Where a lack of talent is its own reward

February 01, 2007|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,Sun Columnist

True confession: Until the other night, I had never watched American Idol, the hit Fox show that's part singing competition, part exercise in ritual humiliation.

But Idol has become so big in this, its sixth season -- 64 million viewers watched the two episodes last week -- that I felt compelled to find out what all the hype was about.

So I watched Tuesday's show, which originated from Birmingham, Ala., where 11,000 contestants tried out for a shot at being demeaned by Idol's chief judge and executioner, Simon Cowell.

Sure, the show has two other judges, Randy What's-His-Name and loopy Paula Abdul, who is rumored to have some sort of drug or alcohol problem.

(Let me say this: If I had to watch this woman jump up and down and scream and make these crazy pronouncements on a regular basis, I'd have a drug or alcohol problem myself.)

But Cowell is the show's Torquemada, the high priest of cruelty that everyone tunes in to see, the man who shatters showbiz aspirations like a brick through a windshield.

And he was at the top of his game in Birmingham.

To 19-year-old Erika, who led off the show with a warbling rendition of "Unchained Melody," he yelped: "Erika, it's like a never-ending torture! ... You're just an absolutely hopeless singer!"

As he listened to 18-year-old Lakia, who shrieked a song that was virtually unrecognizable, in an octave that would make dogs howl, he seemed to go into shock.

"What ... the hell ... was that?" he finally managed.

"I'm nervous," Lakia said.

Naturally, Cowell sympathized big time.

"Lakia," he continued, "that was a complete and utter mess. It was possibly the worst version of that song I have ever heard."

So it went for most of the hour, Cowell savaging one terrible singer after another and having a delightful time.

At one point, as they went to a commercial break, I thought I saw him tearing the wings off a butterfly. But that might have just been the camera angle.

But by the time the last singer was trotted out, on Day Two of the Birmingham auditions, Cowell had apparently decided: OK, no more Mr. Nice Guy.

Because when 28-year-old Brandy performed an atrocious version of Madonna's "Like a Virgin," Cowell cut her off with: "Thank you, Brandy, for an absolutely awful audition. That was absolutely rotten."

Brandy, inexplicably, then launched into an even more horrible version of "Proud Mary." This caused Cowell and Randy What's-His-Name -- Paula Abdul had flown back to Hollywood, God knows why -- to both gang up on her.

"They are cruel!" Brandy cried to host Ryan Seacrest.

Oh, you betcha.

And they probably should be even more cruel with some of these awful singers. They should probably zap them with Tasers, too.

OK, let me say this as a first-time viewer: You can't tell me these people who come on the show and sing horribly don't know they sing horribly.

You can't tell me they're unaware they have absolutely no talent.

Uh-uh. I don't buy that for a minute.

Look, the whole show feels as tightly scripted as a pro wrestling match.

So when Erika, Lakia, Brandy and the rest of these losers hit the stage, they know exactly what they're in for from the evil Simon Cowell and his judge buddies.

They're there for their 15 minutes in the national spotlight as an American Idol reject, and the kind of shabby, bizarre notoriety it brings these days.

Hey, it worked for that William Hung guy, didn't it?

The guy went on Idol two years ago, stunk up the place and was savaged by Cowell, who said, in his usual gentle manner: "You can't sing. You can't dance. So what do you want me to say?"

Well, that just killed poor William Hung's career.

All he did after that was become an instant cult hero, appear on every talk show in the country, record three CDs and make himself a pile of money.

Not bad for a guy who bombed on the best-known talent show in the land.

That's why I don't understand this whole hue and cry about Idol being so much meaner this year.

Meaner?! Look, the Erikas and Lakias and Brandys of this world, the no-talent mopes willing to submit to this kind of humiliation -- they want mean.

Mean gives them the opportunity to dissolve in a gushing torrent of tears and have a national TV audience feel sorry for them.

And who knows, maybe the next phone call they get is from William Hung's agent, offering to do for them what he did for the poor Hung kid.

How sad is that?

On the other hand, if these mopes really don't know how horribly they sing, that's even sadder.

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

To hear podcasts featuring Kevin Cowherd, go to baltimoresun. com/Cowherd.

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