Wednesday, February 28, 2007

I Admit It...

I watch American Idol. Please help me… I think I may need an intervention… I could try chalking it all up to the influence of my kids, they are crazy about it, and I remember when we all used to watch the Ed Sullivan Show as a family when I was a kid, but I have to admit that I wouldn’t watch this show at all if it wasn’t for Simon Cowell. Simon is actually the real star of the show. Even though he hasn’t got a scintilla of talent of his own, even though his history of success as a producer and professional judge of talent is spotty at best, I think Simon is the real reason why most people watch the show. In fact, I think there is evidence that there is a whole college-age subculture out there that votes to elevate weak contestants like Taylor Hicks week after week just to get under Simon’s skin and provoke him.

Why am I fascinated by his put-downs? Is this bad for my kids, or is it something not worth taking seriously? What do shows like American Idol and the whole suite of Reality TV shows say about the “culture of bullying” we increasingly see around us? I’m starting to wonder if in the waning years of my career I’ll be confronted at work by a coterie of managers young enough to be my kids who will “vote me off the island” with the kind of blunt-edged “honest feedback” we are growing to become accustomed to seeing from the likes of Simon Cowell and Donald Trump.

The article Watch your back, the Bully Culture is upon us is a couple of years old, but still carries some powerful points and questions…
Remember 10 years ago, when tech stocks were booming, the Web was a new plaything and Bill Gates looked like he was one step away from Emperor of the World?

It was the Age of the Nerd, the era when the pocket-protector brigade seem to hold the future of the rest of us in their un-manicured hands. The Nerd (or Geek, Dweeb, insert your own love/hate epitaph) was ascendant, demonstrating that the Bible was off, but only by a single letter — The geek shall inherit the earth. Even the Vice President was one.

That period is over now. But the notion that life resembles high school lives on. Nowadays, there’s a new schoolyard type astride the culture. The Nerd is out; the Bully is in, setting the tone of public discourse, providing the image of what success looks like and holding the future of the rest of us in his hands. Even the Vice President is one.

There’s no other way to explain, for instance, the sudden re-emergence of Donald Trump, the buffoonish egoist who, for a while there, looked like he was going to sail into 1980s-nostalgia oblivion alongside Lee Iacocca and Ed Meese. But here we are in 2005, watching the Donald scowl and growl "You’re fired!" — when we’re not watching Simon Cowell eviscerate his many lessers on "American Idol" — in what passes for an evening’s entertainment.

The falsely labeled phenomenon known as "Reality TV" puts people in situations where bullying behavior is rewarded with boffo ratings. On the news channels, every aspirant to the pundit class is working on his/her bully skills, with the conviction that sharp elbows and bluster is the way to join the ranks of Hannity, O’Reilly and Limbaugh (Let’s give ol’ Rush credit for being an SOB back before SOBs were cool).

Yes, the left is capable of playing the bully as well. Ask anyone surrounded by "tolerant" progressives who smokes or eats red meat or drives a Hummer. Ask anyone who’s been interviewed by Michael Moore. …

As for the president, he’s always struck me as a particular sub-species of the bully you might call a "towel snapper." You know the type, the guy who puts his arms around your shoulders for a good-natured, insincere apology after pulling a nuclear wedgie on you in front of the whole school at assembly.

Business. Sports. Entertainment. Government. With Bully Culture rising in all sectors of our society, the implicit signal to those of us living normal lives is that the ends always justifies the means whether it’s in the workplace, the neighborhood or the family.

Bullying, from the schoolyard to the boardroom, is often just a case of meanness exercising its temporary power. But it’s just as often something else entirely, a kind of righteous blindness, the belief that being right gives you license to treat people like a dog treats a fire hydrant.

The Bully Culture shows no signs of abating, but comeuppance is an inevitable part of the bully’s existence. There will come that day when the antibodies in the body politic will expunge this latest threat to our cultural health, and we call all scream at the last episode of "The Apprentice": "Hey, Trump. You’re fired."

Not to be a holier-than-thou, but here is an interesting column looking askance in particular at American Idol's rehearsal round, Is American Idol Insulting to Human Dignity?

Let me ask you this: When you were in middle school, did you mock the "retards"? As an adult, do you continue this behavior by laughing at some of the emotionally and/or physically disadvantaged contestants on "Idol"? Do you have children of your own? If so, then you ridicule the "different" folks together as a "family affair" pastime? How does doing this make you feel? I'm just tryin' to understand, friends.


cowboyangel said...

I can tell you're reaching out. That's always the most important first step. I wish I could offer some consoling words, a humble and merciful response, some bit of wisdom that makes you feel both accepted and released enough to keep talking about this openly.

But, really, Jeff, what in the hell's wrong with you?


I've never seen American Idol, so I can't say anything about this. I've never seen any of the reality TV shows, truth be told. Well, we did watch a few minutes of Dancing with the Stars one night because La Reina's best friend had taken dance lessons with one of the guys who was doing well.

And as one who loved Battle of the Network Stars when I was a kid - and forced my poor mother to watch with me - who am I to judge you?

Interesting what you say about a bully culture.

I think it's interesting that many of these shows - Dancing with the Stars, Big Brother and even, I think, American Idol - are actually European imports. They being culturally superior to us and everything.


