Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

American Idolatry

This may well be a "dog bites man" entry, in that it's about how
I saw something on a documentary about show-biz-aspiring kids and
their parents that I found extremely disturbing.

The Bravo channel is currently broadcasting a multi-part program
called Showbiz Moms and Dads, and I caught a piece of this last
week. As with all documentary, you can't really trust how much the
footage is being manipulated towards the agenda of the producers, but
even keeping that in mind as a buffer there was much I found as
disturbing as the producers no doubt intended it to be. One mother-son
pair being profiled disturbed me in a way that is practically haunting me.

The boy in question (about 11 years old?) wants to be, well not really
a singer or a performer so much as a teen celebrity idol. I guess
that's an obvious point, and probably describes what seems to lie at
the heart of much showbiz ambition. But in this case the footage of the
boy's performance at a local American-Idol-like contest for kids (and
some earlier footage of his rehearsing his material) was absolutely creepy.
This boy pranced onto the stage and moved about in a melange of all the
surface mannerisms of every bad performer you've ever seen with a microphone
(movements coached by his own mother). Then he began to sing in that
sort of weird-pronunciation consonant-dropping accent that children sometimes
take on when they are pretending to be a big pop star, an affect made even
worse by a strange sort of surface closed-eyed randomly expressed emotional
pleading tone. It was complete and total affectation with nothing, absolutely
nothing at its core.

On top of this, the boy couldn't sing. I guess that's cruel, to criticize
the singing of a pre-adolescent, but even most five year olds have
a sense of key and pitch (which this boy seemed to lack), and it's almost
impossible for a child's voice to sound anything but sweet (and yet this
boy managed to twist his voice so that it wasn't). His mother must have
noticed this to some extent when the camera was on, because she explained
that his voice was changing and that's a problem -- but she said that
in a way that implied it was the first time she had noticed anything she
would call a "problem", when the cameras forced her to see this.

What bothered me was that this boy and his mother (who was his coach here)
didn't seem to have any interest whatsoever in music or singing or what
you might call the art that needs to lie at the core of any form of
performance. It was painful to watch, and even more painful to think about.
Isn't there somebody, somewhere, in the lives of these two people who could
at least explain to them that being a singer is about singing, that
being liked by an audience is about connecting with an audience, that dancing
is about something in one's core movements and not about distracting
surface flourishes? Is there nobody who could hold up a mirror (and clearly
this boy is quite familiar with mirrors) and note that this is what naked
ambition looks like, and naked ambition is ugly?

It could be that the filmmakers edited out any evidence that this child and
his mother were seeking out musical experiences, that they were working on
building skill and technique and various other tools of performance. But I
doubt that.

Is my distress about our culture, about deluded individuals, about my own
artistic values, or about, simply, a truly abysmal performance by a
talentless young man who is being encouraged to maintain a sense of
self-importance? It's hard to disentangle these things.
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