American Idol: Pants On The Ground

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Going into the second audition episode of American Idol, I worried that it might not be any different from the first one. And while the bottom line is that I was right on a technical level -- it was 90 minutes of good singers, bad singers, and manufactured drama -- the show seems to actually thrive when it's just churning out the same stuff over and over again. The producers aren't just stretching the audition episodes out to ride their ratings success; this show is actually pretty well assembled, and only two eps in, I'm starting to see why it's the king of reality TV. So much of the genre is over-edited, over-scored, and full of flat reaction moments set to dramatic thuds meant to inspire shock in the dumbest of viewers (e.g. pretty much every show on Bravo, Dancing With the Stars, etc.). But Idol, for all its genuine flaws and the way it traffics in human misery, is a well-built machine.

While I try to grapple with the fact that I'm beginning to somewhat respect the mechanics of a competition show built on the failure of the hopeful, I'll run down what happened last night. The second audition ep of the ninth season took place in Atlanta, with the cattle call in June 2009 and the two-day callback, when the judges saw the remainder, in August. Something like 10,000 people showed up initially, which is insane. The guest judge was Mary J. Blige, who's so much more talented than Victoria Beckham and actually knows stuff about, you know, music that you wonder why Beckham was even on.

True to form, the "winners" all had remote taped pieces about their home lives run before they sang, which eliminates any suspense, but that's beside the point. The show is clearly about creating myths as much or more than searching for talent, and this is how they do that. So of course the guy who sings in the church and cares for his mom with spina bifida makes it, as does the sweet girl from small-town Tennessee who took the camera crew bridge-jumping and talked of how she'd gotten her audition dress for $4.50 at the dollar store. (I loved her a bit.) They both had raw talent, too -- especially that guy -- but their lives can also be turned into Lifetime movies. That's what the judges want.

Even Skiiboski got through! He had the logo shaved into his head and sang "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and was pretty great. There was also a cop as pale as me with a thin tuft of hair who broke out some impressive soul. Yet for all the moments of success in which genuine skill was awarded, it was the schadenfreude that stood out. There were the sad, overly made-up "BFFs" who auditioned together, only to see one win and the other tank and then be forced to support her friend. Idol is also a fantastic place to observe the downside of believing in yourself, like when one girl bombed and then said that though people told her she's not a good singer, she didn't want to let that "discourage" her. She could run for office. Plus there was a brawler named Lamar who shouted "Kiss From a Rose" and got so physically assertive when he failed that security showed him out. He cursed the whole way home, with a miniature Idol logo popping over his mouth. Nice branding?

The most entertaining part of the episode was also the saddest one if you thought about it too long. A 62-year-old veteran calling himself "General Larry" tried out with an original song/chant called "Pants on the Ground," all about how he hates sagging pants. The age cutoff is 28, so of course he's not going to win. He's just this weird old guy who might be mentally unstable (or homeless, though I pray I'm wrong) that was greenlighted by producers to ensure a laugh. The episode ended with everybody singing the song, and moments later it was dominating the trending topics on Twitter. I guess that's all there is to say.

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