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.

I had a tough time deciding on musical accompaniment in the car on the way to the arena. True, I keep up with today's sounds, watch plenty of MTV, and could safely be considered a "hep cat," as the kids like to say. But 11-year-olds are fickle, brutal beasts. I popped in a perennial crowd-pleaser by Jason Morphew, the Duke of Arkansas: "Badass With a Heart of Gold." In my humble opinion, one of the two or three best church-themed adultery songs of all-time: Nina was a Nun / At the Mary and the Son / He just got to save her soul / Her body was on fire / For a tenor in the choir/ He was a badass with a heart of gold / Heart of gold / Everybody wanna hold / A badass with a heart of gold.

Adria looked at her friend disapprovingly, as she ejected my CD. "Matt," she said, wrinkling her nose, "you're scaring me." Instead, she put on what all prim and proper white girls listen to these days: urban radio. Right away, she found a song she could sing along with. "Alright!" she shouted, "It's Chingy's 'Right Thurr.'" "Right where?" I asked. "Right Thurr," she responded. "You mean 'Right There?" I asked again, seeking clarification. "Right Thurr," she wrote on my notepad, ever the stickler for grammar.

As an Original Gangster, I'm used to salty rap lyrics--but then, I'm not an 11-year-old girl. So it was a little disconcerting to hear my niece, who doesn't swear, who goes to church, and who hasn't yet had a serious boyfriend, blissfully singing, Gimmie what you got for a pork chop / She threw it at me like I was a shortstop / Twerkin' in a phatty girl halter top / Then she backed it up on me, and let it drop.

"You listen to this?" I asked, astonished. "Everybody does," she responded. It's a lot more wholesome, she assured me, than the song she heard her elite private school girlfriends singing earlier in the day: "Slob On My Knob." I noticed as we shuttled to the District, that a surprising number of her favorite songs seemed to have subtle pimp themes. There was "P.I.M.P. " by 50 Cent (which the grammarians pronounce "fiddy cent"). Then there was "Like a Pimp," by Three 6 Mafia. And of course, there was Nelly's indispensable "Pimp Juice."

It was a relief to get to the arena before we felt inspired to start turning tricks. Ready to return to a more innocent time, I gladly awaited whatever Pop Tarts intended to present. Or so I thought. The American Idol concert had everything regular "American Idol" shows have: the singing, the dancing, the fluttery outpouring of adolescent emotion. Everything, that is, except the element that makes the show worth watching: Simon, who perhaps feeling his own fame slippage, is back in L.A., diversifying his portfolio by executive producing a horrible new dating show.

Without Simon around to horsewhip the performers, it's all sweet, no sour. Pre-teens walk around with "205" stenciled on their foreheads, in homage to the area code constantly worn during the show by Birmingham native and American Idol champion, Ruben Studdard. Fans of Raleigh native Clay Aiken, the runner up, sport rival "919" area codes. I tell my niece that I'm going to inscribe into my forehead a suburban Maryland "301" area code, just to confuse people. "Do we have to sit together?" she asks.

In front of the stage before the show, fans of all ages, but mostly preteens, press around security, asking them to relay sacrifices to their favorite backstage idols. They bring stuffed animals, letters, and Papa John's Pizza. A mother and daughter team even seem prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, as they wear twin t-shirts that say, "Clay, I'm not wearing any."

We can tell it's almost go-time when the dry-ice machines start cranking. If only for a moment, I am transported back in time--though I do feel naked without my Shaun Cassidy jacket. The middle-aged woman in front of me sees me periodically scribbling notes, and asks what I'm doing. I tell her I'm a journalist, a highly-trained observer of the cultural scene. "You write about this?" her husband says, somewhat derisively. Feeling defensive now, I ask her if her kids dragged her here, nodding at the two I have in tow. "No," she says. "We're just freaks. We're Clay people," she says, expecting me to understand how a woman her age can join the cult of a red-headed teen-dream teapot.

The curtain comes back, and the stage is framed by staggered blinking-light ovals. I tell my niece that the ovals represent concentric circles of hell, but she chooses to ignore me, and screams like she was just bit by a poisonous spider. First up is Charlie, a poor man's El DeBarge (most Idols don't need last names). He has obviously done his homework when he offers this knowing regional salutation: "Hey, what's up D.C." Then he breaks into Stevie Wonder's "Do, I Do," which could prompt one to implore "Don't, Please Don't," as Charlie is joined by four heavily caffeinated backup dancers, who start 'popping, '80s style, during a bass break. But I start feeling sorry for Charlie. It is apparent why he finished tenth in the competition, as he shows indecision: He's unable to settle on whether to wear his cap to the side or backwards.

