Reviews > Television

Idol smashing

Television | Fox's new reality show has become a hit by being judgmental and encouraging the audience to set standards

Issue: "9/11 remembered," Aug. 17, 2002

For decades, the myth of relativism-that what is true for you may not be true for me-has paralyzed Americans' intelligence, ethics, and religion.

Lately, though, events seem to be conspiring against the relativists. The popping of the stock market bubble, resulting in the disappearance of billions of dollars, seems to have the uncontrollable quality of an objective fact, rather than being the personal construction of the investor's brain. Positive thinking does not seem to make it rain in this summer's drought-plagued states, nor does it keep the fires from burning.

Moral issues too have a sudden black-and-white quality. Child abductions and murders really do seem to be evil acts, in a way that resists appeals to "alternative values." The dignity of the rescued miners-and their rescuers-seems "good," in an objective way that many people had forgotten.

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Religious relativism, one would think, has been struck a blow, as we learn more and more about the theology of the Islamic terrorists. Surely there is a difference between a religious education that teaches little children to hate, kill, and commit suicide, and the lessons of a typical Christian Sunday school. A religion of utter oppression that practices murderous jihad against innocent bystanders is surely not "just as valid" as one that promotes love, justice, and freedom.

And yet, relativism dies hard. Many Americans persist in their relativism in the face of all evidence, and religious relativism may be stronger than ever.

But the ever-shifting foundations of relativism keep being undermined. Just as the pop culture of the entertainment industry has promulgated relativism by reducing all issues to a matter of personal taste, a TV show has now become a hit by being judgmental and by encouraging its audience to set some standards.

American Idol (Fox) has become perhaps the most successful new show of the summer. (The week of July 28, Nielsen ratings ranked the program as the 11th most-watched TV show. It was No. 2 among the coveted demographic of 18- to 34-year-olds.)

An American version of a British program, American Idol is a combination of Star Search and Survivor. The reality program exposed 100 wannabe singing sensations to reality. Performing before a panel of judges, the 100 were winnowed down to 50; then the 50 to 10. Then the decisions are turned over to viewers, as week by week, the audience calls in their votes for who gets the hook. The one left standing wins a recording contract.

What makes the show compelling, though, is one of the judges, British record producer Simon Cowell. Whereas the other judges, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson, try to be tactful and supportive, Mr. Cowell, in a brutally honest way, actually renders judgments about the merits of the performances.

"Jenny, that was extraordinary," he told one young woman. "Unfortunately, extraordinarily bad." A young man earned a different kind of distinction: "I can honestly say you are the worst singer in America."

Afterwards, sympathetic interviewers ask the "losers"-another common epithet of Mr. Cowell's-the ubiquitous media question of how they feel. They indignantly invoke all of the clichés of relativism: "That's just his opinion." "He doesn't have the right to impose his beliefs on me." "Everybody is different."

But the audience, for the most part, realizes that he is right. Some of the first-round singers were painfully off-key. Many were embarrassingly bad. And yet, they displayed the arrogance of prima donnas and presumed to place themselves above criticism. As Mr. Cowell told one furious contestant who was arguing with him-on the basis that good and bad are relative-"What angers me is that people like yourself who have the most attitude have the least talent."

Mr. Cowell's remarks are so shocking to hear, such violations of our therapeutic cultural taboos, that they are oddly refreshing, even exhilarating. Although many viewers call him mean and nasty, he is clearly the real star of the show.

And with the group winnowed down by the judges to 10, the audience gets to play the part of Mr. Cowell. The performers do their numbers, the judges comment, and then it is up to the audience to cut the losers. This is not a job for relativists.

True, American Idol has its limits. All of the contestants are boy band or Britney Spears clones. One reality it exposes is the vacuousness of the pop music scene. At one point, Mr. Cowell tells an overweight teenager with a lovely voice that, because of her appearance, there is no way she can make it in today's music business.

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