(From the draft archives; this post itself is now two years old.)
I have never in my life watched a full episode of American Idol; I have, however, been to a finale taping, the one at which Ruben Studdard beat out Clay Aiken, probably during my sophomore year of high school. My dad’s then-employer had some equipment on the show; I said yes to the tickets we were offered because it was a good story and an afternoon off from school more than out of any desire to like, be there. My memories of the event are hazy, though I do recall a surprising number of very beautiful grown up women looking fancier than I thought a mid-afternoon reality tv show taping warranted. It was only the show’s second season and it was a big deal that it was still a big deal—no flash in the pan, this American Idol, but a cultural force to be reckoned with. We take it for granted, now, but this was before Top Chef and Project Runway and the established format of skill-based reality competition shows. Mostly what I remember is the girls next to me, who’d been snuck up front* by a sympathetic crew member, absolutely losing it when Clay Aiken so much as breathed in our direction. Even at fifteen it was abundantly clear to me that he was not interested in teenage girls as a genre (except perhaps as the demographic most likely to propel him to Idoldom and its attendant fame). The girls irritated and saddened me in equal measure; I became a Studdard supporter on the spot. It was gratifying, then, when he won: my team had come out triumphant! I have no idea what he sang to win, or what he’s sung since, or anything about Clay Aiken except that he adopted some babies and is sort of out of the closet, I think, but single? Anyway, that both of them are far more famous as winners of American Idol than as actual singers.
Which is a long way of saying that Natasha’s description of the scene is entirely fitting: observers come to see the almost-famous, performers before they’re singers, banking on the audience’s goodwill and teenage lust and desire to feel close and feel involved.
I’ve loved lots of famous people and gay men and spectacles is my life; this one just happened to brush me by, so that I drifted in and out without getting involved. It’s a funny thing to look at, is all, and at fifteen I felt a little sad that I wasn’t more excited by the whole thing. I felt alienated from those girls against the barricades, and wondered if it wasn’t my fault, this bit of communal hysteria I wasn’t getting. Being fifteen is the constant condition of worrying that your loneliness is the most and deepest and only, and I was very much fifteen. I was also a product of that particular Los Angeles desire to remain coolly removed; it’s ok to get the tickets and skip school to go, but you remain glass-eyed and unmoved while there, and after what you remember is the girls who stood next to your, hyperventilating, and how irritated you were, how glad to see them lose.
Cynicism is an obvious and easy pose; it didn’t occur to me then that it was mostly my fault that I wasn’t having any fun, there or much of anywhere. I’ve given it up as much as is possible in the years since, though I’m not sure it always shows: a college classmate once described me as “a rather joyless individual,” so my best efforts are apparently a little weak. Maybe that’s why I still can’t bring myself to watch Idol: too much raw hope and adoration and aspiration, people who want to be famous actually stepping up to ask us to get involved, to wield our popular power and make their dreams comes true.
*We were seated in the third row but way out to the side, behind the camera equipment, which is usually where you find yourself when your tickets have been procured by a company that rents out cameras. I have gone to more fancy events disguised as a crew member than I am allowed to admit. (I did once prove myself, though, at eleven or twelve, by fixing a crane on a Ricky Martin video. I was the only person on set with small enough hands to reach inside the crane’s gridded exterior to get to the broken part.)