Some cultural manifestations are like glossy paper: You pick them up, examine them, and put them down again. They're smooth, self-contained, and leave no residue on those who touch them. An academic essay on Abu Ghraib, for instance, or an opinion column. Others are like flypaper: You can't touch them without getting stuck to something – in the case of "American Idol," to symbols of Americanness. The show is controlled by and comprised of flesh-and-blood mortals who don't seek to be symbols or to act them out. And yet the show represents, emblematizes, signifies like crazy. It's democracy itself.
"Idol" commenced its fifth season on January 17, and it's clear by now that there are several non-symbolic reasons for its success. It has hit on a long-term combination of quality (in the rough sense of consistently giving people something they want) and controversy. It's already racked up an impressive number of minor scandals. Its three judges – "nice" Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul, "mean" Simon Cowell – lend it the character continuity and occasional conflict of a sitcom. Its format appeals to the most sedentary squares as well as the most irritating post-ironic hipsters – and even to the occasional critic, who may combine aspects of both.
I've reflexively loathed the "Idol" phenomenon these past few years, despite feeling obliged to check it out now and again. But my mistake was always to wait until the last few weeks of each season, when the competition had tightened to a narrow field of potential winners so wretched – soulless, funkless, every squawk, grunt, strut, and flutter, a cliché screwed down and clamped tight – that I assumed the earlier stages of competition could only be more of the same. But the real action is in the opening rounds, when the judges traverse the country for mass auditions that bring out the weird and the wild, the obsessed and the oblivious. These segments, currently airing, are painfully funny, sometimes only painful, and often revelatory of some aspect of democracy, spectacle, and human interaction in a contrived commercial setting.
Most of the auditioners are just bad – butt-shaking slobs and reedy-voiced nebbishes hoping for, not even 15 minutes of fame, but five seconds of camera time. Some are ferociously bad, like the woman who sang "Fame" as if through a mouthful of black bile. Some are transfixingly bad, like the man whose daring avant-garde rendition of "She's Out of My Life" consisted of syllables stretched coast-to-coast and off-key notes held for eternities. (This may be an outsider-music legend in the making.)
Then there was the warm, modest, full-figured woman who came on as a singer but claimed to have discovered in herself, quite recently, a gift for poetry. Halfway through her vocal offering – the standard gut-heaving ballad – she cut the song and went into a dramatic reading, in hip-hop cadence, of her poem about The Ghetto. It was a catalog of clichés (needles in arms, babies having babies, dreams deferred) that were clichés circa 1970, when Richard Pryor parodied the shortcomings of Afro-revolutionary verse by portraying a street poet who hoarsely screams, "BLACK!!! [pause] Thank you."
So the poetess finished and took a breath. Randy and Paula were speechless, fumbling for a sensitive response to this caged bird's abominable song. But Simon looked like he was shopping for neckties. "Do you have anything a bit more cheerful?" he asked.
I loved him for that. Sensitivity is one thing, but crap is crap.
This story was not finished. We'd been informed that the contestant sacrificed her job as a sales rep to pursue her dreams of idolhood. Simon was so insistent on the wrongheadedness of the move that he offered to phone the woman's ex-boss and get her job back. We watched, and he did. The contestant was excited. The ex-boss was excited. Simon was – well, contented.
It was a vaguely mawkish display, and moving nonetheless. A woman had given up a paycheck to be a poet. She was told she'd never be a poet. She got her paycheck back. And against all odds, she was still happy. It said something about celebrity and obscurity, dreams public and private, disappointment and joy, and life going on. It was the feel-good moment of the week.