When did American Idol get so emotionally violent?

Conversations in real time.
Jan. 17 2008 5:25 PM

When Did American Idol Get So Emotionally Violent?

Slate staffers discuss.

(Continued from Page 1)

Daniel Engber: The Idol qualifying rounds were the prototype for viral Internet videos: Here are pathetic losers (William Hung/the Star Wars Kid) who are selected by judges (Simon Cowell/BoingBoing) and become freak-celebrities.

In both cases, you wonder if they're really that pathetic, or if they're pretending so that they can get on TV or YouTube. It's an authenticity crisis that really bothers some people, and doesn't bother others at all.

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I do think that the American Idol version looks a lot different now, post-YouTube, than it used to.

Rosin: Maybe that's it, because the losers this week really walked that line between totally raw and totally theatrical. I mean, that '70s-cover-band freak and the Star Trek freak really, really seemed to be suffering, but they also really knew how to keep the camera trained on their suffering.

Kathy Meizel (SlateAmerican Idol blogger): It's one of the most fascinating things about the early Idol shows, the way they celebrate failure. As I mentioned in my "Idolatry" post on the first episode, this is a reality show that lingers on the selection process like no other, spending a month on it, rather than the usual episode or two. This appeals in equal parts to our zest for schadenfreude and our admiration for risk-taking; the producers have said that the original Idol idea was to sell the American Dream, and for that Dream, the outcome of success isn't quite as important as just having acted on an ambition to begin with. So if you try, even if you fail, you are still living the American Dream.

Plotz: But if you want to celebrate failure—and I would argue that they are making failure grotesque, rather than celebrating it—why not focus on the people who have SOME talent, but aren't quite good enough to make it? Those would be poignant stories and could start an argument about who really deserves to make it. In giving us the carnival of fools, the show 1) removes the possibility of critical judgment, since we never see the people who are on the edge of making it, only the ones who have no chance and the ones who are in; and 2) makes us complicit in the cruelty. I'm all for celebrating honest effort and individuality—I would love to show that to my daughter—but that's not what AI is doing. It's sneering at freakery.