Remember the halcyon innocence of the first season of American Idol? Back then, it was easy to understand why people were so eager to compete for the top spot. To those first competitors, I imagine that fame truly seemed to be a hair's breadth away; they were on TV, after all, and millions of folks were paying good money to send text messages in their favour. Even if they didn't win, it seemed certain that some enterprising A&R guys would swoop in and snap up the rest of the clearly talented, and already famous, Idol rejects. For the handful of hopefuls strutting their stuff in that debut season, success seemed guaranteed.
And for a while it was, sort of. Most of them put out albums of one kind or another, and minor hits were generated. Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini made that movie, and Clarkson's recent single "Since U Been Gone" is currently ubiquitous, which I suppose is the goal for those sorts of songs. But really, looking back, none of the winners were much more than flashes in the pan and, by the time the first set of contestants made a go of things and fizzled, most consumers had grown accustomed to the idea of the show. Idol winners, we realized by season two, are perennial, and belong in a certain category: reality show cast-offs. No matter how talented a certain Idol or near-Idol is, he or she will be thrown into the same bin as the others, which is to say that they will be considered talented amateur novelties, not fit for honest worship.
In my mind, William Hung's story should have been enough to illustrate to even the most starry-eyed Idol wannabe that becoming an Idol is by no means a fast track to musical stardom.
Look, for example, at the interesting case of William Hung. Hung, as you may recall, was briefly Internet-famous for being absolutely terrible in his Idol audition reel. For some reason, when the producers of the show aired his atonal, arrhythmic brand of broken English in the portion of the show devoted to hilariously talentless losers-a cringe-inducing segment meant to give the judges time to show off their wit-Hung captured the hearts of a certain ironic section of the populace. Dubbed the "Hong Kong Ricky Martin" and willing to humiliate himself endlessly, Hung went on to perform at half-time shows, put out an album, and appear (and sing!) on daytime talk shows. He became as or more famous than any of the genuinely talented contestants because a bunch of Internerds thought he could be the next Star Wars kid.
In my mind, William Hung's story should have been enough to illustrate to even the most starry-eyed Idol wannabe that becoming an Idol is by no means a fast track to musical stardom. If anything, Hung illustrates the third-tier, small-screen aspects of the show itself. I mean, if Paula Abdul had the genie-like ability to grant instant celebrity, do you think she'd be hanging around with Ryan Seacrest and boning Idol contestants? The whole concept of the show, once examined, proves to be untenable: according to the first law of the conservation of popularity, a celebrity can only bestow a similar or lesser level of famousness on a person they're promoting-which proves that the show lacks firepower above the C list.
And yet this doesn't keep the kids from turning up in droves every season, clamouring for their moment in the spotlight. It is their eternal naïveté that sets Idol apart from what I shudder to call "smarter" reality shows like Survivor or The Amazing Race. These two programs, like Idol, are focussed to some degree on the participants' skills and aptitudes, instead of exclusively on manufactured drama between money-grubbing idiots. But in both Survivor and Race, contestants freely admit having learned from the mistakes of contestants in the previous seasons. Every year, survivors and racers are better prepared and more devious than the years before, thus forcing the shows' producers to create ever more arduous challenges to generate the level of despair and back-stabbing (or, ahem, strategy) that we good people tune in to watch. The participants learn and adapt, you see, so that every iteration of the show is slightly different. Sometimes the participants even meta-adapt, making sure to wear skimpy clothing and act cartoonishly distinct from their cohorts in order to guarantee more lucrative endorsement deals after taping wraps.
In conclusion, fellow humans, do not go out and seek the next Idol-Idols will make themselves known to you whether you like it or not.
Idol contestants don't do this. Every season is as blandly suspenseful as the last. This year's crop of bleating contestants is as confident of their imminent superstardom as last year's. Ironically, this sameness makes each round of performers even less likely to succeed since it reinforces the idea that all Idols belong in the same place, and that place is on TV-if only briefly. Perhaps the problem lies in the objective: hit records are not easy to create. Trying to figure out what a bunch of teenage pop consumers are going to be excited by is a nearly impossible task, a task that real recording studios pay hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to attempt-and most often fail-to do. Pop stardom is one difficult and fickle pancake.
Which is why I personally endorse the VH1 sleeper hit Strip Search. On Strip Search, equally earnest corn-fed young people practise and strive and compete; but instead of pop stardom, they're vying for year-long spots in an all-male Vegas nude revue. To me, this seems a much more reasonable goal. For my entertainment dollar, it's difficult to beat watching the desperate, arrhythmic flopping of a beefy ex-Arby's employee as he tries to fulfill his one and only dream of taking off his clothes for money. It's all of the tearful disappointment of American Idol, only with none of the show-tune medleys.
In conclusion, fellow humans, do not go out and seek the next Idol-Idols will make themselves known to you whether you like it or not. Instead, pursue the nobler task of watching well-muscled men from New Jersey fret about their hirsute buttocks. This is the true path to televisual enlightenment.
Audrey Ference is a writer living in Brooklyn with a cat and a TV, among other things. She kind of doesn't get what the big deal is about The OC. No offence.