Friday, May 29, 2009
REVISIONISM. The nation is clearly in love with the star-making template of American Idol, which interestingly enough is a format that dates all the way back to the radio era. Before there was Simon Cowell, there was Major Bowes, who stopped poor performers in mid-act with a gong, and the much kinder Ted Mack's Amateur Hour from the early days of television. In fact, we have Major Bowes to thank for Frank Sinatra and Ted Mack to thank (if we do) for Wayne Newton. In the cynical Seventies there was The Gong Show, which contrived to make a dirty joke of the aspiration for fame, and then, in the more hopeful Eighties came Star Search, which lasted a dozen years and facilitated the careers of quite a few show business successes, though few of the actual winners did become stars.
Since the latest reincarnation of this venerable formula, we have seen it proliferate into every conceivable area where notoriety can assist a fledgling career -- models, hairdressers, clothing designers, chefs, dog groomers, television hosts, boxing, mixed martial arts, enterepreneurs and inventors, and even corporate flunkeys (Isn't that what The Apprentice is testing for?) Traditional show business has also followed suit. There's a show for stand-up comics. And a show for dancers, called So You Think You Can Dance, whose peculiarities are the real subject of this post. But some more background is necessary first. Please bear with me. I'll get there. Promise.
Ironically, the current fad has also spawned a kind of inverse derivative in which the somewhat or formerly famous seek to heighten their celebrity by demonstrating a middling talent outside the arena that made them famous. Thus, we have had Dancing with the Stars, Skating with Celebrities, and even something (a flop, so excuse me if I can't remember the correct title) Magic with the Well Known.
What's interesting about the new shows is that they combine the best and the worst of the older shows. The programs that appear on the major networks allow the mass media audience to vote on which performers they like and even, in (usually) vaguely defined terms, to trump the pronouncements of the judges. That's clearly superior to the relatively recent Star Search procedure which allowed the TV studio audience to break ties in the judges' scoring. BUT. The role of judges has also been transformed. They're not the silent voters of old-time beauty pageants or even the tactfully measured critic/cheerleaders of Star Search. They're the preening perfomers of The Gong Show, established by production context and personal attitude as the real stars of the show, who as often as not, are simply using the contestants as raw material for their own displays of ego, wit, sarcasm, and ridicule.
That's why the big network shows begin as cattle calls. Gong Show judges require Gong Show victims. Performers so bad we in the television audience can experience the double pleasure of laughing at them, like the invisible voyeurs we are, and feeling outrage at the merciless putdowns of the prominent public voyeurs who are saying exactly what we think while we congratulate ourselves on both our outrage and our superiority. Which is the more important trend, you ask? Mass media democracy or obnoxious judges? The answer is: obnoxious judges. The cable shows have neither the schedule control nor the money to harvest umpty million cellphone votes after a single broadcast. So they retain only the most important element: haughty, condescending judges.
Amazingly, the composition of judge panels conforms absolutely to the Simon Cowell model on shows which achieve network status. There must be an arrogant Brit, a loony female, and some sort of contrasting wild card. There is, of course, Simon Cowell on American Idol; Len Goodman on Dancing with the Stars; (was) John Nicks on Skating with Celebrities; and Nigel Lythgoe on So You Think You Can Dance. (We're not even going to mention Gordon Ramsay on Hell's Kitchen. Oops.) When did we cede to the Brits the implicit authority to stand in judgment of our accomplishments and our dreams? Or didn't we do that at all? Did we, instead, subconsciously agree that petty, catty, nasty, patronizing dismissals are somehow less reflective of our own worst instincts if they are rendered in a British accent? We can abjure the tone and vocabulary as alien while secretly taking credit for the acumen behind the damning words uttered.
People who claim to understand American culture keep intimating that the American Idol phenomenon isn't important in any profound way. They'd prefer to see it as proof that we're mostly shallow and ignorant, that its net meaning is as an indictment of a populace that votes in greater numbers for singers and dancers than for presidents. But I'd like to propose a different interpretation. I believe that all the phenomena I've described above are part of a deep debate we're having with ourselves about who and what we are as a people -- and how we really feel about where we seem to be heading. And if this is so, it's more important in the long run than who we elect as president for the current four-year term.
