In the pilot episode of Fox’s American Idol, Simon Cowell defined the show’s thesis: “We are going to tell people who cannot sing and have no talent that they have no talent. And that never makes you popular.” The show’s producers and its three judges — Cowell, Paula Abdul, and Randy Jackson — kept true to their word. They were unafraid of replicating the harshness of real music-industry auditions for a national audience. Their judgment and their criticism were uncensored.
Instead of being unpopular, however, American Idol was one of the most watched television shows of the 2000s. The audience loved watching the bad auditions and hearing Cowell’s soul-crushing opinions. Moreover, the method got results, making megastars of ordinary Americans: Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, and Jennifer Hudson were among them.
It’s hard to imagine what kind of megastars this year’s saccharine revival on ABC could produce. Monday night’s show featured a fourth episode of auditions, during which the audience was subjected to an endless supply of contestants who, good or bad, received heaps of praise for their efforts. If forced to turn a contestant down, the judges — the ditzy and colorful Katy Perry, the hollowly sagacious Lionel Richie, and the bland Luke Bryan — would reassure the contestants that they should try out again, or take voice lessons or, in the case of a girl whose audition consisted of dreadful scream-singing, try out for Broadway.
In other words, American Idol has succumbed to our newfound abhorrence for deserved criticism. Instead of a gauntlet meant to weed out the poor performers, the rebooted show has provided a safe space, complete with warm colors, flashy smiles, and golden tickets to Hollywood for everyone, including one contestant’s accompanist, who wasn’t even planning on auditioning. During Monday’s show, Katy Perry giddily tweeted that there were more puppies on the episode than singers. She was right.
It is comical how transparent ABC has been in its desire to show as few “no”s and as many “yes”es as possible. On Monday, every “no” came before the first commercial break. Of the four, two were hidden away in a montage featuring no judge’s comment — but B-roll footage of a standing ovation by Richie — and one was sent home only because her dog kept defecating and urinating on the stage. The other was sent home because Richie couldn’t decide “who you are as an artist” and, in a quote that betrayed his uselessness, because “I really don’t know what I’m judging here.”
Gone with the mordant judges, the audition gauntlet, and, one imagines, the breakout stars, are the fans: ABC’s premiere was worse-viewed than any of Fox’s, besides Season One, and the show lost 11 percent of its viewers by just the second week. It also performed abysmally against The Voice. Gone as well is the original cast, save for host Ryan Seacrest, whose sexual-assault allegations have kept him relegated to the background and voice-overs. Simon Cowell was more than willing to express his lack of interest in judging on the reboot, telling ExtraTV that “you can’t recreate that [the original].” Variety reported that he wasn’t a fan of the post-Cowell seasons, saying, “Last time I watched, it was just not the same show.”
Indeed, the show has been transforming for a long time, and while the final season of the original is loads more tolerable than the first of the reboot, they both emphasized a contestant’s background too much for a competition of raw talent. In the premiere of the original, Cowell told a girl who brought a photograph of her father to the audition and shared with the judges that her father died when she was eight, “We’re making the decision based on your voice because it would be patronizing any other way.”
The show has been transforming for a long time, and while the final season of the original is loads more tolerable than the first of the reboot, they both emphasized a contestant’s background too much for a competition of raw talent.
If that’s true, the judges of the revival are at the apotheosis of patronization, going out of their way to make each audition about the contestant’s complex and unique personhood instead of his talent. Where Cowell saw a personal story as a foreign object threatening to taint a sterile sample, Richie, Perry, and Bryan see it as an essential part of the judging process. Nearly every contestant gets a two-minute segment about his backstory and time to fill the judges in on what makes him and his story unique. A single father who brought his baby — whom Bryan was eager to hold — then broke down in tears after his audition? Golden ticket. A boy whose only wish is for his deaf parents to hear him sing? Golden ticket.
Yet when it came time to judge a girl the judges agreed hit every note, they had trouble giving her a ticket. Could it be because she lacked a backstory? Bryan: “You got there and hit everything perfect. But you have to find what makes everyone cling onto you.” Perry: “You’re nice to listen to, but I want to connect.” Richie, who had earlier told a golden-ticket contestant that he wasn’t singing “the right note” but “the real note:” “You have the voice. We don’t have the trigger.” (Don’t worry: In a confusing turn of events announced via the show’s Twitter page, she did, in fact, get a ticket to Hollywood.)
In other words, instead of judging talent, the reboot is judging feelings. And instead of shooting for “reality,” viewers are being encouraged to see through the disguise. Comparing the pilot of the original and an episode of the reboot produces a sobering reminder of just how far we’ve strayed from true reality in our quest to eliminate offense.