Pop Culture

‘Idol’ judges aren't meaner, it's the editors

“American Idol” has received a substantial amount of criticism in its first two weeks about the level of cruelty in its auditions. But as anyone who has actually watched the show over the past few years knows, this criticism is not exactly fair.

The show and its judges have never been nice to those who cannot sing. That is largely the reason for its success; watching Simon Cowell berate poor singers in advertisements back in the summer of 2002 first drew viewers in, and the show’s audience has done nothing but grow since then. And the audition round is nothing compared to the way “American Idol” tortures its finalists.

If anything, the judges seem somewhat kinder this year. It’s the editing that’s being especially cruel to those who audition.

Simon Cowell admitted this, for the most part, after the first audition in New York City. “This was a very hammy, bad audition,” Simon told a contestant who was obviously there only to be on television. The contestant was wearing a shirt with his name on it, and we were informed that he was previously rejected from “So You Think You Can Dance.” On both shows, he gave a similarly affected audition.

After he finished performing, Randy Jackson stared at him and said, “Are you real? Are you real? Is this real?”

Later, Simon told him, “It’s not funny; you’re not good at anything. ... It’s just rubbish. ... You’re doing this shtick, do it outside. I’m bored with you. ... Mike, take Mr. Boring out.”

Besides the judges actually saying they’re bored, the show included footage of them all yawning, exhausted from the parade of camera-hungry nitwits. At other moments, too, they reveal their feelings. Watch Randy Jackson carefully: Sometimes he looks to his right, our left, toward the crew and the show’s producers, clearly exasperated. The look on his face says, “Producers, you don’t pay me enough to sit through this. Oh, maybe you do.”

Paula Abdul actually gets criticalHowever, there’s even more damning evidence that the judges have had enough of sitting in hotel ballrooms listening to bad singers hand-picked from the thousands who show up in each city. The proof: Paula Abdul has offered actual negative criticism, saying “no” rather than just hiding her head. She even told one New York auditioner, “You need a lot of work with your singing. A lot of work. Vocally, you are completely all over the place and having a tough time.”

Paula also is not working very hard to seem supportive this year; she’s actually laughed at some contestants, and when one called her on that, Paula meekly and unconvincingly replied, “I’m laughing with you, sweetheart.”

Of course, there have been moments when Simon Cowell has unnecessarily and cruelly commented on a contestants’ weight or appearance, or made an offensive comment about something the person has no control over. For example, Simon told one male whose singing voice sounded feminine, “The reality is that you should be singing in a dress and stilettos. And I’m not being rude.” It’s this kind of statement that prompted one newspaper to turn the tables and write about Simon’s “totally disgusting man boobs” and “short, misshapen” body.

Simon’s rude comments, however, have paled in comparison to what the editing is doing to the contestants. The editing of the show is nearly transparent, but its impact is dramatic.

Consider, for a moment, how many rejected contestants have been shown encountering a locked door as they tried to exit the room.

They push hard, and the judges say, “Other door,” as if that wasn’t obvious. Viewers have watched far fewer successful contestants leaving the room; instead, they’re usually shown from the hallway, as they jump into the arms of waiting friends and family.

Including footage of those rejected contestants struggling with the locked door sends a clear message: They’re such failures, they can’t even open a door. Let’s laugh at them even more, and hope that makes us feel better about our own insecurities and inadequacies.

Of course, the editors aren’t alone to blame for this; someone likely made a conscious decision to lock that left-hand door, as it’s been locked in every city they’ve visited so far. Perhaps next year they’ll put a rabid cheetah behind the wrong exit door.

The editors have also included a lot of excruciatingly awkward footage, which helps to further eviscerate those who’ve already been rejected by the judges. Even better for “American Idol,” the show, and its host Ryan Seacrest, accomplish this in such a way that it appears that these contestants are bringing the misery upon themselves.

The camera lingers on those who’ve been rejected. Not the fun ones, the people who are clearly auditioning to be on TV, but the ones who are truly crushed.

One rejected contestant, Kia stood outside the judges’ room, bawling. “I just wish I could change their mind,” she said. “I just wish I could change their mind. They said no. Sometimes you get tired of hearing no. You get tired of hearing no, and it’s not just for singing. You just get tired of hearing no.”

In Memphis, Ryan asked one contestant, “Will you dance with your song? Are you going to do a little routine, too?” Robert Lee Holmes said, “No, I’m not going to dance with the song, I’m just going to [do] a little movement.” The last part was not quite coherent, because Holmes appeared to have a slight speech impediment.

At that point, Ryan just stared at him. That absolute silence lasted a full eight seconds, forever in television time. One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand, four one-thousand, five one-thousand, six one-thousand, seven one-thousand, eight one-thousand. The silence finally ended as Ryan opened his mouth, but he said nothing, leaving it hanging open as if the contestant’s reply was so incredible that it had rendered him speechless.

After Robert was rejected, Ryan did the same thing: “I’m sorry it didn’t work out for you my man,” he said, and then stared at Robert for 10 more silent seconds.

Those moments of Ryan staring creepily at the rejected singers have been included throughout the show’s first four audition episodes.

Another contestant, 19-year-old Sarah Burgess, told Ryan and the judges that she’d auditioned without her father’s knowledge, skipping class and lying about where she was, despite a threat from her dad to remove financial support if she auditioned. Her story was captivating, to be sure, and it had a perfect ending when Sarah was sent to Hollywood by the judges.

But “American Idol”’s producers didn’t let the story end there.

Instead, Ryan had her call her father — on speakerphone, allowing more than 30 million people to voyeuristically listen in.

“Please don’t be mad at me, Dad,” she said, sobbing. Crying, admitting, “I didn’t spend the night at Rachel’s, but I went to New York, and I tried out for ‘American Idol,’ and I’m going to Hollywood. ... Please don’t be mad at me dad.”

After her father said everything was okay, Ryan hugged Sarah, nonverbally thanking her for letting the show exploit her in that moment. The judges may have praised her, but the editors, host, and producers took advantage of an opportunity to wallow in her misery. After all, that’s entertainment.

is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.

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