Sunday, March 25, 2007

Living in shit

Chuckling is not a sophisticated character. You may think that because I claim to read such authors as José Saramago or Paul Auster and comment on films by luminaries such as Hayao Miyazaki that I am a professorial type whose ancestors crossed on the Mayflower, but that is not the case. My grandparents on both sides of the family came from mud. At the height of the great flood of ‘37, my father’s family escaped from the second story of their house in a rowboat. The fact that they kept a rowboat upstairs tells you more than you need to know about their economic situation. They were tenant farmers working the floodlands. And my great-uncles were all losers of one sort or another, most of them drunks along with bootleggers and chicken thieves who did time in the county jail. My father was the first to go to college, but he listens to Rush Limbaugh, watches Fox News, supports President Bush, and considers himself an open-minded and good Christian. And I am a high school drop-out. So it’s not all Italian wine, French cheese and 18th century English lit in the chuckling gene pool. If you think of the term “Wild Turkey” as a concept as well as a brand, it can be used to describe chuckling and his family on so many levels.

I only confide that plebeian history to prepare you for what I am about to say, which is far more embarrassing than all of the above. I am a big fan of American Idol. Yes, it’s true. I love the show and watch it often. And furthermore, I think Idol goes beyond the realm of mere entertainment. And I’m not just talking about sociology or anthropology as is the wont of pseudo-intellectual characters justifying their attendance at monster truck rallies. I think that American Idol is art. I think it tells a great story, one worthy of Tolstoy (though not Dostoevsky). It did for at least one year anyway. I have to admit that it sucks right now, but more about that later.

The numbers support the contention that American Idol fans are a bunch of rubes. Nearly twice as many people watch it in the American south than in more civilized parts of the country, and much of the apparent viewership in New York and Los Angeles is made up of tourists in hotel rooms or parents visiting their children. And I’m sure it’s not just the south. Most people in small towns throughout the midwest are without rewarding intellectual lives as well.

The only thing I can say in my defense is that it took me awhile for my hillbilly roots to catch up with me. My cultural free-fall began, as these things usually do, with me stumbling drunkenly through the living room on my way from the blog cave (in which I contemplate universal truths and the like) to the bathroom (one can only hold so much universal truth inside oneself ) and ridiculing the family for watching whatever stupid tv show they are watching as I pass through. From time to time I stop to rest on my way back to the cave and spend some extra time making sport of these programs and occasionally start to watch them myself. That’s how I began watching shows that I eventually came to like such as Star Trek Next Generation and Buffy. (Now they are watching Lost, which I refer to as Loser Island. There’s talk of bricking up a passageway so I’m forced to go through the kitchen instead of the living room, but that’s a different story).

But I never thought it could happen with Idol. Beyond the hype, which is usually more than enough to keep me away; and the horrible singing, which is truly horrible indeed; and the judges, who have their own issues, to say the least; and Ryan Seacrest, who actually comes off as the least annoying of the bunch which is a sad, sad statement – I had an even greater reason to hate the show. During its second season I was commuting to Jersey in an SUV with a couple tech dweebs and just about all they ever talked about was American Idol. Not only did they talk about it, but they actually called in and voted for contestants and complained about not being able to get through. Many were the days I dreamed of the SUV flipping over and skidding in front of an oncoming tractor-trailer in the hopes of shutting them up. It would have been sad for the children, and maybe even painful for me, but at least I wouldn’t have had to hear to another word about Clay fucking Aiken.

But something caught my attention in Idol’s third season. The company I worked for was circling the drain and they had cut my salary which resulted in me drinking cheaper liquor and more of it, which may explain part of my soon-to-be respect for American Idol, but for whatever reason, I found myself stopping off to ridicule the show for longer and longer stretches and by the time the contestants were deep into the finals I was discussing their performances and the idiosyncrasies of the judges just like all those ridiculous people in the heartland (though I have never voted and my wife is under strict orders to shoot me if I ever do).

