Why American Idol sucks

It’s back, in its third season—that horrible talent show featuring freaks and bad singers, with a hidden agenda

Give it a rest, already.

OK, so we’ve just finished the first two weeks of the third season of the Fox star-maker series American Idol. If you’re like many viewers, you watched long enough to see the real talents, the ones who did not get the nod to go to Hollywood for that second round.

By the end of the first week, the process of winnowing has eliminated most of the truly interesting acts. For example, there was a chubby, disheveled, scat-singing woman from the show’s first night, who—with the right Sun Ra material—could be a huge hit maker in some parallel universe where Ella Fitzgerald and Yma Sumac are bigger icons than Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. Unfortunately, the judges—vitriolic Brit boy-band producer Simon Cowell, avuncular former Journey bassist and record producer Randy Jackson and terminally clueless Los Angeles Lakers cheerleader turned dance-pop star Paula Abdul—could not envision her particular genius.

Then there was the Bulgarian woman with the Natasha Fatale accent and the weirdly deep voice, who properly disembowled a Cher tune; imagine what she might do with oddball, non-karaoke production—say, a gamelan, clarinet and kazoo ensemble—and something from the Leonard Cohen songbook? Of course, we’ll never find out.

The parade went on over the next few nights: A crooner, who looked like a baby-faced Grant Napear and worked the spaces between the notes like a young, well, Frank Sinatra Jr., served up a credible version of “The Way You Look Tonight.” He got promoted to the next round in Hollywood, but he’s marked for obscurity—his old-school, Catskills-friendly singing style doesn’t have the skanky, melisma-drenched cachet necessary for success in today’s Paris Hilton-friendly show-business milieu.

One horrible performer, who flipped out on the second night in Atlanta when the judging triumvirate wouldn’t buy her comically overheated rendition of Irene Cara’s “Flashdance,” turned out to be a prankster from a morning zoo show on a Clear Channel-owned contemporary-hits radio station in Tampa (you can read about her escapades and watch video clips at www.933flz.com/morning_home.html). To Cowell’s credit, he caught wise to her shenanigans, asking her if she was for real.

Other contestants appeared to be sincere but about three shades too idiosyncratic to be shaped into the kind of ballad-wrecking marionettes that the judges were looking for. For example, one Fookling Lee, a performer with a name befitting an indie-rock superstar, who turned up on the show’s sojourn in Houston: Lee may not be the next Mariah, but she projected a definite Puffy AmiYumi vibe that some smart producer could turn into sonic gold.

But her particular brilliance seemed lost on the three judges, whose métier is to find talents whose characteristics lie within very narrow parameters. Indeed, watching this trio of nitwits judge a singing competition is like seeing regional managers from KFC, Del Taco and Jack in the Box critique aspiring chefs: Ergo, if you can’t super-size it, it ain’t a hit.

To read a recent preview piece from the television critic in our local daily, however, you might think this “mighty pop-culture engine that gave us Kelly and Clay and Ruben and, you know, Ryan Seacrest”—as Sacramento Bee television columnist Rick Kushman gushed in the Bee’s Monday, January 19, edition—is some kind of star-making machine on a par with the best the music business has to offer.

Kushman’s breathless, gee-whiz prose, with multiple references to “talent” (four) and “magic” (two), was the type of cheerleading copy you’d expect to read in something a publicist might whip up for a press release, not a piece in a daily newspaper. Check out this passage, after a quote from Cowell on how American Idol has a sense of humor missing from the rest of the music business: “But mostly, it’s the singing and the voting,” Kushman panted. “They sing. We care. We vote. They make records. We buy them. That’s both the business and the entertainment models here, and they seem to be pretty good ones.”

Ouch. No, they don’t.

There is a reason people get hooked on this televised junk food, which another preview piece by Tara Ariano, co-creator and co-editor of Fametracker.com and TelevisionWithoutPity.com, pointed out on the MSNBC.com Web site. In “Fun of ‘Idol’ isn’t winners, but losers,” Ariano nailed the true appeal of American Idol. People watch this show for two reasons: First, to see and laugh at delusional head cases who think they have what it takes to be the next Kelly Clarkson or Ruben Studdard or Clay Aiken or Justin Guarini, to name the winners and runners-up of American Idol’s first two seasons. Second, they watch to see Simon Cowell’s heartless dismissals, which send a few of the more psychically fragile auditioners hurtling into a state of cognitive dissonance.

