Bully for Bullies

I’ve written about this before, but yesterdayI experienced a moment of cultural schizophrenia so funny that I couldn’t pass up making note of it here. It started this morning when I scanned my newsfeeds and came across this CNN piece suggesting that American Idol is developing a “mean streak.”

Fox’s talent contest regularly has made an art of mocking the untalented who expose their dreams of stardom on TV, but the show’s fifth year has the stench of a mean season. Vulnerable contestants are coming in for more ridicule; bounced contestants are unleashing more extended and expletive-laden attacks on the judges and, we are warned, the future will demonstrate how vicious singers can be when they really want to win.

… In the past, “American Idol” (airing Tuesday and Wednesday) upped the age for contestants to 28 and divided the finalists evenly between men and women. This year, it’s trying a little anti-tenderness. Weight and sexuality are favorite targets, as in previous seasons and just like around the typical school yard. But there is new venom in everybody’s blood, and emotional fragility be damned.

Well, alert the media. (Oh, wait.) That “mean streak” that’s suddenly become news is what made the show in the first place. At least as many Americans as tune in to hear their favorite contestants also tune in to see what kind of verbal abuse Simon Cowell (who’s meanness makes him a bigger star in many ways than the few who’ve been launched by the show) is going to heap on which contestant. So, so should be it be a surprise that the show this season the show is adding an extra serving of what brought America to the table in the first place? It it possible that maybe folks are now beginning to think there’s such a thing as too mean? Or is it more likely that, as the Washington Post said this morning, that the show really represents “embodies the qualities that make America what it is”?

They want and get their saucy little scoldings from the three dubiously expert judges: Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and the show’s star scowler, Simon Cowell, seemingly merciless in his pistol-whip putdowns of the arguably defenseless (to a fatty in a green shirt last night: “You look like the Incredible Hulk’s wife”).

… No one wants the party to stop just yet. And “Idol” is the rare success that the audience can feel a part of.

… But the show arguably celebrates something else: American Self-Delusion. Many of the most truly terrible performers do appear oblivious to their lack of talent. They become indignant when jettisoned and assume the judges are tone-deaf, have tin ears, or in Cowell’s case, that they’re just mean and jealous. “Idol” may represent American self-delusion at its most benign, whereas current foreign policy may represent it at its most arrogant.

 And this is in praise of the show. Maybe I’m out of the mainstream (big surprise, I know) but, Simon Cowell telling an overweight performer that she should “consider a bigger stage” isn’t a “success” I want to be a part of so much as I’d prefer to be apart from it or anything like it. Obviously I am out of the mainstream, because Idol has spawned a whole species of similar shows where viewers tune in for the meltdowns and verbal massacres as much as anything else, like Project Runway or America’s Top Model.

A celebration of American self-delusion? If so, the irony is that Americans are most deluded concerning basic truth about themselves that Idol and other shows like it spotlight regularly. So deluded, in fact, that they just don’t see it. I’ll repeat.

The truth is, we like bullies. And if that’s putting it a bit too strongly, then at least we don’t mind them much, as long as they’re our bullies, and as long as they’re picking on someone else.

We like them on our televisions, and we like them in public office. We don’t just like them. They’re who we want to be.

It’s what sells, and what gets elected. It’s what’s American. So American Idol isn’t developing a mean streak. It’s just becoming more itself, and becoming more American in the process.

About Terrance

Black. Gay. Father. Buddhist. Vegetarian. Liberal.
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One Response to Bully for Bullies

  1. Shaula Evans says:

    T, I hope the theory of an American cultural love affair with bullies is wrong.  (I don’t have any evidence to refute it, though.)

    My husband and I have been watching old SCTV episodes through Netflix lately.  SCTV was in production around the same time as the peak of Saturday Night Live, and the talent came out of Second City Toronto.

    Two things struck me while watching it:
    1.  One of the Second City Chicago founders was interviewed in the bonus features on the first disc.  He said that one of their precepts of doing improv was, "Always assume your audience is smarter than you are."  SCTV followed this (most notably, in the episodes we’ve watched recently, in a takeoff of Chinatown called Polynesian Town, and in the episode dedicated to mocking Ralph Reed and the Christian Coalition’s bullying of media; SNL definitely didn’t.
    2.  SCTV, at its best, was funny, witty, and, well, sweet.  SNL has always struck me as mean.

    I think of American Idol as the latest milestone in the ever downward trend of American pop culture towards greater meanness and an ever increasing dumbing-down.   I think it has a huge impact on national culture.

    The only remedy I see is to offer alternatives, and execute them well:  e.g., Jon Stewart and the Daily Show.

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