Register Sunday | September 23 | 2018

Zombies, Weirdos and Tools

American Idol’s Parade of Ineptitude

Few shows benefit more from the use of a TiVo than American Idol. I don't really enjoy the performances unless the vocalist is horrible, so I take great pleasure in fast-forwarding through all the mediocre singing and commercials. Until, that is, the point in the season when the judges are done weeding through the chaff and begin obliterating the dreams of technically adept but middle-of-the-road hopefuls. After that point (circa March), I no longer have any desire to watch the show.

My kind of music isn't going to be represented on American Idol. I like messy rock 'n' roll played by messy people, and, going by the latest Billboard charts, rock is now performed by zombies. Perhaps it is a kind of blessing that American Idol spares us that-the show doesn't even have time for the sludgy, toneless, angst-ridden gunk that creeps onto MTV nowadays or is given as gifts by well-meaning aunts. "I thought you liked Switchfoot, Dougie." "Nah, I'm totally into Maroon 5 now."

Once upon a time, I even had the hubris to think American Idol represented the death of music. Now I just feel apathetic. I mean, the show's not even worth making fun of anymore. It's nothing more than a factory for No. 1 albums that have zero relevance.

American Idol is primarily interested in the kind of MOR pop music that will grace the airwaves at your local dentist's office in eight years' time. This used to bother me. Once upon a time, I even had the hubris to think American Idol represented the death of music. Now I just feel apathetic. I mean, the show's not even worth making fun of anymore. It's nothing more than a factory for No. 1 albums that have zero relevance. And just because an album debuts at No. 1 on the Billboard charts doesn't make it good.

A few years ago, I worked in a variety of used-record stores. One thing I observed was that the albums that sell well because of radio play, MTV and album reviews in corporate-controlled magazines are sold or traded in by the buttload months later. I always thought someone should track the number of Ruben Studdard albums that get resold to used-record shops, then subtract that number from his total album sales. After all, it seems pointless to give out gold records if the album's just going to end up in the ninety-nine-cent bins.

Certainly, I'd rather be out rescuing orphans from burning buildings than coming up with these kinds of formulas. But the fact remains that I don't seek out American Idol-it seeks me out. I'm inundated by it. We all are. The show is at its most evil when it follows its own rules: holding one vocalist up on a pedestal and giving people something new to buy.

The idea is to create brand recall. First, their judges vet it. Then subscribers to a particular cell-phone plan vet it. Then, having been shown this "legitimacy" of quality, the buying public is left to deal with it. Now that the Billboard charts are full of albums that people aren't even going to want in a few months' time, the rankings have become useless artifacts. We've returned to the halcyon days when radio play was controlled entirely by payola. But it can still be controlled! Just don't buy. Brand recall is useless to marketers when the only thing people remember is how much the brand sucks.

In all honesty, I see American Idol as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Like a snake eating its own tail simply because the snake is too stupid not to, you can't churn out a product that people quit caring about without causing those people to question its manufacturing process (American Idol itself). The pop-music medium takes itself far too seriously, especially since its themes rarely reach beyond being in love, wanting to be in love, lamenting a lost love and, every now and again, teen suicide. Whee!

What I want is for the weirdos to revolt. Why delude yourself into thinking that you can make it on American Idol when it's quite obvious that's not the path for you?

American Idol only works for me when the weirdos are allowed out to play. But not because I enjoy making fun of them or watching the cruelness dished out by the judges. Like the way Simon Cowell poses the question, "How do you think you did?" after people have stunk up their audition. How do they think they did? I don't know, Simon, why don't you grab 'em by the boots and give 'em a tug because they've been hanging in the noose long enough? If anything, the strange saga of William Hung-and it pains me to mention his name because I really wanted to get through this without doing so-is that even the worst of the worst can turn a profit. Even the weirdos are worth exploiting, but only if they're so weird it's okay to laugh at them.

What I want is for the weirdos to revolt. Why delude yourself into thinking that you can make it on American Idol when it's quite obvious that's not the path for you? Weirdos, goofballs and those with "image problems"¬-American Idol's clever catchphrase for contestants with weight problems, bad fashion sense or both¬-need not apply unless they have perfect pitch. But let me tell you, if someone had given William Hung or Bobie May (a psychic given the boot during the recent Las Vegas auditions) a David Bowie record or some Guided by Voices at around age fourteen, they'd be rock stars now. Probably.

This stuff is all so fleeting. And even though nothing lasts forever, music should resonate. I think that's the point. When it doesn't-and so much of it doesn't-why do we allow it so many luxuries? Who are Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson to dictate what's good and what isn't? Is it escapist to believe that you can walk into an American Idol audition with no formal training and walk out bound for Hollywood? To hope that someone will recognize your genius and make you a star? Maybe you could also win the lottery. Maybe you'll marry Nicole Richie. I'm not saying that the people who become American Idols lack talent and heart, but that there's only one of them as compared to hundreds of weirdos who don't make the cut. It's time for the weirdos to have their day in the sun.

Frank Smith lives in New York City and is a fiction writer, Iggy Pop fan and television know-it-all. TV Eye appears every second Wednesday.