Liam said...

I think there are different levels to reality shows. I haven't watched "American Idol," but I get the feeling that it's 75% old-fashioned talent show and only 25% bullying reality show. I find just about every reality show so distressingly voyeuristic that I can't stand to have them on. The worst of them (Big Brother, Wife Swap) are probably much worse for children than seeing Janet Jackson's breast for a milisecond, but it seems you never hear anyone complaining about that...

There is help, Jeff. Reach for the remote control... turn on PBS... there's good public television in Boston, isn't there? I don't want to sound snobish. A ball game will do. Just make sure it's not basketball, the Celtics being what they are right now.

The bullying culture article is very insightful.

crystal said...

Jeff, I tried to comment last night, but Blogger wouldn't let me, for some reason.

I've never seen American Idol either. I don't think I watch any "reality" shows, but then I'm up to my eyeballs in the opposite - science fiction and fantasy - not sure how much more healthy that is.

It's never too late to break your addiction - I think they have medications now that can help :-) Just kidding, but you might enjoy some time soent at the Sci Fi channel.

Jeff said...

Hi William,

I remember those "Battle of the Stars" things... Remember when one team captain, Robert Conrad (Baa Baa Black Sheep), was ready to fight Gabe Kaplan (Welcome Back Kotter) over some silly dispute? They settled it with a 100-yard dash and Kaplan won. :-)

I also remember the L.A. Dodgers beating Arrowhead Ernie Holmes and the Pittsburgh Steelers in a tug-of-war. Shocking.

I think it's interesting that many of these shows - Dancing with the Stars, Big Brother and even, I think, American Idol - are actually European imports.

Well, more properly, British imports. I think this is an Anglo thing... Sort of like their headmaster rituals and public school scene. The weakest link, indeed.


Ha! Mitt's planned bumpersticker campaign... Those French. What pansies. What cowards. Did you ever read about how they all either cut and run or surrendered at the
Battle of Verdun? Oh, wait. My mistake... They didn't...

Hey Liam,

You know, Anne and I are seriously thinking of getting rid of the TV. Last night we didn't watch Idol because the kids didn't have their homework done yet. Then we all went to bed early, and it turned out to be a rather nice, pleasant evening.

I think I could easily live without the TV. Maybe Anne and I give ourselves away as typically effete, snobby New Englanders, but almost everything we ever watch is on PBS... Frontline and Masterpiece Theatre and not much else. Unfortunately, PBS is going through an extended budget crunch, so they are forced to run Are You Being Served, 50 Years of Doo-Wop, Roy Orbison & Friends, Celtic Woman, and that Austrian violinist over and over again for the umpteenth time.

Hi Crystal,

For me, the old Star Trek episodes are about as adventuresome as I get with Science Fiction. In know, I know, a real lack of imagination on my part. :-)

cowboyangel said...

Why the Ed Sullivan Show was way cooler than American Idol.

Why the Ed Sullivan Show was way cooler than American Idol - Part II.

Lynda Carter and Adrienne Barbeau in the swimming competition on Battle of the Network Stars. Howard Cosell calling the action. "What an incredible finish."

Jeff said...

Well, now, that's entertainment!

Thanks, William, for reminding me how old I'm getting. Wow. Is this the same country?

The old black-and-white Ed Sullivan segments are one thing, but Howard Cosell and that old gang? In some ways, it feels like yesterday, but culturally, it really does seem like eons ago.

Christopher said...

I confess I watch American Idol as well. For me, I think, it's not so much the put-downs from Simon (although I think that is an appeal for some) as seeing those rusty gems of authentic talent discovered, polished and made to shine -- take this year's Lakisha Jones, for instance, who might have spent the rest of her days as a bank teller. What a voice! I get chills when I listen to her . . .

Jeff said...

Hi Christopher,

She is very good, and it is great to see someone’s dream come to fruition this way. I think the women this time around have the men somewhat outclassed in terms of talent.

As far as undiscovered talent goes, though, I do think they are looking specifically and narrowly for a certain kind of singer. Haviong done just basic local community theater ovet the years, I’ve seen a lot of people who could blow away or hold their own with the contestants on the show. A friend of my wife’s, a music teacher, got almost all the way to the Hollywood round until Simon told her that although she had a great voice, she was “too Broadway” for American Idol.

Steve Bogner said...

I've been watching it this year too; my older son watched it last year. My boys have more than once commented that Simon isn't fair, or nice (my word = charitable). As I look back on it, I don't think we're watching to see Simon's jabs; we would probably like it better without him.

But I do think it's more of a bully-culture these days; which is not all that good for aging nerds like me :)

Jeff said...

Hi Steve!

Is there a favorite you guys are pulling for?

Steve Bogner said...

Jeff - No favorites yet. I do like Sundance Head - he's a good ol' boy that reminds me of the friends I had while growing up in the back-country of Kansas...

Jeff said...

Sundance! I really like Sundance and his country-boy beard, but he almost muffed it the first week when he decided to try singing "Nights In White Satin". How did he do last night? I missed it. We had two kids throwing up with the stomach flu. I'm sure you know the drill...

I'm also liking Blake, Jared, and Chris Sligh.

Anonymous said...