Lessons from American Idol

When reality TV first reared its ugly head a number of years back, I sampled all the shows. “Survivor,” “Amazing Race,” “Big Brother,” and “American Idol.” While I actually enjoyed some (Dr. Will on “Big Brother” is the greatest pathological liar in the history of television), the only one I’ve stuck with is Idol.


Every season, I tell myself that I’m done. Then my wife starts watching those hokey audition shows and, before I know it, I find myself sucked right back in. Many times I’ve wondered, “Why is this so compelling?” After all, it’s just a glorified talent show. Sure, Paula babbles incoherently (I’ll miss her, for sure) and Simon is his usual insufferable but honest self. But I’ve finally come to the conclusion that the show strikes a nerve because it’s about the American dream.


First, as we all know, the vast majority of contestants have absolutely no business being there. It’s part of the fun but also part of the dramatic tension. Other than the ones doing it for a goof, most really believe they’re good, that they deserve to be the next American Idol. In a word, they’re delusional. When Simon tells them how horrible they are, they stare at him in disbelief. He’s trying to do them a favor and, of course, they don’t believe him for a moment.


As a writer, I’ve had similar experiences. Other writers send me their stuff all the time. Years ago, my editor told me he can tell if someone can write by reading one paragraph. At the time, I just figured he was jaded. Now I know he’s right. Just like the Idol contestants, these folks think they’re the next big thing. When they solicit my feedback, I don’t do a Simon Cowell number on them; I always try to let them down gently. But some of them still get pissed off.


Why do I continue to put myself in this position? Because every now and then, I’m pleasantly surprised. Over the years, I’ve met a couple of very good writers who have become very good friends. Nothing wrong with that. Plus, if you’ve read my work, you know I’m a believer in Karma.


As my editor also likes to say, “Publishing is a rigged game.” With the economy in the toilet, that’s true now more than ever. The few big houses that remain rarely take a flyer on unknown authors. They stick with the tried and true brand names. I’m sure there are parallels in the music industry, which is why Idol provides a decent alternate route for those with real talent. I don’t always agree with the judges’ selections. (It seems like the singer who gets bounced in the last three or four weeks is always more deserving.) But there’s still an emotional appeal seeing someone work hard and ultimately get their shot. It’s all any of us can hope for.