Charlie is succeeded by Julia, who he calls "one of my best friends on the tour." After her number, she introduces Rickey, who she calls "one of my best friends on the whole tour." "What's up D.C.?" asks Rickey, not wanting to depart from the leitmotif. In fact, when Carmen, a welfare mother's Kylie Minogue, is asked who her musical influences are, she lists fellow Idols Rickey, Trenyce, Josh, Charlie, Julia, Clay, Cory, Dean, and the Kimberly's (Locke and Caldwell). Without Simon fanning the flames of unfriendly competition, it's total anarchy.

After a string of covers, (Julia sings Christina Aguilera's "I Am Beautiful," Rickey sings Michael Jackson's "The Way You Make Me Feel," Carmen sings Shania Twain's "Up, Up, Up!," during which she nearly splits her Capri pants when hopping up, up, up on the drum kit) the big dogs arrive: Clay and Ruben.

Since the Idols appear in reverse order of disappearance, Clay is up first. His spiky hair looks like it's been plugged into a wall, and when dancing, he seems to have difficulty deciding which of his left feet should lead. But he does appeal to the preteens, as well as to the Episcopal Bishop vote. Not that he's gay (although he has admitted that he is a twenty-something man who's never had a girlfriend, that his favorite song to sing is "Somewhere Out There," and that he is a "shoe whore"). By the reaction his fans give him, Clay is the Idol most likely to take Germany by storm as the next David Hasselhoff.

Cynics might think that Clay should already be performing understudy duties on "Rent." But here he is, doing all his signature moves: the cop-a-squat, the shirt-pull, the Jimmy Osmond dramatic hand-sweep, all while closing his eyes and wrenching his face as if passing a kidney stone. Girls scream in registers that only dogs can hear. And even in the face of this outpouring, Clay keeps one hand in his pocket, signifying humility. In reality, he might be an American Idol. In spirit, he's still hanging out at the Ruby Tuesday's in Raleigh.

Clay thanks us for being "pumped." But he hasn't seen anything yet. He introduces the man who needs no introduction, "my good friend," the Velvet Teddy Bear and "American Idol" champion, Ruben who, in truth, is a street urchin's Luther Vandross. Appropriately enough, Ruben covers Vandrosss's cover of Karen Carpenter's "Superstar," making it a cover squared.

Even though he looks to have inhaled the craft table before walking across the stage, the latter being an act that can wind him for minutes, Ruben is in fine voice tonight. Our section is the most vocal, and Ruben seems to know it, playing to us whenever he can. As he waddles up to stage left, we are loud, raucous, even dangerous--the Sunni Triangle of the MCI Center. When he hits the chorus, baby, baby, baby, baby, ohhh, baby--it's as if he is singing to me. Touched by Ruben, I needle the Clay freak in front of me, telling her that I'm fairly certain he's still outdrawing Clay, applause-wise. "Bite me," she says.

I'M NOT SURE exactly when I began feeling myself turning from "American Idol" friend to "American Idol" foe. Perhaps it was when I got a good look at the kind of company I was keeping. When Ruben sang his smash hit, "Flying Without Wings," many in the audience began sticking out their arms to make soaring motions (the song says "flying without wings"--keep up, people).

Or maybe it came with the ill-advised he said/she said gang war. The fellas sang a swinging version of Frank Sinatra's "The Lady is a Tramp," while the girls kept interrupting with Destiny's Child's "Bootylicious," singing "I don't think you're ready for this jelly." Indeed, I wasn't. Or perhaps the show's nadir came when Ruben and Clay pretended they were quarreling while crooning the Paul McCartney / Michael Jackson song, "The Girl Is Mine." Like Jackson before him, it's hard to imagine Clay even liking a girl, let alone fist-fighting over one.

Or perhaps it was when all of the Idols took the stage for a hokey, pyrotechnic shooting rendition of Lee Greenwood's "Proud to Be an American." It felt a bit like the Icecapades without the ice. Whenever it was--maybe during the Bee Gee's medley--I decided I'd finally had enough. But then my world-weary, pimped-out niece leaned in and thanked me for bringing her, telling me she was having a great time.

In my eyes, this was just a group of your average high-energy, semi-talented kids--the kind you want in your church pageant or on your Carnival cruise line--but not the kind you want to pay 40 bucks to hear club all the soft rock hits of the '70s, '80s, and '90s into submission. But to Adria, they were an as-seen-on-TV Cliff's notes cultural crash course, a first brush with recent music history. As I saw her singing along to "Night Fever," surprised that she'd know the lyrics to a song that Chingy didn't sing, I realized that we were now able to speak the same language. Sure, it's a useless language--like Esperanto--but now instead of talking at her, I could talk to her, albeit, in a Barry Gibb falsetto.

Do I feel ridiculous taking the kids to watch Rickey fingering a purple guitar that he isn't actually playing during Prince's "Let's Go Crazy." Yes. But perhaps it's a small price to pay in order to give something back to the next generation. For it's only a fraction of the ridiculousness that Adria will feel 30 years from now, when she shows up to her school reunion, and the DJ drops the needle on "Right Thurr."

Matt Labash is senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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