Must not see TV!

This summer’s Fox Network hit American Idol makes for some hurl-worthy watching—imagine Star Search mixed with Survivor, then get ready to throw things

Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell: “Your problem is that you have no talent.”

Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell: “Your problem is that you have no talent.”

It was one of those moments where a little self-control really comes in handy.

On the television screen, a young woman named Rodesia was trying to wrap her vocal cords around the John Stewart song “Daydream Believer,” a No. 1 hit in 1967 for the prefabricated TV pop quartet the Monkees.

However, where the Monkees’ sing-song version played it straight, Rodesia’s melismatic reinvention of it was a monument to comic deconstruction; imagine if a Muslim muezzin could toss down a few cocktails before climbing up the minaret to sing his morning prayer call.

On the coffee table was dinner, half-eaten.

By the time Rodesia lurched into the song’s “cheer up sleepy Jean” chorus, she sounded like she couldn’t figure out whether to change her name to Zambia or Zimbabwe, and the resulting lightning bolts of suppressed angst looked like they might send her reeling off into the vocal equivalent of an Albert Ayler saxophone freakout.

Fortunately, Rodesia reached the song’s unglorious end, and the three people sitting in a box began to pass judgment. First, Randy Jackson, a hulking African-American man with a shaved head who was Mariah Carey’s musical director, has produced records, played bass (e.g. on Journey’s corporate-rock landmark, Raised on Radio) and worked as an A&R man, offered his opinion. Then, Paula Abdul, a former L.A. Lakers cheerleader and choreographer who was retooled by Virgin Records into a hit-making artist in the late ’80s, offered hers. Finally Simon Cowell, the acerbic English idolmaker/record producer responsible for such unforgettable acts as 5ive and Curiosity Killed the Cat, gave his two pence.

Where Jackson (no relation to Michael and Janet) and Abdul tended to be bland and encouraging, regardless of the paucity of talent involved, Cowell was forthright—and merciless. “Your problem,” he in effect told more than one contestant, “is that you cannot sing, and I have no idea what you’re doing on that stage. Do you?”

The one, the only: Ed McMahon. How ’bout it?How ’bout it?

Imagine Star Search as a mini-series—with a pair of “Morning Zoo” radio lightweights replacing Ed McMahon, along with a jury to offer encouragement or, in Cowell’s case, an obituary, and toll-free numbers that viewers can use to vote for their favorite contestants. Add a few rather blatant examples of product placement (Coca-Cola, Ford Focus), and you have American Idol, which has been airing on Fox this summer.

The premise is simple: Hold auditions for 10,000 contestants, aged 18-24, in seven cities, winnow those down to 120, then three groups of 10. Then, on three consecutive Tuesday nights, present 10 contestants who sing to piano accompaniment and compete for three spots in the final 10, with viewers deciding by phone. The fourth week, let the three judges decide among the 21 rejects (20, actually, after a 29-year-old who snuck through was disqualified). Then, put them in front of an orchestra, and let audience voters kick two contestants off the island each week, until an “American Idol” is chosen.

It isn’t the most original idea, and the show’s English producers—one of them being Simon Fuller, the Svengali figure behind late-’90s phenomenon the Spice Girls—did the same thing in the U.K. recently with a show called Pop Idol. Cowell was one of four judges on that program, where he honed the Anne Robinson approach he seems to have perfected on American Idol.

So why watch? To put it most simply, it’s trainwreck TV. The first show, which aired in June, showed what the producers thought were the worst examples of the people who didn’t make the cut. From an outsider perspective, these were precisely the sort of people who should have been voted into the finals—the ones with a firm grasp on the kind of ebullient disregard for show-business convention as displayed, historically, by the Shaggs, Mrs. Miller, Wild Man Fischer and the Legendary Stardust Cowboy.

But that kind of freak show makes for bad box office among the Star Search crowd. So the outsiders were shown the door, and the ones who moved forward tended to be beauty queens, of both sexes—women heavily influenced by either Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey or Celine Dion, and, um, males who would kill for a spot in Backstreet Boys, ’NSync and O-Town creator Lou Pearlman’s next prefabricated boy band.

