Thursday, May 27, 2010
An Open Letter to My Beloved
Dear American Idol,
You and I have been through a lot together. We've weathered many, many storms. Our relationship started, I admit, as a joke. I watched to mock and found myself falling in love. Even in those early days, though, our relationship could be rocky. I remember the frustration I felt that summer evening when Tamyra Grey was sent packing and Nikki McKibben was allowed to stay, but I comforted myself with the thought that now I wouldn't have to choose between Tamyra and Kelly, confident knowing that now Kelly had a clear path to victory (and she did). I've often been frustrated by your hypocrisy -- forcing Frenchie Davis to quit the show over nude photos but allowing multiple contestants with criminal records to stick around and allowed the skanky Antonella Barba to continue on despite her own lewd photos. I even tried to leave you, boycotting the show for nearly a year after Melinda Doolittle was eliminated in the semifinals. But I always kept coming back because, at the end of the day, I thought you believed like I did, that it was about finding and celebrating talent and helping kids who otherwise wouldn't have the opportunity to find pathways to music careers.
I realized something last night, though, as I watched Lee Dewyze being rewarded for an anemic, uninspired finale performance by being crowned American Idol. Sure, I could lay some of the blame at the feet of Idol itself. The judges spent weeks pimping Lee, ignoring flaws in performances -- who could blame people for thinking he was the better overall performer? (He wasn't.) The show allows for the deluge of phone calls and texting rather than limiting votes the way a show like Dancing with the Stars does. The show continues to saddle the performers with old-fashioned music, a fact made even more painfully obvious last night with the guest appearances by Alice Cooper, the Bee Gee's, Michael McDonald, Christina Aguilera, Hall and Oates, Alanis Morissette, Bret Michaels, Chicago, Janet Jackson, and Joe Cocker. Only ONE of those performers has had a top 40 hit in the past 10 years. Most of them haven't been even remotely relevant in close to 20 years. It's called American Idol, not American Relic, for Christ's sake!
Ultimately, though, the fault lies in us, the American people. We make the choice to pick our Idols based on the superficial. We pick the cute guy over the crunchy hippie mama. We vote for someone because he seems "real" (actual quote from someone on Facebook last night). I'm not sure how Lee is more "real" than Crystal. Last time I checked, she was not a robot and I would argue that she seems just as (if not more) real as Lee. We embrace the underdog rather than rewarding talent. Yes, the drama teacher in me recognizes that Lee winning last night was probably the better story and American Idol has, over the course of the past several years, embraced the "story" over the talent. Sometimes, the talent triumphs. How many times was Carrie Underwood taken to task for lacking personality? (Watch American Idol Rewind sometime -- she was!) Sometimes, you get lucky and you get the big talent and the big personality in one -- Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard (ignore his post-Idol career and focus on his Idol performances. He was good.), Fantasia. But since season five when Taylor Hicks won on the basis of his grey hair, cheesy dancing, and "Soul Patrol", we as voters have increasingly gravitated away from and even, you could argue, rejected talent. We've sent Melinda Doolittle, Carly Smithson, Michael Johns, Allison Iraheta, Siobhan Magnus home way before their time. This year, we didn't even let Lilly Scott, Kaitlyn Epperly, or Alex Lambert into the top 12.
Before we point the finger at the kinks in Idol's armor (and yes, there are many), we need to take a look at ourselves and ask ourselves why we continue to punish the talented and reward the merely adequate. This epidemic extends beyond our reality shows. We send "artists" like Justin Bieber and Kesha (I refuse to use the dollar sign in lieu of an S) to the top of the charts while more talented, less packaged artists are touring clubs and selling CD's out of the backs of SUV's. We cancel Law and Order but keep Two and a Half Men on the air. We let the fourth installment of Shrek be the number one movie while intelligent, brilliantly made independent films fail to find audiences. We flock to Wal-Mart to buy the newest Twilight book; meanwhile my friend Peter struggles to find a publisher. We gobble up KFC's Double Down sandwich and scoff when the president talks about eating arugula. We are so willing to wallow in mediocrity rather than challenging ourselves to be better, smarter, stronger, healthier. I'm not going to lie. I'm guilty, too. I have spent plenty of money on stuff I should maybe be a little embarrassed about. I've got a Kesha song on my i-pod. I've certainly watched my share of crap tv. (Good Lord, I actually squealed with delight the other night when I saw a commercial for Wipeout!) I guess my argument would be that at least I know it's crap and embrace it accordingly. I'm not sure that's true of many others.
So now, dear Idol, the question must be raised -- do I stay in this disappointing relationship or do I walk away with Simon as a magical chorus of past Idols sings me into the sunset? (Can I just say that moment, when 7 of the past 8 winners were joined by a large number of fellow contestants to sing a cheesy schlock tune to wish Simon farewell, was one of my all-time favorite Idol moments and a total dream come true? The only way it could have been better is if they had performed a medley of victory anthems!) Does understanding the flaws in the system excuse the flaws? Right now, just a little over 12 hours after Lee's victory, I am not sure I can answer that question. The truth is that the formula is tired. Ellen did not inject much new life into the series. Whoever replaces Simon has a tremendous burden to shoulder. Maybe my decision will rest with that decision -- a great new judge might keep me on board, but it will be a much more cynical, jaded me that joins the party in January. And if the talent is as lame next year as it was this year, I can't promise I'll stick around for very long.
See you in January,