Bully Idol

American Idol, Fox’s smash talent show, suffers a live, televised meltdown.

American Idol contestants: young and hungry

Unless spoilers contrive to sabotage him, Justin Guarini will win. He is gallant with the judges. He has a tender, faultless voice. Demure, good-natured, serene, he looks as if he were actually made of gold. For him, girls don’t clap and whoop; they cry out and slam their hands together in an expression of deranged, self-abusive lust. He’s a shoo-in for Fox’s American Idol, if not, years from now, for American idolatry itself.

But the superhit program American Idol has nothing like Justin’s polish. After going live on Tuesday—thrilling even Matt Drudge when it dominated its time slot with a 90-minute edition in which finalists sang fragments of Motown songs—the talent show choked last night during a half-hour “results” broadcast, again live, in which two contestants were eliminated. (May God bless the future endeavors of Jim Verraros and EJay Day.) How strange that so much tension would pervade a show in which the winner seems as clear as sunshine on a cloudy day, as they say in karaoke.

The judges’ panel, where the action is

Last night’s bad episode interrupted a great run. American Idol, which premiered on June 11, has been excellent Tuesday-Wednesday entertainment this summer. Hordes of middle-American singers have sought fame in the form of a first-prize record contract, only to discover that their fame is now, as TV eccentrics. The individual efforts at star turns have been genuinely exciting. Additionally, viewers have previewed the fate of the Whitney, Mariah, and Celine “standards” that 19-year-olds now cover, and we have heard a funny range of sweet, nervous singing voices. Best of all, we have been treated to the believable moral turbulence at the judges’ panel, at which sit Randy Jackson, a record executive; Paula Abdul, a pop star; and Simon Cowell, a carping, muscular English know-it-all—and the sine qua non of American Idol.

As an English import, the show is jubilantly indecent: Coke-sponsored, footlight-flooded, presided over by a graphic, androgynous “idol” that flaunts disturbing protean anatomy. I wonder if the universally pious Christian contestants (they all seem to pray constantly; one is even named Christina Christian, straight-up) have any problem with the show’s crass look, a monument to the cut-rate exploitative sensibility of the post-Spice Girls London pop music scene.

For our part, American Idol fans, who watch chiefly to see if we can pick a winner, have become accustomed to the show’s tackiness, its repetitions, and its garish product placement. Last night, though, the show almost lost its joy when a weird specter cast a pall over the chipper proceedings—and no one would say exactly what was going on. The contestants, the judges, and the hosts appeared traumatized, for reasons that still remain grievously underexplained.

Hosts Brian Dunkleman and Ryan Seacrest

Here’s what we know. First, one of the tuneless but beloved finalists, R.J. Helton, suffered a bruising accident on Tuesday, after the live show ended and out of sight of TV audiences. The hosts—bed-headed TV Joes named Ryan Seacrest (blond) and Brian Dunkleman (brunet)—described an accidental stage dive, referred to a back injury, and extended their condolences. R.J., sitting bravely with the others, looked grimly OK; he spoke of “finding the strength to perform.” The accident did not seem negligible. There’s a story there.

But next we got much more unsettling news. Simon Cowell wasn’t there. He wasn’t there! He made it to the The Tonight Show last weekend—but he apparently had a scheduling conflict with his own hit show. According to Brian, he’d had “to fly back to England on business.” On business? He’d better have been breaking up today’s Tube strike in London; otherwise, he had plenty of business here in the USA—doing his big show live during its biggest week. What gives?

Without Cowell around to play the benighted devil, the show was dry and bureaucratic. I didn’t realize how much Cowell’s visibly shaky mental health has contributed to the suspense of the show. His cocky dismissals of contestants (“you were average“; “useless”; “a loser”) have earned him enemies who badger him mercilessly. Even Paula Abdul, who initially came off as the conscience and class of the show, has stooped to harassing Cowell with pushy fag jokes.

Cowell, for sure, is silly; he’s willfully blind to the subtle machinery of American celebrity and insists on enforcing a naive meritocracy that he trumpets, sanctimoniously, as blind justice. But he is also a lover of pop music and on some level profoundly sentimental—and I know it’s show biz, but I don’t think he’s built to withstand this kind of vilification, which goes beyond requisite boos to open contempt and even aggression. In America, he travels with bodyguards; now he’s gone home to gunless England for what can only be an emergency vacation. There, he told the Sun, people handle his nastiness better.

Without devil Cowell, the show lost its radiance. Even Justin seemed less angelic (though he handled the news that he’d made the cut with his usual grace and even a somberness befitting the strange night). The other cast members—Seacrest, Dunkleman, Jackson, and Abdul—seemed invisible, nothing more than puffs of American air.

Thankfully, Cowell is expected back next week. It’s only in the glare of Cowell’s scorching judgments that these pop people mean anything at all. When the contestants defy him, we see the intensity and scope of their ambitions—and we wonder why these Sunday school youths have spent months praying and praying to their gods that they might become idols.