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Just like most Stupid Fucking Americans, I watched a good deal of that stupid fucking American Idol show a few months ago. I didn't want to do it, and I pretended it wasn't really happening. People would ask me what I thought about this contestant or that, and I feigned ignorance, relishing my specious superiority all the while, but it was a sham. I was addicted, even though I tried to fool myself about it. I watched the show out of the corner of my eye while doing a crossword puzzle or reading a book or perhaps casually jiggling my manhood (this sometimes occurred when Ryan Starr was onscreen), only very rarely giving the proceedings my undivided attention. In this way, I could tell myself that any information I took in was by involuntary osmosis, kind of like how I can't get "Who Let the Dogs Out?" or "Get the Party Started" (or whatever heinous length of ass cable is currently de rigeur among the insipid) out of my head, even though I go to great lengths to avoid exposure.
Try as I might, the American Idol phenomenon was a car wreck I couldn't avert my eyes from. It tore me up inside. I'm always able to intellectually justify my Fear Factor habit, for instance, because where else do I get to watch a pack of physically perfect, 20-year-old lowest-common-denominator types collectively gagging on a pig grumpy? But unlike Fear Factor, American Idol wasn't humiliating enough—at least not to its audience—to really enjoy without feeling any guilt about it. The show, of course, represented American pop culture at its absolute nadir, a celebration of all that is wrong, all that is pernicious, all that is evil in the corporate music industry—and all that is banal, all that is simple-minded, all that is vapid about American consumerism. In stating these things, I'm only belaboring the obvious. I don't expect a journalism award because I exposed the very concept of American Idol as being morally reprehensible.
On the other hand, I remain genuinely surprised at the appeal the show held for me on some other levels. State-of-the-art as the whole spectacle went out of its way to be, cynical as the very notion of the competition was by design, there was also some wonderful sense of bittersweet nostalgia that shone through, largely in spite of itself. The sheer scale and grandeur of the show was very Old Hollywood, like an Ed Sullivan nocturnal emission, like a Ma Joad blinking with otherworldly wonder into the neon perdition of Las Vegas. They don't do show biz like that anymore, at least not outside of the Academy Awards, that type of "holy shit, this is the most expensive cheese I've ever smelled in my life" kind of thing, and I was surprised at how I reacted to it—like a toddler with a shiny thingamajig in front of its face. Irresistible.
But it was the kids, at least some of them, that really made it seductive. For try as I might to despise the lot of them for willingly participating in their own ritual corporate humiliation and subjugation, there were some that affected, even moved me. One was some fat, homely, black girl that appeared early in the competition; a girl who sang with such church-spawned power and authority that she made my bones vibrate and the back of my tongue tickle. No doubt, in another lifetime, this person could have been Ma Rainey or Bessie Smith, a major star. Unfortunately for her, this ain't the 1920s, and she was confronted by that Simon person (whose greasy despicability was another great reason to tune in; rarely have I attained so much satisfaction from hating someone), who dismissed her like an alpha booger. Since that day, I have often wondered what became of the Booger Girl. I like to imagine her at least joyfully singing the praises of Jesus in a rundown church somewhere in Arkansas, for she and her friends deserve no less than this, at the very least.
Then there's Justin Guarini. I don't care that he came in second; this is a rare and special talent. I know it, you know it, and he knows it. I can't remember the last time I experienced a more naturally elegant set of pipes, set off by heaven-kissed good looks and a charismatic personality that's at once so self-confident it borders on being cocky yet is also as aw-shucks and easygoing as a young Bing Crosby. But Crosby's not the accurate analogy here. It would be Sam Cooke. Or Marvin Gaye.
Can Guarini become the next Sam Cooke or Marvin Gaye? Like Cooke was owned by the Mafia, like Gaye spent his early years as just another faceless product of the Motown factory, Guarini is now chained to the whims of his corporate massas. For now, he will be a good boy, he will do as he's told, and if he's lucky, maybe massa will even throw him a few bucks as his tender Guar-anal tissues and membranes audibly rip and shred under the massive girth of the steely corporate phallus that invades the rectum of his very soul.
But the real question is will Guarini—like Cooke and Gaye before him—eventually find the personal and artistic courage to somehow cast off those chains? Like his predecessors, will he become an artist of staggering depth and import, rewriting the very meaning of rhythm and blues in the process of a career that will be recalled in mythical terms in the centuries to come?
Hell, I don't know. Probably not, though it's fun to speculate on such things. And if you see some creepy-looking middle-aged fat guy wearing an obvious disguise and applauding wildly for Guarini on Friday night when the American Idols play the Pond, well . . . that won't be me. Fuck no.
TOP 10 AMERICAN IDOLS LIVE! AT THE ARROWHEAD POND, 2695 E. KATELLA AVE., ANAHEIM, (714) 704-2400. FRI., 7:30 P.M. $25-$45.