Lost Journal: American Idol Plays to Worst Instincts of the American Idle

Tim Mollen, Lost Journal: American Idol Plays to Worst Instincts of the American Idle

Journal entry: May 15, 2009 (age 40) – American Idol

I rant, therefore I am. That’s the only way I can describe how I feel after watching that ubiquitous YouTube performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” by a somewhat frumpy woman named Susan Boyle. Like (almost) everyone else, I was moved by her terrific performance and gratified by the shocked faces of the snobby judges on Britain’s Got Talent. “Good for her!” I thought, and still do.

But I’ve been thinking about the whole circus that has erupted over the incident, and I’m bothered by it. I’m bothered that it’s a given that this ordinary-looking person would have been booed and ridiculed if she hadn’t turned out to have an extraordinary voice – and that we all seem to be OK with that.

Why is it OK to mock people who fail at something? Doesn’t that describe every human who’s ever lived? Why, since the advent of reality TV, has it become OK to not just mock the unsuccessful, but to do it in front of millions? This question has been asked many times before, and I know the pat answer that awaits it. “Those idiots are asking for it. They know these shows tear apart losers like them, so they are getting what they deserve!”

Granted, there are untalented pranksters who bomb on purpose for the chance of being on TV. But do we really believe that most of the people who fail on, say, American Idol, are aware that they are going to fail? Most obviously believe they have what it takes, and are putting their hearts and hopes on the line. Competition is a valuable and inescapable part of life, and all competitions have winners and losers. But is there any motive for verbally berating those who fall short, and then broadcasting the abuse on national television? It seems to me there are only two: greed and plain old cruelty. Wouldn’t American Idol be much more enjoyable, or at least ethical, if it started each season after the auditions, or if it showed only the successful ones?

I don’t consider myself an “idiot.” But I’ve certainly applied for jobs that I wasn’t qualified for, and I’m glad those interviews weren’t recorded for posterity. Like most of us, I wouldn’t want to be featured on a show called Old Home Movies of Teenagers Being Rejected at School Dances! But I bet I would have volunteered for that show when I was 15, if I thought I had a chance to get a slow dance out of it.

I suppose I’m just spitting in the wind here. Maybe I should just go with the flow and come up with my own ideas for televised degradation. I think I could get some awesome ratings with Slightly Overweight Dancers Fooled Into Thinking They’ve Been Hired as NFL Cheerleaders! Sponsors would line up for Facial Expressions of Law Students Who Just Failed the Bar! Better yet, I could spearhead a movement to publicly humiliate only those people who are demonstrably malicious and evil. My first special would be titled Simon Cowell: Forced to Reveal his Own Complete Lack of Talent and Trampled to Death by Vengeful Idiots Who Couldn’t Hit the High Note on Minnie Riperton’s Song “Lovin’ You!”

Tim Mollen
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