We’re down to the top three on American Idol. Unlike other years, I don’t have a solid favorite. Some nights I like Haley, other nights I like Lauren. Scotty is a classic Hank Williams country singer and he’s good, but not really my cup of tea. Then there’s James Durbin. For weeks I’ve been hoping James would be voted off…sorry to all you James fans out there, but to my ears the kid can’t carry a tune. He’s entertaining and cute and has a poignant Tourettes/Asperger’s story, but he’s had a cocky kind of attitude that’s been bugging me, like his winning is in the bag because “he puts it all out there every week” and somehow feels he deserves it. If memory serves, he’s never been in the bottom three. On May 12, for some surprising reason, James was sent home, crying as he went. I’m glad he’s gone. He wasn’t the most talented of the group in spite of Internet ravings about his so-called “perfect pitch.”
I like American Idol because it’s a talent show, a place where the best singers should – and used to – rise to the top. I watch Idol in spite of an unsettling musical chairs aspect to programs like this. Musical chairs was highly stressful for me. I can still remember rounding that end chair with great trepidation, always afraid the music would stop just before I was able to plop my butt down. I can’t begin to imagine the stress these kids are under when on Thursday nights Ryan Seacrest says turn down the lights and here we go. In tune or not, contestants have gone through a grueling nothing-to-fame journey, and to emerge from grocery store check-out boy to singing in front of millions of people (like Scotty) has to be exhilarating and terrifying. They’ve worked hard and good for them. As long as they can stay a steady course.
I’ve been watching this show since season two. There seemed to be more humility in the earlier seasons, not to mention no-nonsense critiques. This season has been particularly painful in that the judges don’t seem to give decent and honest criticism and are in some sort of broken record mode. “That was a beautiful thing, man,” says Steven Tyler week after week. “Amazing,” says J-Lo. And Randy. Randy, Randy, Randy. “Dog, yo, dude, you’re in it to win it!!” Part of me now only watches to see if he can come up with something new to say.
I miss Simon. In fact, while I was hopeful when I heard Lopez and Tyler were joining the crew, their lack of substance even makes me miss Paula Abdul, who seemed slightly dim-witted at best and high as a kite in her darkest moments. To make matters worse in season 10, we’re subjected to a psychedelic Coca-Cola backdrop and promotion for Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler videos while poor Randy squirms in Simon’s chair, muttering dude and yo and causing people to furrow their brows and wonder, “Who IS this guy?” for another year.
This is all silly, I realize. Or is it? Maybe what’s bothering me isn’t the judges’ pointless prattle or the big Coca Cola ad. Maybe what’s bothering me is an attitude shift in the contestants, like James Durbin, and to a certain extent country-singing Scotty and recently-bounced Casey. All season I’ve been picking up on an arrogance that seeps through the television speakers like a bad smell. Pia Toscano was stunned when she was eliminated, as were other girls early in the season. Stunned. As if to say, How dare they? I deserve this! How could America say no to ME?
Just today I saw a 1970s interview Dick Cavett had with Katharine Hepburn. He asked her about fame, and did she hope people would remember her in years to come. She waved a hand dismissively and said she never cared a bit about recognition and anyone with half a brain realizes fame is behind you, just over your shoulder. “It’s all about what you do next,” she said in an ominous and shaky voice. Not that what I think matters a bit to Haley, Scotty, Lauren, and the rest of them, but I hope they understand what they’re all crying about in the end. I hope they think about people like John Belushi, River Phoenix, Janice Joplin, Marilyn Monroe, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Heath Ledger, and hundreds more who lost their way and checked out early once they got to the top. The most terrifying part of the competition, whether they win or not, is still ahead, because surely record contracts are lurking for more than the next American Idol. Ms. Hepburn didn’t say so, but that wave of a hand said it all. Fame is a prickly prize, and one that gets pricklier if you don’t have your head on straight.