American Idol

Scott Brown's Daughter, the Health Care Debate, and "Pants on the Ground"
Obsessive analysis of American Idol.
Jan. 21 2010 10:44 AM

American Idol

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Ayla Brown. Click image to expand.
Former American Idol Ayla Brown 

It's been a whole interminable week since the last installments of American Idol, but somehow I made it through bolstered only by the hundreds of Idol-related items peppering the news every day.

OK, the hundreds of items about "Pants on the Ground." By now, unless you're Regis Philbin, you've seen Larry "General" Platt demonstrate how "Pants on the Ground" is not the new instruction TSA agents are shouting at travelers, but rather the catchy culmination of one man's crusade to ensure the continued impact of the Civil Rights Movement. On pants. The song has an undeniable earworm appeal and even delivers an important message. Why, just today my own pants began slipping dangerously—damn you, stretchy jeans!—and I suddenly found myself humming a little self-chastisement for lookin' like a fool. But on a deeper level, this has been a tough one for me to get my head around—reading over and over about the General fighting hard American realities in the 1960s doesn't gel easily with his highly engineered appearance on a reality show in 2010. Is this what the Shangri-La of "post-racial" America will look like, former activists reduced to "novelty rapping" on Fox? And as much as I enjoy the song and am all for the employment of senior citizens, it unsettles me a little that this aired just before Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. Where is my show that last year had its top finalists sing "A Change Is Gonna Come" and "What's Going On"? Well, I'm at least glad Paige Dechausse survived her childhood asthma to sing the Sam Cooke anthem at her audition.

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I'm always talking about Idol and politics, but this week the show outdid itself in narrowing the ever-shrinking gap that separates it from the real electoral world. With the clip of Barack Obama's victory speech and the crowds of singers chanting, I kind of wonder whether producers chose Chicago just so that Ryan could co-opt the president's slogan for the "Yes we can"/"Yes they did'" wordplay. Otherwise, Tuesday's episode was mostly about messing with the rejects, Kara fan-girling about Shania Twain, and Shania Twain fan-girling about contestant John Park's "beautiful bottom end." Something (else) was wrong, though. I mean, I can suspend disbelief with the best of them, including Tiny Tim impersonator Brian Krause, but you will have to work pretty hard to convince me that when 12,000 singers auditioned in the city where gospel and house were born, the city that gave us Chicago blues and Chicago soul, in a statethatcalls its Department of Labor by the acronym "IDOL," producers could really find only 13 to send on to Hollywood. Maybe it was just pre-emptive revenge for the president's pre-empting speech next week?

But the Idol-politics interaction goes both ways, and the show has finally worked its way into an actual election. After his potential influence on health care reform, the most noted feature of Sen.-elect Scott Brown's special election has been his once-removed relationship to American Idol, through his ( available) daughter Ayla. Back in 2006, Ayla Brown just missed the Top 12 lineup, ousted for her rendition of Natasha Bedingfield's then-recent release "Unwritten." "It wasn't you," Simon comforted her, dissing his fellow Brit Bedingfield, "it was the song." A lesson in politics for us all: Choose your song wisely.

Speaking of health care, this season's theme overwhelmingly appears to be the overcoming of physical challenges. Even down to the perfect theatrical faint Amy Lang executed before singing "Dr. Feelgood," the maladies are flying fast and sick. I mean thick. The American Idol Dream has always championed those who prevail over difficult circumstances, and lots of people always appear to develop a peculiar Simon-induced form of Tourette's, but there seems to be something more going on now. Whether inspired by the fan base that 2009 finalist Scott MacIntyre drew or by the recent British reality program(me) Britain's Missing Top Model, so far we've had multiple accounts of cancer, asthma, autism, Down syndrome, Rett syndrome (again—but don't get me wrong, I'm rooting for Angela Martin), and damage to the seventh intracranial nerve. More power to Shelby Dressel, singing in spite of that last one—the sort of nerve it takes to audition for American Idol appears to be completely unimpaired. More power to all of them, in fact. No matter how much we debate health care, some of these ailments are still all but invisible, and those who struggle with them are never part of the public vision of America. If Idol brings some acknowledgment, maybe that's not a bad thing. In any case it was a relief, after last week's egregious mockery of Jesse Hamilton's triple threat, to see the show return to sympathy and sad music for the near-death stories.

But last night, amid all the tragedy of what Ryan called the "most dramatic episode" to date, there were some real bright spots. Several boys with sweet voices, like Jermaine Purafoy and Seth Rollins, the subtle Fox product placement of the Glee theme, and Kristin Chenoweth! I almost wish Kristin were replacing Paula—she's even the right tiny size—though I was a little afraid of her "girl power" pact with Kara. I also enjoyed the newly diverse background soundtrack; I wonder whether the new partnership with Disney World in Orlando, Fla., got Idol a special deal on "When You Wish Upon a Star"? All in all it was a good, if irritatingly thought-provoking week, and I'm excited for the show to head out to California where, so I hear, your dreams … come … true!

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

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