Porn for the Whole Family

Am I the only one who thinks American Idol is evil? Of course I’m speaking as one who has never actually watched a whole episode, but I have seen bits and pieces of it when I’ve been around others who were watching it. Last week, I happened to catch more than a few minutes of it, and it was one of those “it’s so horrible I can’t look away” moments.

Apparently it works like this: young naïve hopefuls line up for a cattle call audition, where they are made to sing acappella (without musical accompaniment) in front of the judges. The producers and editors create a montage of starstruck youths who have no talent (but whose parents love them and tell them they’re great) so that we can watch them be humiliated on national television for our own personal schadenfreude.

The ones that stand out are promised a trip to Hollywood, but instead are given a trip to Pasadena (and let me tell you, as one who lived there, Pasadena is NOT Hollywood). Once there, they are made to relive their worst nightmares of being picked last for kickball when they have to form their own singing groups with no help from the supervisors… oh wait, there are no supervisors (as far as anyone can tell), and so these poor kids practice all night long in the hallways (again with no music to accompany them), deprived of sleep, trying to arrange and choreograph a song some of them just learned, only to crash and burn the next day in front of the judges and their public.

The few who make it through this ordeal are (I’m certain) made to sign a contract that effectively sells them into musical servitude to the producers in case they should win. From experience, you’re better off getting to the final few, but not winning, so you can have your own career.

I have to say, I was horrified by the thing. Not to mention the fact that the whole concept of an idol is, well… idolatrous.

But it’s entertaining, you say. Yeah. So is porn. But it’s exploitive, and that’s why it’s wrong. These young kids are being exploited and someone else is getting rich from it. The unrealistic dreams of hundreds of people (parents included) become the fuel for the greed of the producers of yet another freak show – but this time the freaks are underage.

As always, I think I know what you’re thinking: Geez, Jim, why don’t tell us how you really feel? Lighten up, it’s only a talent show. Or maybe you’re thinking that there are some sour grapes behind my reaction to this spectacle. After all, I’m a musician who’s too old to be on American Idol and who has apparently missed my window of opportunity for rock-stardom. Yeah, I’ll give you that. I would never make it on American Idol. First of all I’m too introverted to be able to form a singing group with people I’ve never met. I really felt bad for some of those kids, like the 15 year old who got kicked out of a group (probably because of the way he looks, not because of the way he sings) and he had to beg other groups to take him when almost everyone else was already in a group. Where were the producers at this point? Counting their money, no doubt.

And yeah, I don’t sing well enough to be on American Idol. I know that. I get by ok, especially with the songs I wrote for my own voice. I’m pretty sure I sing better than Bob Dylan. But I don’t have the pipes to belt out the big hair ballads or the screaming high notes (especially acappella). However, some of those kids are that good. A few are even opera good. I’d like to see them guided and nurtured, and not encouraged to damage their voices by oversinging their ranges and being sleep deprived. I’d like to see them “win” by getting some training. I’d like to see them counseled on how to have a long term career, rather than get their 15 minutes of fame and have nothing to show for it afterward. But instead, this show encourages and enables a self-centered, live fast and burn out quick lifestyle. The editing focuses on the humiliating performances of the losers as much as the good performances of the winners. I felt like I was watching a bully hold a magnifying glass over some ants.

The third century Roman priest and theologian, Novatian, once wrote something very interesting. Speaking of the Roman shows, he said, we are not permitted to watch what we are not permitted to do. In other words, if it would be wrong to do it, it’s also wrong to watch someone else do it. The application to porn is obvious, but I think it applies to certain prime time TV shows as well. I would argue that the young hopefuls on American Idol are being exploited, and if it’s wrong to exploit naïve young people, then it’s also wrong to watch someone else do it.

Now, lest you think that I’m just a grumpy old man who complains about everything… (I’m not that old)… Anyway, there are a few good reality shows – they’re not all freak shows. Susie and I have gotten into watching this show called Restaurant Impossible. The host, Robert Irvine, goes into a failing restaurant, and in two days turns it around with a whole new menu, décor, everything. He even teaches the chefs how to cook better and trains the staff. The producers use some of the money they get from advertising to put $10,000 into the restaurant. They help these mom & pop restaurants, help the economy, and at the end of the day, it’s a great “feel good” show. Everybody wins, and no one is humiliated or exploited.

