The importance of being humiliated

"American Idol" is back -- which means more Simon Cowell wisecracks, more tone-deaf Mariah Carey covers, more undermedicated Pacino impressions.

Published January 22, 2003 9:00PM (EST)

The highlight of Tuesday night's 90-minute "American Idol" premiere was the performance by a captivatingly beautiful young woman, an ethnic Inuit from Alaska and a Harvard double major in comparative literature and religious studies, who stood before the judges with an acoustic guitar, shook her dreadlocks to the side and played a bitingly ironic, bluesy ballad about the conflict in the Middle East titled "What's Their Sand Doing on Top of Our Oil?"

No, that didn't really happen. But there were some cool moments. There was Edgar Nova, a sensitive young man with histrionic tendencies and an uncanny blind spot for the word "no." Young Edgar -- who by the look of it went off his meds about a week prior to his disastrous exhibition of off-key warbling at the Miami audition -- informed judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson that he had dreamed of "American Idol" glory since "before I was born."

"American Idol," the reality television program in which young Americans audition in front of celebrity judges for a Draconian record contract and a chance to become the country's next teen pop sensation, returned last night for a second season of humiliation and tone-deaf renditions of Mariah Carey tunes.

This year, the producers of the show tell us, there will be even more contestants willing to line up and camp out overnight for an opportunity to perform. And bad-guy judge Simon Cowell, the English bon mot manufacturer, will hold his tongue less and be even crueler to the participants who try his patience.

Of course, this year the contestants will have no one to blame but themselves when they receive their tongue lashings, since the show's M.O. of ritual humiliation is out there for all to see.

That knowledge was no consolation to the viewer, however, watching the tears of young Cedric Hunt, a teenager who had traveled from Kansas to Austin, Texas, to try out. After he was excreted from the audition room back into the hall with a "just not good enough, dawg" from judge Randy Jackson, Cedric explained to cloying and annoying "Idol" host Ryan Seacrest that he was stranded in Austin without a ride home and feeling very much alone, since he had no friends or family with him.

Abdul tried to let Nathaniel, a gay black man with jeans cut to look like an evening gown and a thoroughgoing absence of melodic know-how, down easy. "Honey," she started soothingly, "you sang off-key almost the entire song." Her voice grew halting. "You don't ... hear that? You don't hear that when you sing?" She turned to Cowell, becoming philosophical, as if Nathaniel had already sashayed out of the room. "I mean, because it's interesting to me, at these auditions, I actually believe he doesn't think that he sings ... off-key."

She's on to something. The hallmark of the bad "Idol" performer tends to be an enormous chasm between the perception of his or her own talent and the reality so apparent to those unfortunate enough to listen. But there are those who have ability.

Heidi, 17, wowed the judges with her good looks and voice. "There's an interesting thing going on over here at the moment," Cowell observed, speaking about the American pop scene. "Who are the role models of tomorrow? Because, and I go back to Christina Aguilera, because she's made the decision to appear as a complete slut as a role model. And you're not [a slut]," he concluded, as Heidi pondered how best to appear gracious in return for such a glowing compliment.

Ultimately, no one would watch "American Idol" were it not for the insults the three judges dole out to the worst contestants. Not that the insults are even all that witty. Cowell's best asset is his Britishness, without which his barbs would lose their potency. Still, he's hardly an Oscar Wilde antihero. But if Algernon were on the panel? Now you're talking comedy.

Cowell's best line comes when a contestant whose wife is at the hospital delivering their child makes it to the next round (aka "Hollywood") when Randy and Paula vote yes, overriding Simon's negative assessment. "I'd call her 'Lucky,'" Simon calls out, suggesting a name for the infant.

Despite the yin-yang of nasty put-downs and vapid hype, the show does serve one positive function: It dredges up freaks that otherwise would never come to the light of scientific inquiry. Much like neurologist Oliver Sacks, who toils at "the far borders of human experience" to bring us humanistic portraits of rare neurological and psychological cases, "American Idol" serves the world by showing us the breadth of our genetic diversity. And there are some strange mutations out there indeed.

In the end, one's mind wanders back to that fledgling soul, Edgar Nova. O rara avis! Possessor of such an unspeakably poor, unwarranted Al Pacino impression! Whatever happened to him, one wonders, once his plot to score a second audition was foiled and he was escorted out of the building by security? We may never know, but one thing is clear: If you see him on the street, do not make eye contact, but hasten directly to the nearest safe haven and contact the police.

(The season premiere of "American Idol" continues Wednesday night at 8 p.m.)

By Aaron Kinney

Aaron Kinney is a writer in San Francisco. He has a blog.

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