Thursday, May 27th, 2010

Inside "American Idol": Flesh Against the Barricades

LEE ESCAPESIt gets messy in the Idoldome. But all of the mania happens on stage, not in the audience. The colossal disco lights create a dizzying swirl. Fifteen-foot sheets of white fabric are propped up by a hurried squadron of grips. A pack of deposed Idols appears. They are chunkily boxstepping and no one can answer the question "How deep is your love?" Cameramen circle the 12th place and 4th place contestants as they try to remain on key, then, black-out. Poof! Ryan Seacrest materializes on a massive rafter, the two-chord theme for the show booms over the speakers, a disembodied voice screeches "Two minutes!" A man in a rhinestone tie hustles the crowd to keep the energy up. "Where are you from? How long have you been 12-years-old? Here's an iPod Touch!"

Audience approval. Tear the white walls down, then judges shuffle to their places between songs, look thoughtfully into the camera for a few seconds and retreat backstage. Look! Christina Aguilera is doing an uncanny Evita impression; the Idols, Hall, Oates, Chicago follow. (Who knows if it even is Chicago? Could just be tanned men in Bahama shirts? Who would know the difference? Troubling.)

Then, "Four minutes!" Alanis Morissette and Crystal Bowersox are criss-crossing the stage, chased by the merciless cameramen, Idols reappear, stammering, unsure where to look, their eyes dart around like they are 3rd graders at a holiday pageant waiting for their supportive teacher to queue them from the front row, but there is no teacher, only a quartet of women playing violins! Thirty seconds, and a skit goes wrong, eliminated auditioners come back to show their resolve and/or swallow more humiliation, tension fills the arena, they are rallied by more giveaways and touching slow motion montage courtesy of Ford Fiesta, sobs and hugs, Seacrest! Grips, fog, duet!

How does this transfer to the screen with such control? There are a few rough moments-closeups on empty chairs instead of the judges plaintive faces, some notes gone terribly flat-but that this is made into a TV show, this is a feat. The mechanical transfer of anxious pandemonium into precise minutes of television, compelling television at that, is astounding.

* * *

Except for the snakepit of glittery teen girls at the foot of the stage, all tube-topped and gangly, the audience is adult and sedate. They are engaged but not giddy, often needing to be coaxed from respectful applause to something more rousing. There are some radio contest winners scattered about-you can spot them by their home made signs (neon and delightful)-but many of the seats in the 7,000-capacity arena belong to employees of Ford and Apple, the corporate sponsors of our Idols. They were given the tickets. They did not buy them. They did not line up for them. So this was a crowd of observers, not participants.

* * *

Before the finale, the non-ticketed fans jostled for position at the press pool barricade. They were all female, most of them teenagers and younger. But between the tank-topped tweens who delighted in screaming the names of their favorites, their faces still too young to be painted, were women. Women over thirty-five elbowed their way through the frenzy with their own pleadings for signatures and snapshots of the Idols. Space is scarce at the barricades. Every space a woman takes up at the plastic barrier is one she denies a young girl. Being a teenager is sacred, it is not meant to be shared, most of your energies are spent on keeping adult invaders out. I don't want to imagine the horror and confusion I would feel if I were a young girl pressed up against a woman twice my age-who had a driver's license, was allowed to drink, knew what the stormy world of sex was actually like-and was forced to compete with her for the recognition of a newly-minted celebrity. That's havoc on a teenage girl's psyche. Then you know that the fantasizing that motivates a girl to cry at the sight of semi-famous person does not evaporate with age. How did they go to sleep with any security, knowing that they will probably never grow up?

Natasha Vargas-Cooper, at least, is sleeping it off.

19 Comments / Post A Comment

mjwilstein (#934)

In case you missed the American Idol "Kanye Moment":

LondonLee (#922)

I can imagine the horror my sister would have felt if she'd seen our mother at a Bay City Rollers concert.

Bittersweet (#765)

When I was 14 back in the Stone Age, I solemnly told my mother that I was in love with Simon Le Bon and couldn't imagine not loving him. To her eternal credit, she said "OK" and waited for me to grow out of it.

I can't imagine what I would've done if her response had been, "Me too! He's so gorgeous! Let's go buy some posters for our bedrooms."

(Thanks, Mom.)

philomene (#355)

I met him at a party a few years ago. What a ltdown for my 12 year old self who thought we would get married one day. Not quite as bad as Nick Rhodes, but highlighted hair makes an aging rockstar look like a menopausal lady.

Bittersweet (#765)

This is why I'm not really interested in meeting famous people. Why volunteer to have your illusions shattered?

Perfect. Exactly.

I used to be obsessive about a number of bands and I was also filled with this dread of like, WHY DO I FEEL SO MUCH?! I knew I could never marry Dave Gahan or even sleep with him, hello, I was barely menstrual! If my mom was like, 'OMG I KNOWWWWWW' I'd be like, what? WHAT? AM I GOING TO FEEL THIS WAY 4EVER?

johnpseudonym (#1,452)

Twelve lame-ass "performers" enter, one lame-ass "performer" leaves.

roboloki (#1,724)

seacrest rules martyr town

Art Yucko (#1,321)

…so we need a Cougar-free zone, So the kittens don't have to fight for the scraps?

Blackcapricorn (#4,791)

I think the term "kittens" will lead to a whole new Chris Hanson special.

Art Yucko (#1,321)

…don't the kittens need to learn how to fight for what they want? This is Survival we're talking about!

Yes! Nature, you know?

hockeymom (#143)

The Olympics (IMHO) are the gold standard of planned live television events. Idol comes very, very close. To get these shows on TV and not have them be complete train wrecks is a miracle every time. Kudos to the directors, the producers, the editors who turn around the feature packages, the TDs, etc etc.

(but for gripping live television, give me breaking news any day. car chases, being the exception.)

KarenUhOh (#19)

This was an exciting, fun, funny read.

I'm reminded of a piece I can't find online, that's probably mouldering in a box in my basement (OOH), that Harper Barnes wrote for Rolling Stone, about an Elvis concert in 1976, shortly before the King went to Burger King. I'll probably get some of this wrong, but one especially great part went:

"Then the canned strains of 'Thus Spake Zarathusra' erupted, and the National Monument that is Elvis hove into view. What seemed like a million flashbulbs popped simultaneously. That must have confused Elvis, because he said, 'I hope we have a good time this afternoon.' It was about nine p.m."

jamboree (#206)

Your paraphrase piqued my interest. Here's the story:

KarenUhOh (#19)

Actually, he did write a different piece for RS. it was a lot glibber than this one, but it's the same show, same feel.

I'll have to dig it out, because I recall being so struck by it at the time.

jamboree (#206)

Ah, I thought that you were just being charitable, remembering it as cleverer than it was. I'd love to read the piece.

Also: the idea of having stacks of saved magazines is surprising to me (FWIW, I starred in "I Was a Tweenage Werewolf"). It seems like such a pain to go through to find something, but I feel like a wimp admitting that thought.

crookedE (#1,817)

Seeing Sir Anthony Hopkins in the audience a few weeks ago was a little surreal.

King Tween V.

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