But what seemed fresh about this show in the beginning has gotten old and tired the third time around. Cowell has become a parody of his earlier bitchy self, and it’s apparent—from the fruits of the first two seasons—that he can’t back up his bluster with the gravitas stemming from any real sense of accomplishment. As for Jackson, what physical weight he dropped as the result of having part of his digestive tract removed, he’s gained in a clearly out-of-control ego. And as for Abdul, c’mon—this is a woman famous for making inconsequential dance-pop records in the 1980s. Milli Vanilli’s sole living member, Fabrice Morvan, could do as credible a job.

What we’re left with is a cruel freak show, which plays on viewers’ inherent tendency for indulging in schadenfreude, which morphs into a standard talent show—albeit one with putative audience participation. The change-up happens right after the freaks are shown the door—and it should be pointed out that, in season three, there seem to be a larger number of deliberate pranksters this time.

And when the rest of the “talent,” to use that word in its most liberal sense, is shaped and pared and steered toward the inevitable countdown to idoldom, what’s left is a major snoozefest.

People get hooked on American Idol during its slow-motion-car-wreck phase, and some of them don’t have the good sense to turn the show off when it starts showing its hand, aesthetically speaking. Once the goofballs are gone, it’s easy to keep watching, with the hope that someone else will melt down in the middle of some hideous ballad or after a serious bitch-slapping from the judges.

So, perhaps it isn’t that people care, as the Bee’s Kushman stated. It’s just that they’re too hypnotized to change channels.

And therein lies the problem.

American Idol has a hidden agenda, which seeks to promulgate a bankrupt musical aesthetic on the viewing and listening public. The core of that agenda is what the music industry, back in its heyday, called the “power ballad.”

You remember power ballads, right? Those dramatic, frequently bombastic aural monuments to bad taste that were recommended in the 1980s and ’90s to established artists who found their careers in the dumps? Typically, the recipe called for one long-in-the-tooth act (Aerosmith, Heart or Cheap Trick), one record executive (Arista Records then-president Clive Davis or bearded A&R guru John Kalodner) clutching a spreadsheet depicting declining record sales, and one songwriter (think Diane Warren, whose songs usually have the word “heart” somewhere in the title).

Power ballads were a sure thing back in the day, the kind of jumper cables that could get a stalled career revving and hurtling down the highway again. Radio stations loved them, especially the research-driven ones looking for an edge in that crucial 25-34 female demographic, and soon they were everywhere. Zap! No. 1 with a bullet.

With success, of course, comes imitation, and a classical form (not that power ballads are in any way classical, mind you) will mutate into something altogether inferior and decadent. When power ballads combined with post-“quiet storm” R&B, in the form of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, the more frightening iteration of the power ballad was born: an unholy marriage involving the thunderous over-singing technique commonly applied to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” arguably the ur-power ballad, and a singing style called melisma derived from black gospel music.

For years, this unlistenable and grotesque musical form was shoved down the public’s collective throat on radio, and on television during the yearly Grammy Awards. It became ubiquitous until people grew tired of it, and then it still didn’t go away.

And this is where American Idol comes in: Simply put, the show is a make-work project for the power-ballad industry, whose fortunes had declined in the years before the show revived the form. In much the same way that advertising agencies serving local car dealers have devised a full-employment scheme for all those lightning-speed “squing-squong” heavy-metal guitarists whose music is so utterly passé, American Idol is anti-starvation insurance for the writers and producers who make Celine Dion records.

And once the alluring hook of seeing something weird and different and awful at the show’s beginning is removed—before the “workshopping” segments kick into high gear—American Idol turns into nothing more than a foisting mechanism for mediocre swill. It is best avoided.

So, if you’re still watching this mess, here’s a tip: Stop. There are better uses of your time, like organizing your stamp collection or looking up words that begin with “V” in the dictionary or staring at the ceiling.

Anything tops this.

Even infomercials.