Think American Idol Is Too Harsh? Consider the Years Before
Comment #1: “I’m going to be really nice and suggest to you an entirely new career path…which does not involve singing or performing.”
Comment #2: “Imagine a bag with nine cats in it dropped in boiling water.”
Now riddle me this: Which line was uttered last week, when the blockbuster singing competition kicked off a record-breaking season with a cavalcade of aspiring auditioners so bad, you wondered whether the million-dollar salaries earned by Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson were payment enough?
Right. As if.
One way to gauge the answer is to consider last year, when pundits pretty much asked the same question about the show -– which always features a heaping helping of lame-o auditioners in the early episodes, shifting to a more serious competition as the field is whittled down.
Last year, the AP noted “the show’s fifth year has the stench of a mean season.” And, after a series of insults in which Cowell questioned the gender of a few male auditioners, the Toronto Star asked “Is American Idol intolerant?”
(The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation actually got involved then, receiving assurances Cowell wasn’t being homophobic when he told one man “you sing like an auntie.”)
This year, the sensitivity controversy du jour involves Kenneth Briggs and former Special Olympian Jonathan Jayne, aspirants who bonded while waiting to audition and delivered predictably awful performances.
Critics seemed to have confused Briggs -- a bug-eyed, non-singer whose oddball look prompted Cowell to compare him “to one of those creatures who live in the jungle with those massive eyes…bush babies” -– with Jayne, who was handled with kid gloves, comparatively.
Given that aspirants audition for other producers long before they face the on-camera judges, I think the trio knew the 20-year-old Jayne didn’t deserve a full Cowell (“This is not the career path for you,” the acerbic Brit simply said, minutes after asking if Jayne was wearing Jackson’s trousers). Hardly the “all time low” pronounced by view co-host Rosie O’Donnell, in line for her own sensitivity award after imitating Chinese people on air during a different diatribe, saying “ching, chong.”
Even the Special Olympics folks stood up for Cowell and Co., telling the Washington Post that “the judges were in fact gracious and very encouraging,” noting that people with intellectual disabilities should also have the chance to reach for Idol’s brass ring – and risk an embarrassing failure.
The faux Idol controversy also is fed by the rejected contestants themselves, who can extend their two minutes of fame by complaining of their treatment in the media. Jayne and Briggs have already appeared on ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live, where the host offered the pair a job interviewing celebrities for his how at a golf tournament.
The final link in this puzzling controversy in the media itself. Stuck trying to cover a blockbuster series which is unfolding the same way it has for the last five seasons, some pundits have reached for a reliable story peg -- Idol’s outrageous treatment of the freaks who surely know they are simply cannon fodder for Cowell’s bitter asides (you will never, ever convince me the guy who dressed like Apollo Creed and sang an Italian opera expected to make the competition.)
"We always said, when we came up with idea of this show, if anyone could look inside a real-life audition, they would truthfully be amazed," said Cowell during a press conference in Los Angeles Saturday. "So you have a choice; You can say 'Okay, we're not going to show any of the bad ones.' That, I don't think is being honest...peopel do turn up to Idol or real-life auditions and they are terrible."
And while I don't believe a word of what these guys usually say during press conferences -- they tried to say Paula Abdul wasn't on some substance, for instance -- I think cowell's speaking mostly truth here. He was even lauded by Newsweek magazine for possibly helping the aspirants he savages in auditions.
By the way, the only Cowell line uttered this year, was the line about the port. Which just shows that harshness is relative, and often mitigated by the passage of time.