joss Stone have performed it together, too. Maybe they meant to play that song for Idol until they found out at the last minute that Crystal had dibs on it, a scenario that might explain their decidedly noninspirational choice of "I Put a Spell on You." In any case, Crystal's slip was the mother lode for Ryan, who has been insistently goading everyone toward a good cry the entire season, prodding Siobhan about her dead friend, declaring some Idol twitch "emotional" every 10 minutes, and casting himself as a hero who talked a despondent Crystal out of flying the Idol coop. The judges, too, were absolutely gleeful to see the breakdown. The cruelest show on television, like Wanda Sykes said, because as I (and my credit card) reconfirmed last night, tears=$.

But even if Ryan is engineering much of the Season 9 drama, the stories told during Idol Gives Back are always painful, heartbreaking realities. (We know that they and the work of the organizations involved are legit, because the show was endorsed by President and Mrs. Obama, Ban-Ki Moon, and Ben Affleck.) And we're not just talking about Annie Lennox, held hostage by the Icelandic volcano—maybe Simon Fuller and Richard Curtis can start a charity to help all those travelers get their money back—but the widespread inaccessibility of miraculous advances in AIDS treatment, the little runaway married girls in Addis Ababa, the children who live in trailers with no health care or heating or Jennifer Garner, not to mention literacy, and the Pasadena math teacher who can't put supper on his family table without help from a food bank. Yeah, way to go, California education cuts. No, I'm fine, that was a cough. So was that. Uh-oh, my phone says that Idol Gives Back has a five-time limit on text donations …

The "Inspirational Song" theme on Tuesday yielded some low-level personal inspiration—golden boy Lee's chose "The Boxer" because it made him want to play the guitar (though the desperate quality in his upper register was sort of appealing, no lie-la-lie); Siobhan's voice, with its steel and butterfly-wing fragility, took on the double virtuosity whammy of Whitney and Mariah in "When You Believe"; and Aaron Kelly inspired me to bang my head against the wall when he enthused that he first sang "I Believe I Can Fly" at the age of 5. I'm so old I can remember when R. Kelly had not yet videotaped his statutory kinks or been "Trapped in a Closet." Didn't everybody used to audition for Idol with that song? Then we heard the high-powered songs for revolution, like Crystal's Curtis Mayfield cover and Casey's choice of Bill Clinton's theme song. Inspirational can mean a lot of things—the motivation to change our country, our own lives, or the lives of others—but I think what the producers really wanted was something that would inspire us to a different kind of change: the kind we find in our wallets.

I was considering starting this post with a joke in rather poor taste, that would go something like, "This week Idol Gives Back. Can't they give Texas back Tim Urban?" Well, now I feel like a jerk. Oh, no—and he's still smiling and gracious, even though the producers couldn't give him two minutes to sing on top of running nearly half an hour over time! And I'm still weakened from Elton John's ballad and watching Mary J. rock the Zeppelin … damn it. Can I borrow your hankie? And 20 bucks?

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

Katherine Meizel is the author of Idolized: Music, Media, and Identity in American Idol and a visiting assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Oberlin Conservatory.