There's a scene in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange in which ultra-violent "droog" Alex DeLarge, played by Malcolm McDowell, undergoes "aversion therapy" to cure his violent tendencies by being forced to watch violent films while given drugs to induce a nauseated reaction, so that every time he feels violent, he'll get sick.
I underwent somewhat the same thing while covering American Idol for another media outlet during seasons six and seven of the Fox behemoth. In effect, I was forced by my editors to watch American Idol and then write a blog after each telecast, which amounted to my sitting in front of the tube every Tuesday and Wednesday evening taking notes on all the action. I wasn't in the kind of straitjacket Alex wore. Mine was a psychological straitjacket — I knew my bills were being paid, in part, by watching and then writing about the show. And my eyes weren't exactly forced open like Alex's, but they may as well have been.
Just as after finishing his therapy, Alex got sick while witnessing violence. Now, whenever I see Simon Cowell in his black T-shirt with that smug look on his face, I get nauseated. Season eight, I'm told, is now in full swing and I'm not watching, thankfully.
I want to share with you what I've learned — because it's you, the people watching this show, who made me watch it. And that causes untold heartache for the poor kids the show exploits. You should be ashamed.
I never watched American Idol before I began covering season six. I knew who Kelly Clarkson was and thought "Since U Been Gone" was a power-pop gem, and I knew of Ruben Studdard, Clay Aiken, and Carrie Underwood, and I'd heard that judge Cowell was an asshole, but that's about as far as it went. I was never into community or high school talent shows, and AI just seemed like a talent show on a grander scale. So I never bothered.
The first few weeks of each season focus on cattle-call auditions, which are nothing but an opportunity for Cowell to lambaste the completely deluded, sometimes mentally challenged, and, in at least one case, seriously fucked up. Take the case of failed auditioner Paula Goodspeed, who later ended up killing herself in front of judge Paula Abdul's house. Americans love success stories, but we love failure, too, and it doesn't get any better, or worse, than Cowell's telling a tone-deaf idiot in a ridiculous costume how awful she was, even if she was too fragile to handle that sort of national embarrassment.
Ultimately, the premise of the show is to give America a pop-culture icon, a star of music, film (From Justin to Kelly, anyone?) and television, somebody like Sinatra in the '40s, Elvis in the '50s, and The Beatles in the '60s, artists who created a wave of giddy hysteria. In that sense, American Idol has succeeded: It's the number-one television program in the country. And the winners and, in some cases, the losers have sold millions of records.
But the show is really just a get-rich-quick scheme under klieg lights. Most musicians have to slug it out in the clubs to get a record deal. Even then, success is hardly guaranteed. American Idol allows a few kids each year the opportunity to jump to the head of the class and win the lottery — like Rosie Ruiz in the Boston Marathon in 1980, who before getting busted, was first across the finish line but got there because she jumped into the race with less than a mile to go. And it's a Faustian bargain for the eventual winner, because winning the talent show saddles him or her forever with the tag "American Idol Season Whatever Champ," something Clarkson herself struggled with when she felt she wasn't getting proper respect from her label for being an "artist" and trying to record her own songs.
All that aside, my biggest problem is with the judges. Before Idol, who knew who the hell Cowell was? And Randy Jackson? Was he one of the Jackson 5? And did anybody really respect Abdul as a pop artist? How far down on the producers' list of prospective judges were these three? You can almost hear a producer standing up in a Fox meeting and saying, "Uh, Debbie Gibson's not available, but Paula Abdul — remember her from that video with the cartoon cat? — yeah, she said she's interested."
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Randy Jackson played bass with Journey, and I guess working with a legitimately great vocalist (Journey's Steve Perry) makes him as qualified to judge amateur singers on Idol as Lou "The Nervous Greek" Skizas was qualified to go down to tee-ball and deride 5-year-olds on their batting skills because he sat in the same Yankee dugout as Mickey Mantle.
And then there's Cowell. The dude was an A&R guy in England and was a judge on Pop Idol, the British version of the show, before storming these shores to degrade obviously mentally challenged contestants and make them cry on national television. Cowell comes off as a hulking eighth-grader walking into a special-ed class and deriving pure joy out of teasing those kids for not being able to read. But there'll always be other kids who think that shit's funny, and we as viewers love it when Cowell goes off on some kid because, hey, it's the kid's own damn fault for thinking he could sing, right?
Here's the thing: I have an idea what it's like to be in the judges' shoes. I host rock karaoke at the Yucca Tap Room every Thursday and at Dos Gringos Trailer Park every Friday. It's karaoke with a live band, and I play guitar in that band. It's kind of like American Idol in that there are always good singers and not-so-good singers. What would happen if, after a not-so-good singer got finished, I took the mic and ripped him a new asshole in front of the gathered crowd for singing like a garbage disposal? Cowell comes off like a dick, but because he's on TV, that's okay. It's all in good fun, and everybody's laughing except for the kid who has to go back to Moose Fart, Montana, as the dolt who fucked up and got drilled by Cowell on TV. But who cares about that kid? Who cares about Paula Goodspeed? We didn't want her to die, for chrissakes, but, at the time, her audition was pretty funny. Well, I'm not laughing.
There is some good news, though. The audience for the season eight première was down 10 percent, which isn't a huge drop for a show ranked number one in the ratings week after week, but perhaps it shows that our interest is waning. Count me as one among the millions not watching anymore. I don't have to anymore and you can't make me. Unless you put me in a straitjacket and prop my eyes open.