Years ago watching The Ten Commandments movie, I learned that an idol is something that people worship that gives off a false promise and/or sense of security. The believer is sure that the idol is something better than it really is but eventually he sees that it does not deliver on what it promises. He also gets discouraged when he discovers other false idols are just as powerless.
Ten years ago American Idol burst forth on the television scene as a talent show for singers looking for overnight fame and fortune. Each contestant had a dream that they would become admired by millions all over the world. Other than last year, the setup was for three show business personalities to judge the ever-shrinking talent pool each week.
Some of the contestants are popular and very successful in their area of music and probably make more money than I will ever see. But they are not iconic show business stars. One can argue that I am not being fair- that it requires the test of time. Exactly. We live in a society that demands instant gratification and wanting to put false heroes on pedestals.
Frank Sinatra spent fifteen years in the early portion of his career singing in Tommy Dorsey’s band as well as running from one MGM musical to another before he became that iconic great performer in the mid 1950’s until his death forty years or so later. Willie Nelson used to joke that he was an overnight sensation that took almost twenty years to happen. And after his ten to fifteen years of being in the limelight, he is fading back into fond memories.
This year American Idol has two new judges replacing what either didn’t work last year or the lack of commitment by the previous judges to the endeavor. Already, after the first week, there is a noted drop of 13% in viewers according to the Nielsen Ratings Service . I’d like to recommend a a few things to make the contest a special opportunity for the truly gifted while showing respect to the viewing audience (which I know is not going to happen):
1. Don’t debase the end product -get rid of showing the goofy auditions of idiots who have no respect even for themselves. It adds nothing to the contest other than filling out air time for the precious sponsorship dollars.
2. Stop patronizing the contestants as well as the audience by telling contestants how great they are. Let the competition judge itself in due time.
3. Stop making the contestants sing a specific type of music theme on a given week. Let them do what they do best. It’s not a course in music theory to see if one can do rock, hard rock, R&B, jazz, pop or reggae. The audience response will tell you if they care for the contestant’s stylings. If they don’t, then the person obviously doesn’t belong there for that given time.
In the late 1980’s during a visit to Califronia I somehow managed to snag tickets to go see a taping of Star Search. It was a glitzy weekly talent show on television genially hosted by Ed McMahon. There were several categories including singing, dancing, stand up comedy and acrobatic routines. Big Ed was Johnny Carson’s side kick on the Tonight Show as well as pitchman for several products advertised on tv. One very well known product Ed hawked was a brand of beer and another was hard liquor. Ed was not shy about showing off his enjoyment of whetting his appetite. The evening I was in the audience the taping began a little after 6pm. This was about the time Big Ed came from dinner. The director yelled from a control booth for Ed to get in his place as the announcer would introduce him. Ed was then supposed to say the opening lines of the show. After three tries of Ed tripping up his words the director advised everyone that Ed would try it again after the show. He courteously asked us all to stay later and give Ed a chance to do the opening again at that time in front of an audience. He would then have the intro segment spliced back into its proper sequence.
Throughout the show I was amazed at how they were able to push through the setting up of each act as quickly as possible timed to about the same duration as a commercial. Ed and his staff was polite to each performer, interviewed them and then let them do their thing.
He never gushed over any one person, made any promises to him or her. Near the end of the show, he asked us in the audience to use devices at our seats to vote for each performer in a given category. It was possible to get quick results and Ed let the performers know at the same time we did who got the highest scores. The winners were congratulated and told to come back the following week unless they had won a certain number of weeks in a row. The runners-up were consoled and wished the best of luck.
I’m sure many of the performers whether they came in first place or were also-rans went on to successul careers in show business. It’s not only about the money but also about having steady work, feeling good about yourself and hoping someone, somewhere will say a kind word.
Then again, here I am the other side of fifty writing an insightful column and hoping to also become an overnight sensation.