Viewers watching Wednesday night’s unveiling of the “American Idol” top 36 got a surprise only hours later: the top 36 announced on Wednesday’s show weren’t the same top 36 who would start competition this week.
In place of Joanna Pacitti, a Louisville auditioner whose previous experience in show business had been disclosed on the show from the start, viewers would see the previously axed Felicia Barton. Official explanations were vague, but it appears that what ultimately gave producers enough pause to disqualify Pacitti was her close relationship with a couple of folks who are now executives at 19E, the company that handles “Idol” contestants.
Despite the fact that Pacitti’s participation reignited some pointless debates about “professionals” and “amateurs,” it ultimately demonstrated a noteworthy difference between related problems: being a professional doesn’t matter, but personal connections do.
It’s important to note that Pacitti, while experienced, is not a great success waiting to thump overmatched amateurs, the equivalent of Peyton Manning playing quarterback for Oberlin College in a fake moustache. Now 24-years-old, she won a contest to play the lead in a touring production of “Annie” when she was 12, which is the last time there would have been any reasonable chance that a significant chunk of the general public would have heard of her. She more recently had a record deal that apparently ended disastrously, and she recorded a couple of soundtrack songs, including — and here’s a credential that will blow you away — a number included on the soundtrack of “Bratz: The Motion Picture.”
Nevertheless, the mere fact that she had professional experience made her controversial from the start. To understand why, you have to grasp how personally the “Idol” faithful — not the casual viewer at home, but the obsessive message-board community that’s been so important to maintaining its ever-present pop-culture hum — takes the selection process.
The faithful, by and large, despise “ringers.” The issue flared last year with Carly Smithson, who’d previously had her own disastrous record deal, and it flared again with Pacitti.
Ringer-hating comes from two fundamental truths about the way “Idol” is marketed. First, it’s sold as something it has never been, which is a contest between adorable rubes who have never set foot in the spotlight before. The show treasures the myth of the undiscovered talent; the person it will pluck from a level of distilled obscurity in which, ideally, the singer’s only ambition up to this point has been to hum for the needy while working as, say, a nurses’ assistant in a children’s hospital.
Of course, this is fiction. In addition to the handful of finalists who have had record deals, plenty more have worked extensively as paid musicians — in bar bands, in musical theater, sometimes even releasing studio albums long before they meet the “Idol” judges.
The second marketing issue is that “Idol” thrives upon the tendency to both revere and resent successful contestants. If there were resolute civility in public discussions of the show, if elements of schadenfreude, pettiness and jealousy didn’t pollute the reception of pretty girls and young men who look like they might once have thrown a nerd into a locker, emotions would not run so high and devotion to the contest wouldn’t be so fierce.
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The show plays into the fantasy life of the self-styled undiscovered star who believes that he or she, too, could be great if given a chance. The fantasy says: “This person is like me. This person got a shot and made it count; I could do that, too.” It is perhaps the greatest “Idol” marketing achievement of all that it manages to sell contestants blessed with looks and talent as stand-ins for society’s underdogs and convinces a nation of fans that all that stands between them and those contestants is a single stroke of luck.
As soon as there is a second opportunity, the mythology collapses. Someone who already has been given a chance is not unlucky. She’s squandered her chance. She is not One Of Us — those who struggle against a system that never gives us a break. She’s one of those favored, lucky people who get a million chances. She’s what keeps us down.
Had Pacitti stayed, she would have had enemies by the millions. All of them paying attention to her fate and watching the show — which is how you know that’s not why she’s gone.
No, she was booted, instead, because she has past personal and professional — though apparently not particularly scandalous — relationships with those two executives, one of whom she’s reportedly called her “best friend.”
It’s ultimately a very pedestrian reason for a dismissal. There’s no allegation that anyone exerted any actual influence on her behalf. But she has to go anyway.
“Idol,” in the end, doesn’t care about past experience. Amateurs-only isn’t important because amateurs-only doesn’t alienate viewers from the show; only from a particular contestant. “Idol” does, however, protect the perception that it’s a real contest. Outside of the proud and plentiful conspiracy theorists, who believe in Darth-Vader-like producers who can manipulate the public (though they often have hilariously divergent opinions about what those evildoers are so “obviously” up to), most people still believe that, by and large, you win by getting the most votes. And that matters.
Ultimately, the “ringer” debate is silly. In real life, beautiful and untested rookies are far less disadvantaged than people who have already had a disastrous failure. As someone with one disaster under her belt, Smithson last year was much more of a true underdog than, say, David Archuleta, the cute and perfectly managed showbiz veteran who came in second (and who, years earlier, had won “Star Search”).
There’s nothing wrong with disqualifying a contestant for personal connections. Most contests ask entrants this question, and this is exactly why. But hopefully, the fact that Pacitti was disqualified for this reason and not the “past experience” reason when both were present will put the issue to rest for good: staying away from people with inside connections is wise, but there’s no need to protect against the towering advantage of having performed on the “Bratz” soundtrack.