Drama and democracy on national 'amateur night'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Cedric Hunt, wearing a look-at me, lemon-yellow suit and black Borsolino hat, was all smiles as he finished singing the Four Tops' hit, Reach Out I'll Be There, on this season's premier episode of Fox's talent show, American Idol.

"Come on, Simon, reach out," the 18-year-old said confidently to Simon Cowell, the judge famous for his nasty wit.

Cowell reached out with one word: "Hideous."

"Hideous?" Hunt replied incredulously.

"I'm sorry, everything -- the outfit, the singing, it's just hideous," said Cowell.

"No," said Hunt.

"Yes."

"No."

And so on, back and forth, until Paula Abdul, the judge known for being nice, screamed, "Oh, God, I feel like I'm back in high school. Stop."

She took the words right out of my mouth.

I watched the first two weeks of American Idol, which premiered on Jan. 21, trying to understand where this slice of reality TV fits within American cultural traditions. Initially, I thought little could be more sophomoric or empty than this show.

But in popular culture, the very moments that seem the most awful often contain underlying currents that cause a television show, song or movie to connect in profound ways with millions of people (a record-setting 25 million people each night in the case of Idol). It is this connection that transforms a popular artifact or event into a pop phenomenon. American Idol, I gradually realized, speaks to viewers in surprisingly sophisticated ways, hitting chords that may have particular resonance with young Americans.

Buried within the brief exchange between talent judge Cowell and contestant Hunt lay racial tension: Cowell is white; Hunt is black. (Another judge, Randy Jackson, who is African-American, further stirred the racial pot by telling Hunt he liked the bright yellow outfit, which he described as "very pimped-out." But, he added, "Simon doesn't know what pimped-out is, does he?")

There was generational clash: Cowell, the fleshy, middle-aged man with power wielded it with a little too much pleasure over this hungry, young man on the make.

There was Freudian drama: Cowell, the dysfunctional -- or at least hypercritical father -- verbally abused young Hunt until Abdul, as surrogate mother, mercifully interceded.

Most compelling of all was the quintessentially American narrative of an unknown stepping into the limelight to be tested.

If Hunt, who is from Eldorado, Kan., had won this preliminary round, he would have been admitted to the outer limits of a magical kingdom called Celeb-rity; he would have traveled to Hollywood to compete against 32 semifinalists for the American Idol title. Hunt failed, but his defeat, and that of the other rejected contestants, simply heightens the dramatic tension.

"The talent contest with its story line of coming out of nowhere to do great things: That's the great theme of democracy in American life," said Robert J. Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University.

An American tradition

Last fall, Kelly Clarkson, a 20-year-old cocktail waitress from Burleson, Texas, became the first contest winner -- the first American Idol. She has since sold 600,000 copies of a single song, A Moment Like This. The story of her success lies at the heart of the show's enormous appeal, said Thompson. "Every-body can grow up to be president; anybody can grow up to be Kelly Clarkson."

Talent contests traditionally have played another, more practical role in America cultural life, said Lawrence E. Mintz, associate professor of popular culture at the University of Maryland at College Park. "Go back to the start of the century if you want, and you can see versions of [American Idol] being used to discover the next generation of professional talent, era after era."

He's right. You can start in 1906, for example, with the debut of Fanny Brice, the great Ziegfeld Follies comedy and singing star whose life was celebrated by Barbra Streisand in the film Funny Girl. Many of the elements at play in Idol -- the nervous newcomer, the harsh judgment, the triumphant performance, and passage into the world of show business -- are on display in the legend of her entry into show business.

Barbara W. Grossman opens her biography of Brice, Funny Woman (Indiana University Press), with the story of the aspiring singer at age 15, "a gawky, nondescript girl in a rumpled linen dress and a sailor hat" appearing on an amateur night in 1906 before a tough audience at Kenney's Fulton Street Theatre, a vaudeville house in Brooklyn.

As Brice stepped on stage, "she found herself suddenly facing a hostile audience whose cacophonous booing and shrieking rose to new heights at the sight of their latest victim." But once Brice started singing, the booing stopped. And when she finished singing, the cheering began. Brice won $20 in the contest, scooped up another $10 in coins that audience members had thrown on the stage, and was on her way to a career on stage with bookings in a national chain of vaudeville houses to which Kenney's belonged.

By the 1930s, America had its first national version of the talent show with Major Bowes' Origi-nal Amateur Hour on NBC and then CBS radio. Historian Sally Bedell Smith describes the show as a "national sensation" in her biography of CBS founder William Paley, In All His Glory (Simon and Schuster).

"The Major was an avuncular sort who touched his audience with the warm questions he asked of contestants preparing to yodel or sing or play the harmonica. Then he would tickle listeners by gleefully ringing a gong that signaled failure for the hapless performers. Although Paley thought the program "cruel," he wanted it on his network," Bedell writes.

