What are you looking for in your American Idol? Is it a technical and/or expressive marvel of a voice? How about a confident, entertaining performance? Or maybe you'd prefer a triumph over life obstacles that have nothing to do with actually singing?
If it's the latter, then you’re in luck because as anybody who's been watching the current season has no doubt noticed, the recent audition episodes have had something of a recurring theme. From single mothers with special-needs children to teenagers hoping that winning "Idol" (or at least making it to Hollywood) will finally get them the validation that they so desperately crave, this season has been all about shoving sob stories down the viewers' throats.
Certainly, "Idol" has never shied away from using the three-hanky hammer and tongs before. Last year gave us Matt Sato, who wanted his parents' approval so bad that his tearful post-audition call to his mother ended with him declaring how proud she was of him, even though there was no recorded evidence that she said any such thing.
The year before, Kellie Pickler roller-skated her way from car to car, burgers in hand, as she waited for her father to be released from jail. And of course, season three winner Fantasia was a teenage mother who, we would later learn, was at the time functionally illiterate.
But those might as well have been "30 Rock" when compared to the tear-jerking shenanigans on display this season. The show has really amped up the auditioners' backstory quotient, possibly as a response to complaints that previous seasons have not only been too cruel, but also neglected to tell the audience anything about all but a tiny handful of hopefuls. Considering the disadvantage that the less-exposed contestants face when it comes to the voting rounds, it's an admirable change in theory.
As happens so often on "Idol," what sounded good on paper has been bluntly reduced to the lowest common denominator. The problem is that the producers have apparently decided that "backstory" is the same as "sob story."
It started on the very first night with the introduction of Angela Martin, a single parent to a young daughter with Rett Syndrome, which Martin explained was similar to cerebral palsy. That seemed to open up the floodgates, with one heartbreaking audition after another.
Dallas auditioner Jessica Brown was a rehabbed crystal meth addict (and also, for whatever it's worth, a young mother). Perrie Cataldo was raising his son alone after losing the mother in circumstances that were painted vividly by Cataldo's admirable reluctance to elaborate on them. Teenager David Archuleta was still recovering from paralyzed vocal cords, while London Weidberg was returning to singing after a three-year hiatus to attend to her dying father.
In Omaha, Angelica Puente had the audacity to state outright the previously unspoken motivation of all "Idol" auditioners, which is that if she could just make it past the judges, then maybe, just maybe, her daddy would love her. And if the previews for this week are to be believed, there's more to come, starting with a young man who reveals that he's been living in his car for the past year.
In a season where "Idol" has ignored its own age restrictions whenever it will allow for a more mature array of terrible singers, it's perhaps not surprising that the show is cramming the audition episodes with as much drama as it can possibly wring out of the cities it consumes like summer locusts.
After all, these early stages of the show are typically less about setting up the competition to come than about creating a standalone freak show. The line between mocking overweight teen Temptress Brown for her wretched singing and saluting her for auditioning to help her ailing mother is an awfully thin one.
There's another thin line, though, one separating "Idol" from the show it's threatening to become. There's always been a dash of "Queen for a Day" in the proceedings, but the current emphasis suggests that the producers don't believe that their singing contest is interesting enough on its own. And the question then becomes whether the audience is meant to vote for the best performer or for the contestant with the most pathetic story.
Even the judges aren't immune from the show's emotional manipulation. Simon politely passed on Kayla Hatfield, whose good-hearted but manic "Piece of My Heart" suggested that she was handed over to the judges with the intent of being one of the bad auditions. Randy and Paula, on the other hand, succumbed to her backstory — the mother of two survived a horrific, disfiguring car accident — and gave her a pass to Hollywood seemingly as a reward for her misfortune. It’s an act that was arguably crueler in raising her hopes unrealistically high than it would have been to simply say, "Thanks for stopping by."
There's a message here, and it's as subtle as the sob stories themselves are sledgehammer-heavy. The implication is that not only have the auditioners managed to overcome overwhelming hardship, they've overcome it thanks to "Idol." (Wow, "Idol" really does give back.)
By giving struggling parents the chance at a better life for their sick children or even just reviving the dream of someone who thought they might never be able to sing again, the show gets to pat itself on the back as a Doer of Good Things.
But what gets lost in the rush to showcase auditioners whose stories resemble first-draft treatments of Lifetime movies is the ostensible purpose of the show itself, which is to be a talent contest. And if Martin, Brown, Archuleta and Guy Who Lives in His Car all make the top 12, it will only get worse next year as auditioners get savvy to the understanding that one way to succeed on the show is to make people feel sorry for them.
"My life may not be perfect," viewers at home might say, "but at least I'm not on 'American Idol.'"
Marc Hirsh is a writer in Somerville, Mass.