Cheers for 'American Idol'

Posted: Sep 12, 2002 12:00 AM
Summer is never the hottest season for television. Audiences are diminished so the networks resort to reruns or bizarre (and cheap) experiments. For the Fox entertainment network, it's usually a season to live up to its own caricature with series like "Bachelorettes in Alaska." But Fox bottled this summer's hottest hit going in the opposite direction and drawing from an ancient idea: "American Idol," a simple talent contest for aspiring singers. By the time the show pared its top 10 contestants down to the winner -- soul-belting, growling Kelly Clarkson -- an average of 23 million people, a huge number by today's standards, were watching. That's not to say that every song and every singer was delightful to watch. Still, television has had a gaping hole, having abandoned the old-fashioned variety show where entertainers simply ... entertained. That lapsed tradition says a lot about how our culture has changed, along with our lifestyles. Until recent decades, the everyday working world often being a harsh, demanding place, entertainment presented an escape with light, airy, comedic fare meant to put a smile on your face. People went to the movies to see elaborate rollouts of Broadway musicals. Try comparing our current music in its sophistication with those songs of old. "Composer" and "lyricist" are not words one should bestow on the average hit songwriter today who produces masterpieces like "boom, boom, boom, let's go back to my room." (For that matter, the very word "music" doesn't apply to much of what my children hear, either.) Technology today has made our working lives easier, and often more sedentary, even boring, which explains somewhat why entertainment has moved to a new opposite. The dramatic tendency toward youth-oriented themes in the world of entertainment inevitably led to more and more emphasis on teen interests -- starting with that which makes hormones explode. So it's not at all merely an economic revolution. The TV variety show was also ridiculed to death by snooty cultural critics who thought this genre wasn't gritty enough, not based on "reality," as if otherworldliness was hopelessly sappy and uncool, meant for the fuddy-duddies. Entertainment had to be "hip" -- racy and irreverent -- to succeed. No more. "American Idol" succeeded without most of those modern touches. The contestants were all aged 23 and younger, which pitched the show directly at a young audience. They did sass up the contest by having the judges stage fights. They did have someone supply judge and former pop star Paula Abdul with off-color insults for the toughest judge, with lines like "This is what happens when you're breast-fed by your father." You could say the show succeeded in spite of itself. The hosts were unfailingly amateurish. To fill the gaps between singers, the producers forced the contestants into some of the unfunniest skits since "Sonny and Cher," all the while blatantly plugging the Ford Focus. But young people still wanted to see these young nobodies -- fresh from waiting tables and singing for birthday parties -- try to become a singing sensation. Even if the singers were struggling, at least they were offering old favorites from past decades -- even a big band show -- that haven't been heard on TV for many years. In another bow to tradition, they only auditioned ... well, singers. They didn't have rappers trying to unmusically rhyme their way to the title with all their thug-daddy braggadocio. So the show may have started with the kids, but the parents also came along for the ride. Already, some critics have suggested even the show's best artists aren't ready for the big time. But they've all been out there alone with a microphone, singing in formats that aren't their favorites. By contrast, many "singers" today -- think Britney Spears and Janet Jackson -- are poster girls first, barely dressed dancers second, and singers only after several layers of studio magic. In a sense, "American Idol" was a reality show -- no actors, no scripts and a competition. Viewers could be interactive by calling in by the millions to vote for their favorites. But unlike "Survivor" or "Big Brother," nobody was going to win by lying, cheating and manipulating, and no one was calling in to knock people out of the competition. It was a democracy, and a meritocracy -- let the best performer win. And there's yet another old standard brought back to life. So give Fox credit for breaking the mold (and given Fox's programming, "mold" can have multiple meanings.) There will be additional benefits because you can bet Fox will repeat the "Idol" formula while rival networks seek to match the idea and dilute the Fox franchise. Finally, the networks are giving us a programming copycat trend we can enjoy instead of endure. Let's see a few more of these flowers bloom.