The show was taken over by Ted Mack in 1946 when Bowes, whose real name was Edward, died. Mack, who had been an assistant to Bowes, moved to television in 1948 and had a 22-year run on CBS with Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour. Among its Kelly Clarksons: Ann-Margret, Maria Callas, Robert Merrill and Frank Sinatra as a member of a singing group called the Hoboken Four.

But no talent show was as successful as Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts on CBS; it was No. 1 on television during the 1951-'52 season, ahead of I Love Lucy and Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theatre. Fifty years ago this month, Godfrey's show earned a 54.7 rating, which means one out of every two homes with a television set in the country watched it.

Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Connie Francis, Leslie Uggams, Steve Lawrence and Marian McPartland were among the newcomers who started their careers on Godfrey's stage. They were declared winners on the basis of an audience applause meter, a primitive forerunner of the online voting that Fox today claims "empowers viewers to discover America's next singing superstar."

There have been other shows over the years, such as The Gong Show (syndicated 1976-'80), which featured Chuck Barris taking Bowes' gong and humiliating guests of little or no talent. Next came Star Search, which started in syndication in 1983 and has since featured as hosts celebrities such as Ed McMahon, Martha Quinn and now Arsenio Hall.

The nation's most distinguished talent show may be Amateur Night at the Apollo, which was founded at the legendary Harlem theater in 1934, the same year Major Bowes started his all-white broadcast on NBC radio. Ella Fitzgerald, Michael Jackson, Gladys Knight and James Brown are among the African-American stars who came of age as performers on this stage. In 1987, It's Showtime at the Apollo was introduced, a syndicated variety show that brought winners of the amateur night contests to television.

'More sophisticated'

So, American Idol didn't invent the wheel, but it is giving it a new and fascinating spin unlike anything that's come before.

As Thompson put it, "Ted Mack, Major Bowes, Fanny Brice at the Fulton Street Theatre -- that's all true. It's all part of the piece that includes American Idol. But, that having been said, American Idol is to Star Search or Ted Mack or Major Bowes what modern quantum mechanics is to Newtonian physics. It's a whole new ballgame, and it's so much more sophisticated."

That sophistication includes solving a problem that has precluded televised talent contests from becoming hits since the early era of Godfrey and Mack: How to hold viewers long enough for them to identify with individual contestants.

As viewers were given more choices and remote control of the dial in the 1970s, it became increasingly difficult to hold their attention through the preliminary stages of talent shows when it was hard to distinguish one contender from the next. Viewers simply wouldn't watch long enough to become emotionally invested.

American Idol's answer was to become essentially two shows. During the winnowing phase at the start of the season, Idol is not about the people competing as much as it is about Cowell and the other judges smacking down wannabe celebrities. Cowell, Abdul and Jackson are the stars, with Cowell a modern-day Merlin standing alongside Excalibur making sure proper procedures are followed as one after another contestant tries to extract the sword.

"The appeal here isn't just about mean-spirited humiliation. This is about how we identify ourselves in a democratic society that doesn't give us many institutionalized ways to feel better about ourselves compared to other people," Thompson said.

"So, we come up with cultural ways that allow us to feel superior, like watching these pretenders to the throne make fools of themselves. At this point, we are identifying more with the judges than the contestants."

And that keeps viewers tuned in until the field gets cut to a dozen or so finalists who truly have some talent. Then the old-fashioned talent show kicks in. Only now viewers have gotten to know the contestants and have begun to see the world through the their eyes -- and are hooked.

This 180-degree shift in point of view is handled so smoothly it can go unnoticed. Consider this: During the first four episodes of American Idol, the camera generally has stayed on the judges in close-up, as though forcing viewers to see inside their minds. The other dominant shot has been from the judges' point of view as they look at the audition stage.

On the other hand, during the final nights of last summer's competition, the dominant camera shot was from the stage outward into the audience, as if viewers were seeing the room of dazzling lights and screaming fans through the eyes of Clarkson and the other finalists. The judges were on camera far less, and when they were seen, it was from a distance -- and from the point of view of the performers onstage. Like most expertly crafted artifacts of popular culture, American Idol only seems simple.

Hunt's brief moment in front of the cameras -- neatly encapsulating both the national drama of people from nowhere trying to win passage to the promised land of celebrity, as well as the more superficial but nonetheless powerful enactment of children coming before an abusive father named Simon -- is representative of how rich a set of psychic chords American Idol can simultaneously play -- even as it seems to be most silly.

"There's so much stuff going on in this show," Thompson said. "It's so dense. It's so deep. It works on so many levels that if we simply write it off as "stupid reality TV," we're going to miss a rich and complicated chapter in American dramaturgy."

Not to mention what it means, fashion-wise, to be "pimped-out" -- at least for someone from Eldorado, Kan.

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