The seventh season of American Idol debuted this week with a new focus on the contestants' biographies and back stories. After the first episode aired, Slate contributors and staffers began to consider what they'd seen. Is the show meaner than it used to be? Why the focus on sad-sack freaks? Read our whole discussion below:
David Plotz: I watched the contest rounds of American Idol with my daughter, Noa, last season, and it was wonderful—a jolly, family-friendly variety show. So she's been excited to watch the whole show this season. We sat down this week and watched the first qualifying show, and I was just shocked. It was unsuitable for children. It's not merely that it's gratuitously cruel to the poor freaks and weirdoes. It's also profane, oversexualized, and rageful. There were contestants pretending to moon the judges, giving the finger, going into fits of rage. It freaked my daughter out. It also freaked ME out.
Chris Wilson: Yeah, but it was all canceled out by the histrionic displays of empathy for the girl whose mom was dying!
Plotz: I wonder why they make this part of the show so emotionally violent, when the elimination rounds are so gentle and kid-friendly?
Hanna Rosin (Slate contributor and wife of David Plotz): The problem wasn't the usual meanness (which would have been canceled out by that group hug). There's always meanness. It was the indulgent attention to all these pathetic existences—the mom and daughter in a one-room apartment with two cats and a dog, the grossly overweight mom in the wheelchair, the Star Trek freak. They purposely singled out the biographies of the most pathetic contestants who they must have known had zero chance of making it, and then lingered on the saddest details of their lives, and then gave them 10 seconds to hope before lingering even more lovingly on their bitterness and totally unjustified feelings of rejection. It was awful, and kind of disturbing.
Dahlia Lithwick: Isn't this how the Olympics have been covered for years now?
Rosin: There is a great American TV tradition of singling out hard lives, IF THEY HAVE A HAPPY ENDING. That's what VH1 invented, and the Olympics started to do, and that's what American Idol said it would do when it announced that it would win back its audience by focusing on biographies.
But then it focused on the wrong biographies, the freaks, the sure losers. That's just cruel. It's un-American. This morning when I walked Noa to school she said, "Mom. American Idol last night?" And that's it. She didn't know what else to say.
June Thomas: I've never seen American Idol—audition rounds or competition—but I've seen this audition stage of British talent-reality shows, and they do exactly the same thing. It was some of the most disturbing television I've ever watched.
They also singled out the most damaged people (the biggest disconnect between their own perceptions of their talent and their actual talent; the people dressed most inappropriately for their body type; the most vulnerable and needy; the saddest), and on several occasions they built someone up by asking them to talk extensively about their ambitions and then focused on their despair once they got the ax. I'm sure there were thousands of well-adjusted, medium-talented auditioners, but they didn't even get a look.
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.
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.