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Tell me sweet little ‘American Idol’ lies

“This is a singing competition.” Oh really? It seems more like a popularity contest. How else would you explain how Taylor Hicks won?
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

“This is a singing competition.”In fact, “American Idol” is a popularity contest and, more to the point, a television show in search of ratings. It’s easy to see the confusion here, what with all of the singing done by the contestants and the fact that the grand prize is a record contract. The problem is, viewers are encouraged to vote using whatever criteria they want: singing ability, looks, hometown pride, pity over sick family members/blindness/dead spouses, etc. But what makes it a flat-out lie is the way the show admits time and again that it’s just not true. Countless judges’ comments have started off “You’re not the best singer in this competition, but what I like about you is...,” and they often express surprise when cannon fodder contestants actually deliver strong performances. If “Idol” were a singing competition, there’d be no voting, the judges would all be highly trained professionals and nobody would watch it.

“Directed by Bruce Gowers.”Gowers’s nearly 40-year television career covers events such as the Miss America pageant, standup specials by Eddie Murphy, George Carlin and Jerry Seinfeld and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” video. One thing he’s incapable of doing is putting together a coherent episode of “Idol.” His ability to pace a broadcast to come in on time is nonexistent, considering how often the judges have to blaze through their comments. He’s incompetent from a technical standpoint; during the group one semifinals performance episode, Stevie Wright’s video package came up during Brent Keith’s intro and was stuck in a freeze-frame besides. Gowers’ reaction? Cutting to a far shot of the empty stage instead of Ryan Seacrest’s attempt to cover. (Elapsed time for those three screwups? About 15 seconds.) On March 18, when Michael Sarver was talking about his daughter, Seacrest had to tell Gowers which camera to use for the shot. When the host is directing the show from the floor, it’s clear the guy in the booth is asleep at the controls.

“This is the most talented group ever!”Granted, “Idol” isn’t exactly unique in this regard. Jeff Probst always claims at the end of every season of “Survivor” that it was one of the best in the show’s history, and even people who don’t watch “The Bachelor” know that every episode breathlessly promises of “the most dramatic (or shocking) rose ceremony ever!” And, as is the case with those shows, this declaration means less and less every time it’s spoken on “Idol.” It is, however, entirely in keeping with a show that not only keeps the excitement artificially inflated at all times but feels the need to continually hype up its own awesomeness and popularity. It’s as though everybody involved lives in terror of the day when something happens on the show that was less spectacular than it was the last time it happened.

“Country music is about telling stories.”Not so much an inaccuracy so much as a lie of omission. Every genre is about telling stories. Unless the lyrics are purely instructional like “The Hokey Pokey” or genuine nonsense like “I Am The Walrus,” every song captures a perspective, a statement of purpose, a celebration, a lament or simply a moment in time that the singer deems important enough to put to music. (And you could even argue that “I Am The Walrus” accomplishes at least one of those just fine.) But “Idol” likes to pretend that Nashville’s got a monopoly on storytelling, and every other style of music be damned. The other go-to about country music, that it’s about family and traditional values, is also hogwash. This, in a genre that has given “Idol” Carrie Underwood’s “Last Name,” the Dixie Chicks’ “Sin Wagon” and Martina McBride’s “Independence Day,” an ode to arson/murder as a justifiable response to domestic violence. Bring the kids!

“You can’t touch Whitney/Celine/Aretha/etc.” Which is nonsense, pure and simple. As it happens, anybody can sing those singers’ songs. That’s part of the beauty of songs and singing in the first place. Heck, it’s worth remembering that “I Will Always Love You,” “The Power Of Love” and “Respect” were all done by others before the aforementioned singers got their hands on them. What the judges are actually saying is “We expected you to sing it like Whitney/Celine/Aretha/etc., and you didn’t because you’re not a Whitney/Celine/Aretha/etc. singer.” Yet “Idol” constantly encourages contestants to stick their hands in that flame, even going so far as to devote theme episodes to the songs of Mariah Carey and Stevie Wonder (who also, incidentally, weren’t the first ones to sing “Without You” and “For Once In My Life”). The only reason it’s ever a problem is the unimaginative expectations of both the singers and the judges, and for those smart enough to work around it... well, let’s just say that singing Michael Jackson and Mariah served David Cook pretty well.