Inside "American Idol": Flesh Against the Barricades

by Natasha Vargas-Cooper


It 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.

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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.

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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.