American Idol is, once again, a smash hit. Despite being in its sixth season and presenting roughly the same package as the previous five seasons, the show continues to draw viewers. The new season’s premier drew over 41 million viewers. More than that may take in the grand finale, due to hit the screen sometime in May. Where the Grammy Awards were once the annual pinnacle of the music industry, it now seems that American Idol is taking its place. The major draw, the one that drew 41 million viewers, is the early auditions.
These auditions showcase the absolute best and the absolute worst of the people who think they have what it take to be the next American Idol. They are paraded before a panel of judges and before an international audience of viewers. What many people do not realize is that these people have already been passed through between at least two prior levels of audition, the first before early screeners and at least one before the show’s producers. These people weed out the good from the average and the abysmal from the bad. Those who are especially good and those who are especially awful (or otherwise interesting) are sent before the panel of judges: Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul. The few who can sing well are complimented and given a ticket to go to Hollywood where they will have another chance to impress the judges. Those who cannot sing are mocked, ridiculed and sent packing.
The ones that remain in the minds of the viewers are the ones who stick out both because of their poor voices and because of some physical characteristic. It is rare that a person appears before the cameras who is beautiful but who has an awful voice. Far more common are people who are both unattractive and have horrendous voices. They sing for thirty seconds and then face the panel expectantly. Randy Jackson, laughing all the while, says, “Aw, come on dawg. You’ve gotta bring it. I was wasn’t feeling it, you know? It was just a’ight. It was just a’ight.” Then Paula Abdul, playing the role of the giddy drunk, says “So you’re a teacher, right? That is a great job and I think you’re blessed that you can do something you love. I just don’t think singing is for you, honey.” Then she stands up and claps. And finally, Simon Cowell unloads with both barrels, feigning surprise that the audition was just so bad (though I’d be willing to bet dollars to donuts that the cheat sheets the judges have in their hands have already told them that this person cannot sing). “That was horrific. Let me ask you, when you sing how do people usually react?” This is a trick question, of course, though most contestants don’t seem to know this yet. There are not many possible answers to this question. “They cry” will be met with “I don’t blame them.” “They clap” will be met with “I will too when you leave.” “They sing along” will merit the reply “That’s to drown you out.” It’s like that shell game you see street performers do. You’re going to lose no matter what.
It is this cruelty that attracts viewers. We want to see people humiliated and want to see them cry. We want to see people’s hopes dashed. There is something very satisfying about seeing a guy like William Hung, who somehow thinks he can sing, be paraded in front of the nation and made the butt of countless jokes. His very name is a joke now, all because he thought he could sing and because the show’s producers were willing to make him think so for a short while. It certainly didn’t help that he is a gawky and quite unattractive guy. There are hundreds of people who suffer this humiliation every season–people who have been passed through several levels of audition because they think they have a legitimate shot at winning the competition. But then the judges tell them that they are actually awful and that they have just been part of a big joke. They never had any chance at all. They were brought this far only so the world could laugh at them. And then they are sent packing, back to their schools or jobs.
Somehow this humiliation resonates with us. We love it. We lap the show up. 41 million Americans took time on a Tuesday night to watch this. If it were not for the humiliation, that number would have been 4 million. Maybe 14. But definitely not 41.
When I see or read about this show, I realize that it is just part of a wider phenomenon in our culture. We are exhibitionists. An exhibitionist is someone who derives pleasure from exposing his genitals to others. Or more generally, it is a person who deliberately behaves in a way that attracts attention. It is a person who is motivated to do things simply to attract attention. This feeds his ego or provides some kind of sexual satisfaction. American Idol is but one symptom of a greater disease. YouTube is another symptom, a place where people post videos of themselves that are so often, by any measure, distasteful and embarrassing (I don’t spend much time scouring the archives of YouTube, but from what I’ve noticed, it seems that the video distribution is something like this: 25% are videos of girls making out with girls; 25% are people lip-syncing in front of web cameras, and the other 50% are people getting hurt). Reality television is another example, as are the countless video programs that showcase people getting hurt or killed. We have a sick fascination with parading ourselves in front of the world, allowing them to see us at our worst. Fifteen minutes of this kind of fame is somehow better than no fame at all.
We are exhibitionists, but we are also voyeurs. Voyeurism is a practice in which an individual derives sexual pleasure from observing other people. Or, if we move it outside a distinctly sexual practice, a person who derives pleasure from watching other people at their worst. This is exactly what our culture promotes. Without our voyeuristic tendencies, our culture’s obsession with exhibitionism would have no audience.
In American Idol and in YouTube and in countless other manifestations, exhibitionism and voyeurism have collided in a perfect storm of entertainment. We are drawn in by it and revel sometimes in the successes, but more commonly in the failures, of other people. We love to laugh at people who think they can sing when all evidence points to the unavoidable opposite conclusion. We love to laugh along with the jabs and barbs that are sent their way and then to see them cry, swear, and storm off in shame and disgust. This passes for entertainment. And we love it.
I think Christians would do well to think about these things. We need to think carefully about what we endorse as entertainment and what our motives are in watching such things. There may not be anything intrinsically evil about American Idol, but surely some aspects of it are meant to appeal to our baser desires. Always we need to remember that entertainment and what we allow to pass in front of our eyes are not isolated from our lives. Our eyes are like gates to our hearts. What we allow in will stay there, resonate there, and both change and affect us. What we allow in will soon become manifest in what we pour out through our lives.