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American Idol 5

Simon Cowell: I hated the audition. I hated everything about it. It was very mediocre.
Randy Jackson: So Simon, is that a yes or a no?

Ryan Seacrest tells us that 500,000 people came out to audition for American Idol 5. But then he also wants us to believe that American Idol is an integral part of American culture, a universal rite of passage, and that “no self-respecting American will have turned down the chance, no matter how remote, to become the next American Idol”. To be fair, I didn’t hear Ryan tell us Paula had invented cures for baldness and cancer, but I might have been distracted by CareerBuilder’s chimpanzee-themed commercials which seemed the perfect companion piece to Ryan’s endlessly smug hyperbole and American Idol‘s relentless determination to make monkeys of its aspiring contestants. Frankly, it wasn’t a huge leap for me to start seeing Seacrest himself as a chimpanzee, alternately masturbating furiously for the camera and throwing faeces at the audience.

When American Idol debuted, it brought with it a certain charm and a vaguely positive outlook. Both are long gone. These opening audition-based episodes are nasty-minded car crash TV at its worst. And while I’m happy to loathe Paula Abdul, tolerate Randy Jackson, and celebrate Simon Cowell’s self-mockery and brutal assessments of the contestants, I’m no longer prepared to accept the lie that underpins these shows.

Consider Chicago’s Derek Dupree for one moment. Derek is a frankly fat dude with extremely sweaty pits who couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. So he should have known better than to try out for American Idol. He should have known better than to proclaim, “I have a unique range. I can sing anything from Elvis to Queen.” And he should certainly have known better than to plead for a second chance from the judges. But not knowing better doesn’t mean Derek deserved to be ridiculed in front of more than 30 million viewers.

Similarly, 16-year-old Crystal from Palatine, Illinois. Crystal may have tanned herself into the skin of a 40-something. She may be the end product of a process that starts with the celebrification of Paris Hilton. But again, Crystal still deserves better than to be exploited for money by Cowell, Abdul, Jackson, 19 Entertainment, Freemantle Media and Fox. Dragging in her mother to continue their joke, the judges’ treatment of Crystal amounted to little more than child abuse.

Of course, American Idol invites and expects you to side with its judges. But while the show presents the trio as being besieged by an army of the utterly deluded, the reality is absolutely otherwise. Let’s do the math. If Ryan Seacrest is to be believed, then something like a hundred thousand people turned up at Soldier Field to throw their hats into the American Idol ring. During the two hour show, we saw no more than 30 in total. At the end of the show, we were told 34 had made it through to the next round in Hollywood, but only a handful of successful auditions were shown on screen. And those that were concentrated almost exclusively on gimmicks rather than talent: the cutesy sisters, the inevitable twins, the fat girl, and the hippy who talks to the animals. There are two pre-audition selection rounds before contestants are allowed to meet the judges. Clearly then, the show’s army of “talent” spotters deliberately sent Derek, Crystal and the others crashing and burning onto national television, in the sure and certain knowledge that humiliation means ratings.

Certainly, this first episode delivered the show’s best premiere ratings ever. More people watched it than watched all the other network programs put together. I confess, I was looking forward to the show’s return myself, so perhaps I wasn’t the only viewer turned off by its relentless pursuit of the unfortunate. In the 18th and 19th centuries, people could pay a penny to the Bethlem Royal Hospital of London (Bedlam) for the right to wander the psychiatric hospital and have a jolly good laugh at the freaks. Some years, it’s been reported, there were almost 100,000 such visits. Last week, 51 million people watched American Idol.

And we’re only in the first phase. After a couple of weeks of poking bears with sticks, mocking the freaks, and just generally busting a full-on Jerry Springer move, American Idol will take the successful auditioneers to Hollywood. There they’ll be chopped down by the judges, then voted on by viewers, until the last woman (it’s a hunch) standing takes home a recording and management contract from 19 Group.

The last and most important phase of the American Idol process is the exploitation of the brand and those performers who most captured the public’s attention. 19 Group’s website puts it best: “19 has attracted a unique collection of expertise in people who work together to integrate and leverage activity across television, music, film, merchandising, music publishing, recording, artist/writer and producer management, sponsorship, and promotion.” Well, no shit. Certainly, 19 and its founder, Simon Fuller, have succeeded beyond most people’s wildest dreams with American Idol. The company is paid lavishly per episode by Fox, harvests additional money from the telephone-voting system and various sponsorship deals, and then cashes in on the contestants’ popularity across a variety of media. Essentially, they’re being paid, and paid handsomely, to benefit from one of the single most effective marketing campaigns in history.

On Sunday, Carrie Underwood, winner of American Idol 4, sang the National Anthem at the NFC Championship Game, which aired on Fox. After her victory in the first Idol, Kelly Clarkson was lined up to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the anniversary of September 11 at the Lincoln Memorial. She balked at the thought of turning a moment of national mourning into a promotional opportunity: “I think it is a bad idea… If anybody thinks I’m trying to market anything, well, that’s awful… I am not going to do it.” However, in the same New York Times story that revealed Kelly’s disquiet, Tom Ennis of 19 Management said he “would allay Ms. Clarkson’s concerns and that she would sing the anthem on September 11.” She duly sang.

Contractually, she probably had no choice. Along with all other American Idol finalists, she signed a cruel and unusually restrictive contract with 19 Group. Contestants are reportedly unable to reveal anything about their contracts without incurring damages in excess of $5 million a pop. Los Angeles music attorney Gary Fine once posted what he said was an American Idol contestant contract on the well-known “Pho” e-mail group. According to his version, 19 owns the names, likenesses, voices, and personal histories of the American Idol finalists, “in or in connection with” the show, forever.

The finalists are also contracted, needless to say, to recording, management and merchandising companies owned by 19 Group. Some might think this implies a conflict of interest. Do you remember From Justin to Kelly, the truly awful movie Clarkson made with Justin Guarini? It was written by Kim Fuller, brother of Simon. Meanwhile, Clarkson’s first single was co-written by Cathy Dennis, who just happened to be managed by (you’re ahead of me, aren’t you?) Simon Fuller.

American Idol is an entertainment industry shark, a brutally efficient money-making machine. Despite everything, I’ll probably give the show another try when it gets down to the final 12, but I cannot escape the conclusion that with this season’s opening episodes, American Idol has completed its sad transformation from an engaging guilty pleasure into a repulsive and immoral spectacle that should be shunned by all right-thinking and self-respecting Americans. If that’s OK with you, Ryan?