Drama and democracy on national 'amateur night'

'American Idol,' in all its idiocy, communicates profound truths

Television

February 02, 2003|By David Zurawik | By David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Cedric Hunt, wearing a look-at me, lemon-yellow suit and black Borsolino hat, was all smiles as he finished singing the Four Tops' hit, Reach Out I'll Be There, on this season's premier episode of Fox's talent show, American Idol.

"Come on, Simon, reach out," the 18-year-old said confidently to Simon Cowell, the judge famous for his nasty wit.

Cowell reached out with one word: "Hideous."

"Hideous?" Hunt replied incredulously.

"I'm sorry, everything -- the outfit, the singing, it's just hideous," said Cowell.

"No," said Hunt.

"Yes."

"No."

And so on, back and forth, until Paula Abdul, the judge known for being nice, screamed, "Oh, God, I feel like I'm back in high school. Stop."

She took the words right out of my mouth.

I watched the first two weeks of American Idol, which premiered on Jan. 21, trying to understand where this slice of reality TV fits within American cultural traditions. Initially, I thought little could be more sophomoric or empty than this show.

But in popular culture, the very moments that seem the most awful often contain underlying currents that cause a television show, song or movie to connect in profound ways with millions of people (a record-setting 25 million people each night in the case of Idol). It is this connection that transforms a popular artifact or event into a pop phenomenon. American Idol, I gradually realized, speaks to viewers in surprisingly sophisticated ways, hitting chords that may have particular resonance with young Americans.

Buried within the brief exchange between talent judge Cowell and contestant Hunt lay racial tension: Cowell is white; Hunt is black. (Another judge, Randy Jackson, who is African-American, further stirred the racial pot by telling Hunt he liked the bright yellow outfit, which he described as "very pimped-out." But, he added, "Simon doesn't know what pimped-out is, does he?")

There was generational clash: Cowell, the fleshy, middle-aged man with power wielded it with a little too much pleasure over this hungry, young man on the make.

There was Freudian drama: Cowell, the dysfunctional -- or at least hypercritical father -- verbally abused young Hunt until Abdul, as surrogate mother, mercifully interceded.

Most compelling of all was the quintessentially American narrative of an unknown stepping into the limelight to be tested.

If Hunt, who is from Eldorado, Kan., had won this preliminary round, he would have been admitted to the outer limits of a magical kingdom called Celeb-rity; he would have traveled to Hollywood to compete against 32 semifinalists for the American Idol title. Hunt failed, but his defeat, and that of the other rejected contestants, simply heightens the dramatic tension.

"The talent contest with its story line of coming out of nowhere to do great things: That's the great theme of democracy in American life," said Robert J. Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University.

An American tradition

Last fall, Kelly Clarkson, a 20-year-old cocktail waitress from Burleson, Texas, became the first contest winner -- the first American Idol. She has since sold 600,000 copies of a single song, A Moment Like This. The story of her success lies at the heart of the show's enormous appeal, said Thompson. "Every-body can grow up to be president; anybody can grow up to be Kelly Clarkson."

Talent contests traditionally have played another, more practical role in America cultural life, said Lawrence E. Mintz, associate professor of popular culture at the University of Maryland at College Park. "Go back to the start of the century if you want, and you can see versions of [American Idol] being used to discover the next generation of professional talent, era after era."

He's right. You can start in 1906, for example, with the debut of Fanny Brice, the great Ziegfeld Follies comedy and singing star whose life was celebrated by Barbra Streisand in the film Funny Girl. Many of the elements at play in Idol -- the nervous newcomer, the harsh judgment, the triumphant performance, and passage into the world of show business -- are on display in the legend of her entry into show business.

Barbara W. Grossman opens her biography of Brice, Funny Woman (Indiana University Press), with the story of the aspiring singer at age 15, "a gawky, nondescript girl in a rumpled linen dress and a sailor hat" appearing on an amateur night in 1906 before a tough audience at Kenney's Fulton Street Theatre, a vaudeville house in Brooklyn.

As Brice stepped on stage, "she found herself suddenly facing a hostile audience whose cacophonous booing and shrieking rose to new heights at the sight of their latest victim." But once Brice started singing, the booing stopped. And when she finished singing, the cheering began. Brice won $20 in the contest, scooped up another $10 in coins that audience members had thrown on the stage, and was on her way to a career on stage with bookings in a national chain of vaudeville houses to which Kenney's belonged.

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