I guess it’s like our parents told us when we were young. What you put into your head is just as important as what you put into your body. It’s tempting to relax (i.e., escape) with these trashy lowest-common-denominator shows. But I’m starting to think that American Idol is just the new Jerry Springer. It’s a state fair side show that’s moved into your living room and entertains by exploiting the desperately hopeful.

So what do you think?  I’d love to hear from you…

Jim Papandrea

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About Jim Papandrea

Jim Papandrea is an author, educator, and singer/songwriter. Visit his website at: www.JimPapandrea.com
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4 Responses to Porn for the Whole Family

  1. Dan Duet says:

    Great insights, Jim. I personally believe that ALL so-called “reality shows” are idiotic because as soon as the first camera rolls, it is no longer reality; it becomes entertainment. Thus, I don’t watch any of them.

    A larger problem that I see with the proliferation of these shows that cater to the lowest common denominator amongst us, is that they put on television what the American public is willing to pay for. It is quite disturbing that we as a society have sunk so low. If the advertisers weren’t making money from the viewers, they wouldn’t advertise and these shows would not exist. But alas, they do make money because enough people in our society support this garbage.

    My two cents. Keep sharing with us!!!

  2. Nick Cardilino says:

    Hi Jim,

    I agree with a lot of what you’ve said about Idol, but I continue to watch it for its redemptive moments. For example, the 15 year old kid that got kicked out a group was welcomed into another group, and there was a nice focus on the regret felt by those who had kicked him out of the first group. Now, this kid whose weight made him an underdog, is one of the contestants that much of America is rooting for. And one of the four kids in his first group was very overwhelmed with the “sin” he had committed by not speaking up in defense of the one who was kicked out; he made a kind of public “confession,” and even though he made it to the next round, it was clear that his sorrow for what he had done was genuine. I think the moral lesson he learned by betraying his friend came across very clearly to the viewers. His public “act of contrition” has made him a favorite as well.

    Having this all play out on national television watched by tens of millions of people may be exploitive, but in most cases, it’s the “good” kids with outstanding voices who get exposure and get their stories told throughout the season. I occasionally have some problems with the exploitation of these kids’ real life stories, but they’re often quite instructive on a moral level.

    You’re right about the bad performances they air, and the nasty reactions given by some of the contestants, and some of the reactions of the judges being on the verge of pornographic (I think it’s more like seeing cars on the side of the road that were in an accident–you don’t want to slow down to see blood, but it’s interesting if you do!). But by and large, as the season progresses, viewers do get to see these kids develop into amazing performers. And they do get mentored by professionals from whom I’ve taken a number of tips over the years.

    My biggest beef with the show is, as you pointed out, what happens to the winner. I have a friend who is a cousin to last year’s winner, Lee DeWyze. He has indicated that Lee’s recording company gives him very little freedom on the kinds of songs he should record, which song should be the first single, etc. In many ways, they are trying to “brand” him in ways that don’t fit with who he is as a person. The show never makes that part of the grand prize clear to the contestants!

    Peace,

    Nick

  3. Thanks for your insights Nick, however I disagree with one important point. That one kid that “repented” in front of the judges – I didn’t believe it for a second. I took that as a desperate attempt to get back in the good graces of the judges when he thought maybe he would not get accepted because of what the group had done. I wasn’t buying it, and I don’t think his sorrow was genuine, except to the extent that he was sorry his actions might cost him a spot in the contest. Anyway, that was my impression at the time – I hope I’m wrong.
    JP

  4. “The producers and editors create a montage of starstruck youths who have no talent (but whose parents love them and tell them they’re great) so that we can watch them be humiliated on national television for our own personal schadenfreude.” Hey Jim, know how many manuscript submissions we publishers get from people who tell them their memoir of saintly Auntie Tess is so good, it should be published? It’s not only the music field. Why not write a blog about how reality shows are anything but? They serve as pseudo-reality for people who live their lives vicariously in front of their TV.

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