Not that it’s a crime or anything, but no one in this crowd would know what to do with a guitar.

Nor do they appear to have a clue in choosing appropriate material. One guy named Jamar approached Wham!’s ’80s ballad “Careless Whisper” with the kind of hammer Ethel Merman might take to “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” giving new meaning to the word “overkill.” Another singer named Natalie Burge answered the question, “How would Whitney Houston interpret Willie Nelson’s song ‘Crazy’ after a couple of good crack-pipe hits?”

Most often, though, the singers deliver mushy renditions of R&B hits with puppy-dog eye battings.

One of these 10 finalists will be the American Idol. Ready to worship?

The payoff comes at the end of each performance, when the judges give their critiques. From Jackson’s non-committal bromides, he appears to have judged plenty of these “talent” contests. Where he’s a cipher, Abdul’s presence is deliciously ironic—a manufactured pop diva whose record label was sued, unsuccessfully, by a backup singer named Yvette Marine who claimed that her vocals were mixed with Abdul’s. While Abdul may have good advice for the cheerleaders on American Idol who would like a career in showbiz, she really has little to say.

Cowell, however, does. On the third week of the show’s semifinals, after a singer named RJ Helton gave a typically wimpy performance, which prompted Abdul to remark that he “raised the game,” Cowell threw in the towel.

“I could not disagree with you more, Paula,” he sniffed. “I did not think that was solid, completely distinct—I’m sorry—average. Seriously, we have to get this competition back on track. In the last two episodes, two losers have been voted through for one reason and one reason only—it was the sympathy vote, and has nothing to do with talent. This competition is about raising the game. I think some of the talent has been sensational, and I think other people have got through for the wrong reasons. And I’m fed up with it, ’cause I don’t think that was good enough.”

While Helton was trapped on the small octagonal performing area, Jackson and Abdul sniped back. “You can’t call people ‘losers,’ ” Jackson carped. “I can call them whatever I like,” Cowell shot back. “No you can’t.” “Yes I can.” Then Jackson stood up and leaned over Abdul toward Cowell and hissed, “We’ll talk about this later.” The spat went on for a couple of minutes, and it was hard to tell if it was some pre-scripted wrestling-show banter the producers threw in to add a little “spice,” or an honest breakout of simmering hostility.

That’s how bad this show is. You really couldn’t tell.

The main problem with American Idol, however, is its aesthetically bankrupt premise. There’s already enough crappy music in the world, and there are more than enough karaoke-lounge singers with record deals. The past few years have witnessed an avalanche of performers who never should have made it past church teen sings or county fairs, whose spackled visages are visible on magazine covers in the supermarket, whose thin, flat voices—edited by such computer programs as Pro Tools, with the pitch corrected electronically—waft from radios. Guess that’s what happens when a handful of corporations control what you get to listen to on the so-called public airwaves, right?

After a quick listen to the contestants on American Idol, it’s pretty apparent that something’s gone horribly off track here. Watch footage of, say, Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson early in their careers, and it’s obvious that they possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of pop music; it was like the whole spectrum of American popular music was compressed inside them, waiting to escape in new and unfamiliar ways.

Not so with these kids. Most of the songs they seemed to have learned by the numbers—taking, say, an Aretha Franklin song with all her melisma (that’s the gospel technique of swerving over the melody the way a drunk swerves over the road) intact, then adding more melisma on top of it. “I was just making the song my own,” one contestant lamely said, defending herself after a judge pointed out that she couldn’t seem to find the melody if she tried.

There’s an old Anton Chekhov dictum, which says something like if a gun appears on the mantelpiece in the first act of a play, it must be fired by the play’s end. There may or may not be a corollary to Chekhov, which states that when a television set that’s showing an abominably bad program is in target range of a plateful of spaghetti, it must look like a Jackson Pollock painting by the show’s end.

But someone would have to clean that up. So if you’re going to watch a show as wonderfully bad as American Idol, make sure you have something safe—dirty socks, tennis balls—handy. As therapy, it’s tops.