With images of the nation’s capital appearing on-screen, host Ryan Seacrest opened “American Idol 4” by solemnly asking viewers to “please rise for the national anthem.”
Then, the anthem began, a wrenching rendition that sounded like it was being sung through dry heaves. If this was the way “American Idol” chose to open its fourth season, viewers knew what was coming.
Just under two hours later, a woman was explaining what the voices in her head were telling her. First, though, 18-year-old Mary Roach warbled something that barely resembled a song; she had so little musical ability that, if Tinkerbell’s life depended upon her, Mary wouldn’t be able to clap successfully to save Tink’s life. When Mary finally finished, the four judges, including guest judge Mark McGrath, stared at her in silence.
“What made you audition for this competition?” Simon Cowell finally asked.
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“All my friends told me that I was an awesome singer.”
The judges were aghast. Offering to sing again, Mary said, “I have a ton of different voices.”
Mark McGrath goaded her: “What are they saying right now?” Then she proceeded to tell us, literally, what the voices were saying, including that “Mark McGrath is hot.”
Are they putting us on?
There are four possibilities here: Mary’s friends really do think she’s a good singer; her friends are liars; she’s in desperate need of professional help; she’s an improvisational actor or a radio-station intern pulling one over on the judges and on us.
The only remotely palatable option is the last one, because the others all involve serious delusion, as did most of the other auditions that made it to the air Tuesday night.
After Mary’s time with the judges ended, the first episode of “American Idol 4” closed with a montage set to “Breakaway,” the new single from first-season winner Kelly Clarkson. The song’s chorus proclaims, in part, “Take a chance / Make a change / And break away.”
Ideally, that’s what the performers on “American Idol” are doing: taking a risk and catapulting themselves into new lives. One woman, for example, tearfully told us that she’d sold her wedding ring for $200 to pay for her trip to DC; that act was worth it, as she made it to Hollywood. Contestants like her have talent and dreams of success, and use this competition to pursue their goals.
But that doesn’t explain most of the people whose auditions were shown during the first episode. They are bad swimmers without water wings who jump in a pool, flop around, nearly drown, and then blame the lifeguard who tries to drag them to safety. Why were they here? And was this really supposed to be entertainment?
Consider contestant #32875, Derek Braxton, who said he is the cousin of singer Toni Braxton. “Singing is my life,” Derek told us. We knew what was coming next; Derek’s singing life was over before it began. Randy Jackson was cruel and blunt, saying, “I’d check my hearing if I were you.” Ryan Seacrest’s voiceover summed it up: “So much for genetics.” Somewhere, Toni Braxton is filling out a name-change application.
Contestant #27680, who wore a sleeveless outfit that displayed her badly scratched arms, first told us that it “may appear that I have a lot of money” but insisted “I’m still very classy.” Simon disabused her of that notion quickly, telling her, “You look like you’ve been dragged through a bush.” She then tried to explain by saying she’d literally dressed in a dark fitting room. Simon pointed out was obvious because her clothes were so hideous, although he admitted she dressed better than she sang. Somewhere, "Queer Eye's" Carson Kressley needed oxygen.
Contestant #33752 forgot the lyrics to the song he was singing. The judges let him go outside and ask others what the lyrics were — despite the fact that the few notes he’d croaked out were horrible. The judges stared at him in silence, and he crumbled, walking away in tears. “I just completely lost it,” he said.
Show makes viewers uncomfortable
Between commercial breaks, which lasted four or five minutes and came about every 10 minutes or less, a parade of similarly delusional teenagers and 20-somethings occupied an increasingly uncomfortable two hours. For every ridiculously absurd and funny singer like last year’s William Hung, there are dozens who apparently believe they are among the best singers in the world, and they were the ones who faced the judges.
Do they really think they’re good? Or are they just trying to get on television? And regardless, must they embarrass themselves and make us complicit in their delusion? Like unrepentant students who insist a grade is their teacher’s fault, and not an indication of the quality of their work, they tend to blame the judges, who are likely doing them a huge favor by giving the bad singers a reality check. The contestants who go after the judges, like the man who threw water on Simon last year, are sometimes fun to watch. But when they burst into tears, or stare back at the silent judges, it’s hard not to change the channel out of discomfort.
By now, auditioners know what they’re getting in to: If they suck, they’re going to be ridiculed, both by the judges and by us. So they’re either doing this for attention or because they think they’re decent. If they’re faking it, they need to be funnier; if they are actually this bad, something’s seriously wrong with their ability to critically examine themselves.
There’s also something wrong with the editors’ decision to focus on them — and with our willingness to be entertained by their misery, assuming it’s genuine. For some reason, the season premiere focused almost exclusively on those people, the ones who really think they have what it takes but are a few quarters short of a nickel in the talent department. But “Idol” is supposed to be fun, not wrenching.
After the judges confer their blessings, Hollywood-bound contestants are given yellow piece of paper that one referred to as a “golden ticket.” And that’s an apt phrase, considering its connection to Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”
In the novel, after finding golden tickets, five lucky children are admitted to Willy Wonka’s factory. One by one, four are eliminated for bad behavior that’s apparently the result of damaged characters. Wonka is unconcerned but secretly thrilled, standing idly by as the kids’ meet their well-deserved fates.
“American Idol,” its judges, and its viewers all do the same thing. The only difference is, Wonka let the bad apples into his world; at least “Idol” cuts them off in the first round.
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