Many are called, but few are chosen. Once chosen, the victors must face one another. Only one will survive. The epic battle is televised for the world to see. Every blood curdling scream heard, every mortal wound raw and exposed. As I watch the drama unfold on the flickering blue screen in front of me, all that is holy dictates I turn away. But I can’t. The sight is too compelling, the fight is too personal.
As much as I wish I were talking about the post-apocalyptic world created by The Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins, I’m actually talking about my recent experiences watching sometimes with delight, but more often with horror the Fox television show, American Idol, now in its 11th season. As this season features McKinney teenager Hollie Cavanagh, who at this writing has advanced to the final 7, for the first time ever, I actually have skins in the game. And, man, what a nerve wracking game it has been.
After being on the receiving end of rave reviews and praises, Hollie, now finds herself out of favor with the celebrity judges, who in theory, are there to provide post-performance reviews and constructive criticism to the contestants. I say in theory, because, beyond the advise to loosen up and let go on stage, the criticism she receives week in and week out, offers little by way of useful information for the young performer to add to her fledgling skill set. As a matter of fact, with each round that still finds Hollie standing amongst her peers, it seems to me, the judge’s comments have become increasingly insulting, to both Hollie as a performer, and to the American public who through their votes, continue to keep this sweet, talented girl alive in the competition.
Each week I watch as these celebrity judges pimp their products, then get about the business of lifting up or tearing down these young artists, fresh out of the gate on their way to achieving their dreams. With overexaggerated kudos to some, and biting quips to others, they go about the business at hand, standing for some, pity clapping for others, slobbering over this one, and tsk-tsk-tsking over that one. After weeks of being sucked into to the unfolding drama, it begs me to ask myself: When exactly did we as a nation decide that this type of behavior toward our young people is acceptable? And worse still, when did we decide it was entertaining?
At some point, the rules changed allowing younger and younger contestants to be a part of the American Idol phenomena. This season boasts several teens in the top ten. I was struck a couple of weeks ago when one contestant expressed his gratitude to be let go, as it would allow him to return home in time to go to prom. I think his comments are a timely reminder of just how young this year’s batch of musical talent is.
I worry about how kids their age are able to handle the pressures that go along with being thrust into the epicenter of the madness that is reality television. I worry about the massive amount of attention they are exposed to in such a short period of time. I wonder how they are actually processing the remarks that are made to them while they stand and smile and take it on the chin while together as a nation we watch and clap or watch and boo.
Are these young people able to separate the grain from the chaff? Does their youth allow them to find the kernels of wisdom wrapped in the candy colored comments, both sweet and sour, meted out by celebrities in the name of entertaining a nation? Can they decipher the truth behind the over-inflated praises, or the unnecessarily cruel digs? Do the words and actions of those with misplaced anger issues keep them awake at night? You know the ones I’m talking about, the Twitter bombers and Message board bullies who fill the World Wide Web with hate-filled personal attacks before, during and after the show.
I have to wonder how these kids handle it, because frankly, as a casual viewer and grown woman, I’m having a tough time with it, and I’m not alone. In last week’s elimination round, after a day filled with pre-show teasers promising a dramatic turn of events, the judges jumped up on stage in the middle of 16-year old Jessica Sanchez’ Sing for Your Life (yep, that’s what they call it). The chaos that ensued looked and sounded more like what one might find while viewing late night wrestling. Shortly thereafter, I received a text message from a therapist friend who is a fan of the show. The text simply read, “These kids are going to need therapy after this. Refer them to me.”
After watching and faithfully supporting my hometown idol for these past several weeks, and hopefully for the next several weeks to come, I think my concerns boil down to these three wishes: I wish Hollie and her fellow contestants all the best as they pursue their dreams. I will do whatever I can to support their efforts. I wish the adults involved with American Idol would be more sensitive to the tender ages of the finalists, and spend more time supporting them, and less time exploiting them for the sake of creating drama. And finally, I wish we as a nation would cease to enjoy being entertained at the expense of others.
While my therapist friend may or may not have been joking in her post Idol text the other night, it does make me wonder exactly what we are asking our young people to lay on the line in order to sing for their lives while entertaining us in the meantime.