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Watching American Idol

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Phoebe and a (real) silk camellia, Asheville Botanic Gardens, May 2005

Another night devoted to a grinding band rehearsal, 7:30 to 10:30, working out arrangements and harmonies for our gig coming up Saturday. Phoebe was bumming because we wouldn't be able to watch American Idol together. Strangely enough, I was, too. I mean, I know it's better to actually sing with a real band, no matter how obscure, than sit like a dolt watching people who are hoping someday to sing with a real band, but still...
I fell into watching American Idol innocently enough. Phoebe, nine, had heard enough about it at school that she decided she wanted to watch it. She pulled my arm and begged me to sit down with her. I couldn’t resist her, as much as I wanted to. It was midway through last season; Bo and Vonzell and Carrie were in full warble. We rooted for Bo and Vonzell, but we liked them all, really. They could sing rings around anybody else we knew.
As the competition wore on, Phoebe began to look forward to Tuesday and Wednesday nights, and so did I. The show was ridiculous, silly and overly dramatic, but watching the contestants’ personalities and professionalism emerge from the glitzy dross was actually interesting.
Another season has started. This time, Phoebe corralled the whole family into watching the preliminary auditions. Two excruciating hours later, I was wondering just what we’d seen. Each contestant had the same frightened but eager look you see on a pound puppy’s face—when he hopes against hope that you’ll open his awful cage and take him home. They were so young—sixteen, seventeen, twenty years old. They were so sweet. A few of them had IT—breathtaking talent, even starpower. But most of them were not ready for prime time. That’s not a crime, unless you’re auditioning for American Idol.
The famously ruthless juror and show creator Simon Cowell made a fine point of crushing the hopes of those not-quite-readies. One slender, ectomorphic young man with a delicate, quavery voice was advised to shave and become a female impersonator. Another impossibly sweet, pink-cheeked boy, obviously sheltered from reality until this precise moment, sang in a high, operatic falsetto. Simon told him he sounded like someone’s old auntie.
We squirmed and howled on the couch, in an ecstasy of agony for the contestants. We hollered invectives at Simon. It was a Demolition Derby for human souls, and we couldn’t tear ourselves away. In another age, we might have crowded into an arena to watch bear-baiting, or dog fights, or lions released on a prisoner.
“Mommy, would you let me audition for American Idol if I wanted to and was old enough?” Phoebe asked.
“If you were good enough, honey, sure.”
I bite my lip as I say it. I’m not going to tell her she can’t do anything she wants to. But I’m hoping that she won’t be good enough. Some things, it’s better just to watch, cuddled in between the people who love you.


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