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False Idols

An "American Idol" fan is cured by a trip to the TV hit's spinoff concert tour.

8:30 AM, Aug 7, 2003 • By MATT LABASH
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THERE WAS A TIME, not long ago, when primetime television was populated by famous people. Someone appearing on TV meant that they'd likely worked their way up through the ranks: doing school plays, regional theater, and embarrassing commercials, until finally, they honed their skills, perfected their craft, and slept with the lecherous casting director who'd cause them to become obscenely wealthy and loved by millions.

These days, however, television isn't so much about being famous, as it is about auditioning to become famous. With televised tryouts being the entire point of such shows, aspirants of fame, even in failure, still become quasi-famous by default. There are nights when one can tune into network programming and see nothing but wall-to-wall talent shows. In just the past season, there's been the Debbie Allen-hosted "Fame," a creaky brand extension of the early '80s incarnation in which Cocoa, Bruno, and the rest of the leg-warmer wearing cast would break into song at the slightest provocation. Then there is "American Juniors," in which the cloying, over-rouged Jon Benets of today strive to become the cloying, overexposed Celine Dions of tomorrow.

But with a glut of such shows evidenced by the likes of "30 Seconds to Fame"--in which a contestant has all of a half-minute to say, turn his nostrils inside-out to the delight of an ADD-afflicted crowd--it is time to get back to First Principles--to the show that spurred it all--"American Idol." I'll readily admit to being an "American Idol" fan from the jump. At first, I felt guilty, the way all responsible citizens should, for supporting a show that resuscitates the career of celebrity judge Paula Abdul.

Still, during the first season, I'd walk around the house, psyching myself up on show-nights by singing Black Sabbath's "I Am Iron Man," with the substitute lyric, "I am Dunkleman," after the since-departed schmucky host Brian Dunkleman. When my wife would ridicule the flouncy see-through blouses of co-host Ryan Seacrest, I'd testily protest, "Who says men can't wear chiffon?" Like many, I struggled to articulate my visceral attraction to the show. What made it any different than talent-show television before it? Sure, unlike "Showtime at the Apollo," it had lots of white people. But, in truth, it wasn't much different than "Star Search," which tried to enrich the entertainment landscape by seeding it with "winners" like the genetically unfunny Sinbad, or New Country clods like Sawyer Brown.

But American Idol's not-so-secret ingredient is Simon Cowell--the abusive British judge who lends the show an element of danger, by giving the contestants verbal acid baths, telling them they're too homely, too pitchy, too talentless to go on existing, let alone performing, in public. Even if his routine is gimmicky, his is an unstinting, and fearless stance, considering that at any moment, he himself could draw ridicule for wearing man-rack hugging merino sweaters that shouldn't be worn without a built-in Cross-Your-Heart bra.

The prospect of being brutalized, naturally, doesn't discourage people from trying out for the show, but seems rather, to multiply the applicants. For entertainment in the old days, Romans had to throw Christians to the lions. These days, the Christians are quite happy to assume the position themselves.

So searingly vivid is the television experience for many viewers, such a long gauntlet of humiliation and peril for the contestants, that it is automatically assumed that anything this hard to get must be worth having. So last week, when I saw an ad announcing "Pop Tarts Presents: the American Idols Live! Tour 2003," I had no choice but to travel to Washington D.C.'s MCI arena, as so many thousands had before in the Idol's mostly sold-out 41-city tour.

IN THE INTEREST of maintaining what's left of my dignity, I brought my 11-year-old niece, Adria, and her friend. At my house, we nearly didn't make it out the door. "There's a serious problem," my wife warned, "Adria forgot her pink eyeshadow, she only has white." "That's bad," I concurred. But fortunately Adria had remembered her glitter dust, which she promptly sprinkled all over her face. Nobody, it seemed, would notice the eyeshadow faux pas.