Seriously though. In order to appreciate Idol as art, it’s important to understand its story structure. Being named America’s Idol is the MacGuffin, the thing that everyone is after. In order to get the MacGuffin, the characters must overcome a series of obstacles, most notably the judges. The judges are a troika of iconic characters: the fool, the drunken bimbo, and the total asshole. Interesting subplots develop among themselves and in their relationships with the contestants. As in most great literature, actually getting the MacGuffin is anti-climactic, a sadly hollow experience. I won’t describe the plot progression from cattle calls and Hollywood hijinks to the finals in which twelve contestants vie for the MacGuffin by singing a new song every week which results in the elimination of one of them from the competition. That tells you no more about the artistic merit of the show than describing The Maltese Falcon as a story about a bird.

In addition to each other and the judges, the idol wannabees also have to deal with theme nights in which they have to sing songs of a particular genre or by a particular entertainer, which makes it difficult for contestants who are only comfortable with one style of music. How they overcome, or don’t, being forced to sing songs outside their comfort zones makes for some good drama. For example when Chis Daughtrey, a fan of mediocre heavy metal, turned Johnny Cash’s I Walk the Line into a Bob Seeger-like stadium rock weeper on country music night, it was something special. More often than not though, the result is laughably bad and those who fail to grow fall by the wayside.

The contestant’s ability to grow is what elevates Idol so far above all the other talent shows. Although the judges are portrayed as the most formidable obstacles, it is the contestants struggle to overcome their inner obstacles that is much more interesting. Each contestant must raise the level of her game from show to show – to evolve from being a talented amateur to a polished professional in a mere twelve weeks. The great majority of the performances are dreadful, but there are times when a contestant manages to transcend her limitations and move on to a higher plane. When one of these transformations occurs, and you have watched the individual jump through all the hoops from the cattle call onward, it can come off as truly special.

And just as in literature, the results are not always fair or just. The best singers do not always advance, nor do those who perform best on any particular night. There are politics involved, Q ratings. The judges don’t give a flying fuck about quality. They want ratings, they have focus groups and demographics, they know who votes for whom, so they try to influence the audience to vote for the most telegenic, or at least the most popular contestants so people will continue to watch. And the audience, the unseen character, the deus ex machina of the show, are a fickle bunch. They may vote for a hairstyle, a regional favorite, a fellow Christian, on race-based considerations, or for the worst singer just to be obnoxious. There’s just no way to know for sure, which is not a bad definition of drama.

But although it is so much more, American Idol is also a singing competition and much of its appeal depends on the abilities of the contestants to sing. And that’s ultimately why I watched the third season enough to appreciate the finer literary aspects of the story arc. Fantasia won that year, but there were a number of very good singers who constantly topped each other with transcendental performances. The year after that, the one with Bo Bice and the country chick, I watched less and less. Last year’s show, which was won by a smarmy wedding singer that at his best could manage a decent Joe Cocker impression was mostly insipid.

I haven’t watched this years show much at all, but from what I’ve seen it is truly horrible. There is precisely one good singer, Melinda Doolittle, and the others are as horrible as Simon Cowell’s worst put downs. They are all the bad singers from high school musicals, cruise ships, Holiday Inns, weddings and bar mitzvahs, and karaoke bars that you never want to hear.

And the judges have lost sight of what made the show popular and, as I have argued, art. We, the audience, may be direct descendants of bootleggers and chicken thieves with all of the high culture you would expect based on our backgrounds, but we still recognize shit when it’s hurled at us by a bunch of talentless assholes. When the show was good, the judges recognized that as well and did not hesitate to say, each in his or her own way, that shit stank.

Now, however, they seem traumatized by the near complete lack of talent on the show and are trying to convince the audience that it is really not that bad. Although the ratings are still there, I have trouble believing that much of anyone is buying it.

I’m very sorry to fall back on such a previously popular analogy, but it’s like the episode in Happy Days when Fonzi jumped the shark. Before that, he was cool. After that, he could never be more than a self-parody of something that used to be. I’m sure Idol will sputter on for a few more years. In a desperate gamble to stay relevant, they will bring in Pamela Anderson to replace Paula Abdul or someone like Jamie Foxx whose career is spiraling down the toilet to replace Randy, but nothing they try will work. When they stopped calling shit shit they became shit and although all good things may eventually become shit, shit will never change itself back into chocolate ice cream. If American Idol was ever great art, it ceased to be so after season three. We are not now witnessing the hero’s downfall in the last act of a great play. We are talking sequals and not Godfather II. The current Idol is down there with Godfather III or Police Academy VII.