This week, after fifteen seasons on television, American Idol will air its final episodes and bid the airwaves farewell. It has dominated American cultural discourse throughout many of those fifteen years, and there’s an awful lot which could be said about it – how it has rewarded ludicrously melismatic oversinging, how its flooding of the airwaves with glorified karaoke has stifled interesting and challenging new musical voices, how it has promoted knee-jerk jingoism at a period in our history where such jingoism has been incredibly dangerous, how it permitted mean-spirited snark and repeated utterances of the word “pitchy” to substitute for real critical thought. But I try and run a positive blog around here, and rather than insult American Idol on its way out, I’d like to try and say something nice about it. To thank it, even.
So thank you, American Idol, for absorbing so much crazy over the past fifteen years.
When I first started auditioning on a regular basis, back in the mid and late 1990s, the act of waiting for an audition was itself a horrific endurance contest. Even if it was for unpaid, outdoor non-Equity Shakespeare in a rat-infested alley, there would be hundreds upon hundreds of people for every call. And it’s not that they were so dedicated to their craft that they would aim to develop it wherever and whenever they could, as acting teachers have instructed their charges down through the decades. No, sadly, the bulk of those throngs were, simply put, delusional. On line with them, I heard a hundred variations of the exact same thing; they were certain they were meant to be famous, and if there was an audition to be had – even for a community theatre Agatha Christie production – then clearly that was where that fame would finally be granted. It didn’t help that every once in a while, brief fame actually was grasped – famously, the three principals of The Blair Witch Project were cast from an open call advertised in Backstage. And so every audition, I’d sign my name on a sheet of paper torn from someone’s spiral notebook, sit among dozens of wildly flamboyant, unstable folks who could barely speak, and patiently wait my turn to audition for poor souls who had been too bombarded by all of this to be able to think clearly anymore. And I’d hear the folks around me, alternating between random rants and declarations of how certain they were to become famous, and I’d wonder what the hell was wrong with me for being there. I’m sure I’m not the only one – I knew many genuinely talented folks whose artistic dreams never made it out of the 90s, their flowers choked off by the weeds of other people’s delusions.
Then came American Idol, and everything changed. Gradually, the people I was surrounded by on audition lines were rational, clear-eyed, comparatively sane. They were prepared, they understood how the business worked, they cared about their art. Meanwhile, the more flamboyant, more clearly doomed folks I’d been surrounded by previously were now on television, where they always knew they belonged – to be mocked for fifteen seconds by a sneering British man in a tight black T-shirt for the delight of a TV audience that clearly wanted bloodsport as much as, or more than, pop music.
Now, I did join Actor’s Equity Association at around this same time, so you might be tempted to object to my statement above by saying that I was just surrounded by more professionals. Sadly, receiving an AEA card doesn’t automatically make one sane (would that it did). Moreover, since focusing on playwriting in the past few years, I’ve once again found myself working with young non-union performers hungry for credits and looking for new work – and have found them to be far better prepared, far more clear-eyed about what they were doing and what the real artistic benefits would be. That flamboyant mix of narcissism and ineptitude just isn’t there – at least not to the degree to which I remember it, before the coming of Idol.
I therefore have to conclude that the most flamboyantly crazy of the would-be artists, who craved the validation of fame without having any sense of the art behind it or the hard work required, all bee-lined for that television program when it first appeared, leaving Off- and Off-off Broadway behind as it did. And regardless of how that show may have debased artistic discourse in the general public sphere, it left my personal artistic sphere a more focused space, with fewer distractions, and more people who genuinely had something to say and were honestly trying to find opportunities to say it.
So Godspeed, American Idol. You may have mocked Broadway as an art form even as it was the best fit for many of the artists you found; you may have subjected gay or questioning contestants to tiresome gay panic banter from your host and judges; you may have helped solidify corporate media’s stranglehold over popular music, perhaps forever. Nevertheless, you indirectly caused my audition lines to be ever-so-slightly less insane, and for that, I thank you.
Now stop destroying my culture, and get the heck off my television.