Thursday, June 03, 2010

COLUMN: What I learned from 'American Idol'

I’ve spent the last eight years systematically avoiding “American Idol,” which is not something that’s easy to do. It’s like avoiding obesity, or Regis Philbin — you’ve got to work at it.

For one thing, the singers in the clips I’d seen were always stretching high notes in a way that I thought might cause my head to explode, like the wine flute in those Memorex commercials. Plus, judging from the number of friends and relatives who told me I should be watching it — “You’ve got to watch Idol!” was a familiar refrain from my mother in particular — I was concerned it might be part of a plot to turn Americans into pod people.

But this year, I finally jumped on the Idol bandwagon, through the same avenue I get introduced to most things these days: my kids. (This is also the reason I know all the lyrics to the Hannah Montana song “Hoedown Throwdown.”) Watching Idol is actually a great way to promote family togetherness — it turns out nothing brings parents and their children together like ranking on people who’ve just embarrassed themselves on national television.

What surprised me, though, was that much of the music wasn’t bad. First of all, at some point apparently all the contestants started playing guitars, which makes them seem much less like Celine Dion. (Can you imagine Celine Dion holding a guitar? She’d tip over.) A fair number of contestants were “bluesy rockers,” as Randy liked to call them, as opposed to scary R&B warblers, as I’d like to think Ellen might call them if she weren’t afraid of being driven off the show and stoned like Paula.

And not only did I enjoy it, I even feel like I learned from it — namely that by following a few simple guidelines, we can all be American idols. For instance:

1) Don’t be lazy. As Simon was wont to point out, pretty much all the performers were prone to “lazy” song choices and “lazy” performances, which was easy for him to say, since he got to sit the whole time. If he were so industrious, you’d think he’d come up with another word for “lazy.” (I like indolent.)

2) Be new and fresh. I liked how the show would make the performers sing songs by Elvis and Frank Sinatra, and then chastise them for not sounding current enough. It seems they were supposed to update the songs by changing the arrangements, presumably just enough to ruin them.

3) Don’t ever admit that you’re a paint salesman. This apparently marks you as a total loser with next to no hope for actual success; the only worse profession for eventual winner Lee DeWyze would have been shoe salesman, in which case Ryan Seacrest would have taken him out back and shot him, just to put him out of his misery.

4) Be in the moment. This advice usually comes from Kara, who only seems to like your performance if she can tell exactly what you’re thinking the whole time. This would not work in my favor, since what I’d usually be thinking is “Kara’s bulgy-eyed stare is creeping me out.”

5) If you have a Ryan Seacrest in your life, you can skip over him if you DVR. I mean that metaphorically, of course; in the real world you just have to distract yourself from the Ryans by doing things like reciting your grocery list in your head.

6) You only need to watch the last five minutes of the results show. I’m not sure exactly how this is applicable to your life outside of Idol, but it could possibly save you from accidentally seeing the Bee Gees.

Granted, following these rules might not turn me into a Siobhan or a Tim Urban, but I’m figuring if I try hard enough, and keep Idol in my heart, I can keep the Simons of the world at bay. Or at least my mother.

This column appeared originally in North Shore Sunday. Peter Chianca is a managing editor for GateHouse Media New England. Follow him on Twitter at

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