In Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, Chuck Klosterman details his “Real World Theory.” Among other things, he argues that after a few seasons of MTV’s groundbreaking reality program, the housemates looked increasingly alike: “Technically, these people were completely different every year, but they were also exactly the same.”
In this, the fifth season of Fox’s American Idol, the show reached this point. Every year, Randy, Simon, and Paula whittle thousands of entrants down to 12. This season, while the contestants were new, they were also old. The majority fit nicely into categories established in past years: The Weird One (Taylor); The Attractive But Not Stunning Caucasian Woman (Kathyrn); The Precocious Upstart (Paris/Kevin); The Overweight African-American Woman Who Can Belt Out A Tune (Mandissa); The Prissy, Naive Southern Girl (Kellie), and so on.
Yet the popularity of the show continues to grow. Five blew away previous seasons in terms of viewership, sponsor tie-ins, and revenue. Viewers cast 63.4 million votes for the finale (more than any one Presidential candidate ever received) and an estimated 200 million people worldwide watched. In a country that seems more divided every day, Idol just might be the last thing we all can agree upon.
With all this success, does it matter that the show is a shell of its former self? The answer, quite simply, is yes, of course, absolutely. Klosterman makes a second point about The Real World, writing, “Everyone I know is one of the seven defined strangers.” The logical conclusion is that Idol will follow this path as well. With the show already at the caricature stage, the personification period cannot be very far behind. However, because comparatively so few people watched, and were subsequently influenced, by The Real World, Klosterman’s conclusion came off an interesting observation rather than a genuine problem.
Idol is different. And for every positive role model it provides, 10 negative ones also exist. The difference between Real World and Idol is that while anyone can mimic an MTV persona, fewer can sing well. Thus, instead of choosing to be The Weird One or The Precocious Upstart, auditioners seeking recognition will try to become the Next Notoriously Bad Idol. In practice, this isn’t such a bad strategy. If you’re willing to embarrass yourself in front of an ever-increasing number of viewers, you can become quite famous for being totally tone-deaf. Few fans can name all the previous winners, but the majority can certainly recall William Hung’s terrible performance of “She Bangs” that sparked a cult following, a record deal, and an album that sold 200,000 copies.
One perfect example from this season of this phenomenon was the annoying, wiry young man who entered the studio claiming he was the second coming of Clay Aiken. After he performed part of truly horrible rendition of some song, Simon stopped him. When the potential Idol whined about how he was Season Five’s Aiken, Simon Cowell responded acerbically, “But Clay Aiken could sing.” With this one line, he perfectly encapsulated the problem with Idol.
However, these William Hung hopefuls aren’t the only ones hustling the Idol down this path towards the glorification of terrible performances. Disappointingly, the show actually is rewarding this behavior. Fox has always spotlighted viciously poor tryouts, but never promoted them quite like this season. The finale featured a running gag in which Seacrest pretended to host an Oscar rip-off, called the Golden Idol Awards. He showed three clips of poor performances in each category (“Best Male Performance,” “Best Female Performance”), after which the future Casey Kasem announced the winner.
Not only did this tactic further reinforce the notion that a bad performance is the new good one, but the producers even allowed Crazy Dave Hoover, the frontrunner for the 2005 William Hung Award, a cameo on the finale. After winning “Outstanding Male Vocal,” he stormed the stage, did his shtick, and receded into the shadows. His phone is undoubtedly still ringing with offers from agents, promoters, and record labels. At this moment, in a complicated bit of dualism, Idol had reached a new low, but the marketability of its non-talented “stars” hit a new peak.
In a fitting conclusion new American Idol Taylor Hicks sang his first single, the aptly titled “Do I Make You Proud,” to close the night. Yes Taylor, you’re fun and likable and, with your amusing dance moves and unique look, possess some semblance of originality. You do make us proud. It’s the rest of the Idol cohort that we’re not so sure about.