What's going on here? Are we really infatuated unto idiocy with celebrity for its own sake? No. Are we really mean at heart, so envious of any attempt by the average joe to poke his head above the herd and get noticed that we enjoy seeing him slain on live TV? No. Are we so bored and alienated from the ordeals of day-to-day living that we're prepared to toss it all in exchange for a sliver of participation in the making or unmaking of other people's dreams? No.
We are all judges, and we are deliberating complex issues. We know things the supposedly wise don't credit us with knowing. We know that the official judges, the so-called experts, all have agendas of their own. We don't cede them superiority to our own gut instincts, even if we agree with them on occasion or cheer them on when they voice our own views. We know, without having to formulate the thought specifically, that they are the politicians who ask us to trust their closeness to the issues. We accept the stereotyped roles in which they appear to us because it's indicative of a reality we've dealt with all our lives -- the overeducated know-it-all male who always insists he knows better than everyone else (Gingrich/Schumer, etc, etc), the somewhat crazed female activist acting on pure emotion (Pelosi/Schlafly, etc, etc), and the special interest insider who always claims to be closer to "the people" even though he really isn't (fill in your own hundreds of et ceteras). Sometimes we do agree with them. Sometimes we don't. They're the familiar face of government, science, art, media, academe, and evey other kind of institutional expertise. We don't dismiss them out of hand, but we reserve the right to call them an ass when they are. And we enjoy the rare opportunity to see them forced to put their expertise on the line in a human way, so that we get to observe, and judge, the personalities behind the self-proclaimed objective expertise. It turns out the way we'd expect. Sometimes they're on the money. Frequently, they're justifying irrational opinions no better founded than our own.
This isn't that big a deal, except in the context of the contestants. We're smart enough not to trust them either. Who is it exactly who's willing to subject himself to the scorn of the self-ordained priests of culture, be it singing, dancing, or cooking? Only three kinds of people. The truly gifted who have a passion that's proof against the slings and arrows of the pompous, the (uh) less gifted who have a passion but neither the talent nor the objectivity to see they've made a mistake, and the frankly delusional, who ignore every redlight to persist in a course that can do nothing but humiliate them in the long term.
One could argue that all three groups are deserving of compassion. One could argue that if we were all, indeed, idiot consumers of mass media tripe. But we're not. The participants in these shows are not innocents. Everyone who shows up for the cattle calls is declaring a willingness to appear on national television, even if it is to be made a fool of. More often than not, those who are rejected by the judges make a final defiant appearance in the lobby outside the audition theater to assert that they know they're talented and that the judges were wrong, unfair, or biased.
It's this phenomenon that the American people are thinking about. The truth is, most of the people who line up around the block awaiting their chance at fame are in the delusional category, and even the ones in the "less gifted" category are suspect. If you were serious about a discipline in which you had doubts of your talent and competence, would you choose national television as the medium in which to receive definitive feedback? Wouldn't you opt for more work and more private knowledgeable feedback as an alternative to being humiliated in front of an entire nation? The overwhelming majority of people who show up for such auditions are not serious about anything but their wholly unmerited self esteem. Whatever they say about passion, their chief need is for attention.
A lot like our kids these days. Here's a fascinating author talk about the book "The Epidemic of Narcissism." I urge you all to watch it. It makes two points relevant to this discussion. First, that contrary to psycho-babble mythology, Narcissists do not suffer from low self esteem at any level. When you tell them repeatedly for years that they are special, they believe it. Who'd a thunk it? Second, that a Narcissist personality is a recipe for failure in every part of life -- financial, emotional, and spiritual. It also turns out that passionate self confidence has almost nothing in common with Narcissism. The former is rooted in character and talent. The latter is rooted in lies and vanity.
And there's another result as well. It has to do with personality tests. All kids these days are scoring much higher than generations past on the scale of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Celebrities score higher than the rest of the population. But not nearly as high as reality show contestants.
