Talk This Way

Where's the reality for people trying out for American Idol?

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"Hell," Sartre said, "is other people." And he never lived to see American Idol. It used to be that teenage girls got to decide what was important in our culture because they spent their money on it -- one of the best arguments against capitalism I've ever heard. But American Idol all but codifies teenage cultural supremacy into law. The reality show that resurrected the career of Paula Abdul and gave the world Clay Aiken would, in a just world, be about as in vogue as a midnight screening of Triumph of the Will.

But the show is as popular as oatmeal at a nursing home. And lots of people want to be that loved -- even if it means being just as bland.

FOX estimated 6,000 or so showed up at the Edward Jones Dome last Sunday to try to make themselves the next Justin Guarini or Kelly Clarkson. (Remember those two? I was tempted to just plug in some random names, as in: "to be the next Fatty Arbuckle and Gerald McBoing Boing." And you'd nod your head and say, "Which season was that?")

The hopefuls wore their peacock clothes, their shiny shirts and spangles. With their makeup on and hair done, they looked like they hadn't been sleeping on the sidewalk Friday night. But they had. Downtown St. Louis hosted some of the most fashionable homeless folks in the country Friday night (Saturday night, they were lucky enough to sleep on the floor of the dome). Kelly Dalton, with flamboyant dreadlocks and a shell necklace, took a Greyhound bus from Louisville, Kentucky, so he could sing "Car Wash" for the judges.

"There were maybe 3,000 of us sleeping on the sidewalk Friday night," Dalton reports. Fortunately for him, he got one of the green slips that meant he was coming back on Monday for the real tryouts with Abdul, Simon Cowell and that other dude. But most of the people left empty-handed -- two days of camping out just to get dissed by someone who fetches Cowell's coffee. Ouch. But it was hard to find anyone who'd say a bad word about the show -- or say anything original at all.

In a postmodern twist that is sure to fuel a college paper or two, the people who try out for reality shows watch reality shows. So it seems that the behavior they bring to the show they got from watching the show. I'm not trying to write the fourth Matrix here, so let's boil it down so that even Keanu Reeves could understand: The wannabes might not have all sung like American Idols, but they sure as hell talked like American Idols.

They all "learned a lot." They're "glad to have the experience." They're "striving" and "growing" -- but not one of them is "pissed." It seemed like the people at FOX were handing out scripts at the door to make sure every interview sounded the same (of course, they already do that on their news channel, so it's not much of a stretch). It was extremely pleasant to talk to them all. But something seemed missing.

There were some flashes of personality: Those who scored green sheets were begged by the crowd to sing, and I heard a killer version of "Heard It Through the Grapevine" by Brian Johnson of Chicago, who was honest enough to tell me, "I did a great job."

And 25-year-old Independence native Lakisha Lopez, who didn't make the cut, was willing to come clean about what she felt about the producers.

"They're just mean. They just want to make fun of people. I did good, but there were some people in my group who sang better than me. But they didn't get picked either. Instead, they pick this guy who couldn't even sing at all."

This is the William Hung Syndrome: As much mileage as the show can get from a good singer, it gets much more from a bad one. Without the shamefully tone-deaf, who would Simon Cowell have to make fun of? As a much better put-down artist, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, once told Cowell: "That's like poop telling vomit it smells."

But as much fun as it is to laugh at the deluded (and to be honest, it's a lot of fun), the 6,000 people at the dome didn't come to be mocked. "That person they picked -- he took the spot of someone who could have done well," Lopez laments.

That's true, but who has it worse: Someone who missed his chance at moving one rung up a very tall ladder, or someone who for one sweet night thinks his dream has come true -- only to have the rug pulled out from under him by a smirking Brit?

After Lopez left, another winner came out the door, clutching his green pass and treating the crowd to a rendition of Maroon 5's "Harder to Breathe" that was, in a word, horrible. This fella thought he had the goods, but he was monotone and reedy, and someone should have tackled him, sat on his chest and explained what was in store for him the next morning. But hell, we figured collectively, let him learn the hard way. The producers aren't the only bastards in town.

Let's have a moment of silence for Rick James. Oh, hell, let's not. A man convicted of tying up a woman and burning her with a crack pipe doesn't deserve too much mourning, even if he did write "Mary Jane." Without Dave Chappelle screaming "I'm Rick James, bitch!" for the past year, people would have barely noticed the man died.

Instead, let's have a moment of silence for Don Shipps, the Southwest Missouri bassist who died in a house fire last month. Shipps played, when he was very young, with Granny's Bathwater and went on to make a name for himself as the frontman of the Titanic Blues Band. Shipps was a hell of a musician, and a hell of a good guy who always stuck out in a crowd with his bowler and beard (being one of the six black people in Springfield helped his visibility too). He may never have had the hits that James had, but he never burned anybody with a crack pipe, either. Don didn't have the Super Freak's cash either, so you can donate to Shipps' family at any Bank of America to help with his funeral expenses.

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