I believe that when the television audience watches American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance, they know the underdogs they're rooting for are not like themselves, but needier, more self-absorbed, more inflated in every possible way. Sure, they respond to the personal stories of loss, deprivation, and ordeals overcome, but they remain keenly alert for signs that these are people who are living for themselves alone. They also know, without being told, that the fame they're being asked to help generate is an ephemeral thing, a brief moment in the sun that may prove more curse than blessing. They're conducting a laboratory experiment of sorts. These shows will all go away when the audience finally concludes, as I believe they will, that the celebrity lifestyle the mass media have tried so determinedly to sell them is insubstantial and not at all worthy of their support. They will want better for their own children.
Which brings me, at last, to the current season of both American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance. Even the pundits who scorn American Idol are trying to make an issue of the fact that a straight guy beat out a gay guy in the final showdown. They wanted to cast it as a Red State vs Blue State showdown and now that the Blue State lost, it must have been the result of some conspiracy by AT&T or somebody. Fools. The straight guy won because he comes across as more genuine. It's possible to imagine him having a normal life after the flurry of celebrity goes away, as it has done very quickly for all but one or two of the American Idol winners.
I admit this post has gotten more complicated than I envisioned it at the beginning. But I only have two unsimple points left to make. And they're related. They both have to do with the phony, media-created passion for egalitarianism. Why doesn't American Idol produce real stars? Because they force every contestant to sing in every possible genre of music. Which guarantees that the survivors of a process designed to reward generalists will produce mediocrity rather than individuality. American Idol is dedicated to finding a 21st century Rosemary Clooney, not a Janis Joplin or Nina Simone.
That's why I prefer So You Think You Can Dance. It also drives its contestants toward generalism -- witness the standard practice of forcing Hip-Hoppers to pass through choreography while idiosyncratic modern dancers get direct tickets "for Vegas" -- but what's different is the art form itself and, thanks to Nigel Lythgoe, a majority of the judging.
At the beginning of the show, Lythgoe was a kind of clone of Simon Cowell. But after the first or second year, he underwent a conversion of sorts. He announced that he was through with being needlessly snotty. Since then, he has not only enforced this rule on himself but on other judges as well. He has not abandoned his standards. Rather, he has traded in the easy insults for seriously educational comments about dedication, motivation, character, talent, technique, and maturity. He has become a pedagogue of dance. The show still features heartwarming personal stories and personal oddities, but as executive producer, he has grown into the role of wise elder to a dregree I'd never have expected from a tycoon Brit. His show is showing signs of integrity. During the audition phase of the current season, he has publicly (severely) rebuked two of his "guest" judges who were unable to focus more on contestants than themselves. And he has shown a sense of humor about the less talented when he detected that they simply loved dancing and evidently wanted to share that love with the audience.
Here are two clips from the show's audition episodes.
It's called talent and guts. Something Americans recognize instinctively.
Nigel Lythgoe's a bastard, right? How about the
dancing? And one of them is, uh, straight. Right.
He's presently drawing fire for his comments on the second clip. I ask you to note both the rebuttal represented by the first clip (Who cares what her ethnicity or sexual orientation are? She can dance. The judges' comments affirm it.) and the parallel with current events -- a Supreme Court nominee whose story is supposed to be more important than her talent at her chosen profession. Lythgoe seems to be drawing an important line in the sand. Dance well and your personal details don't matter at all. Dance like your personal issues matter more than being good or winning a competition, and you'll get the scorn you deserve. That's not homophobia or racial prejudice. It's professionalism. Something Americans know something about.
And there is a bottom line which relates to the difference between singing and dancing. Singers are bound to specific words and therefore a kind of acting. Dancers operate at a deeper level not involving words. The movement of their bodies is a manifestation of being. A much harder thing to fake. So when the audience asks itself who is trying, who is posing, who is real, who is an opportunist, they have a much better chance of determining who to believe in and who to scorn. Unlike the tongue, the body does not lie.
We have a president with a very talented tongue. But I regard it as just possible that a much deeper education process is underway. Maybe the puff piece before the dance isn't as important as the dance itself. Even to moron American voters.
We're at a crossroads right now. Do we believe the tongue? Or are we prepared to vote on the damned dance?
Y'know, in the end we ARE going to win. Because we do have the talent and the drive, and the place where everyone else in the world knows they can make their talent and drive turn their dreams to reality. Obama and his Stalinist urges notwithstanding.