Overcoming the “Reality TV” Stigma
It was crazy to think that I had a song, my own song, on the airwaves. Would people even recognize that it was me? How could they possibly like a song that was recorded so fast, and by such a rookie? I was scared that I wouldn’t be taken seriously outside the world of Idol. (page 167-8)
I find it fascinating that David would have those concerns fresh off of American Idol and with the debut release of his hit single “Crush.” To be sure, Idol gave him the Arch Angels, who have armed him with his sky-rocket success when that song debuted so high on the Hot 100 charts. Beyond us, the “rabid fanbase” from Idol, the rest was label and management work and a very catchy song. Still, it’s quite interesting, to me, that David doesn’t take any of this for granted. More than that, he also realizes he’s got his work cut out for him to be “taken seriously outside the world of Idol.” I’m just wondering how hard (or not) this will be. After all, David is astute enough to realize that it is, like much of “reality TV,” a real stigma. Both a blessing and a curse.
Consider: this morning, I’m reading an interview in Salon.com with “king of bad taste” John Waters, who had this to say about Reality TV:
I don’t like [reality TV] because it’s real bad taste. It makes the viewer feel superior to the people in it. It’s naked pathology, and it doesn’t work. And I think no matter how big the shows are, do people ask them for autographs? … Most reality shows on TV now, you’re laughing at them.
And just like that, Waters hit the nail on the head. To some extent, Idol alumni don’t fit neatly into this paradigm, but often they are only appreciated by Idol viewers, and let’s be real: people who admit to watching American Idol (myself included because I’m not pretentious) are usually dismissed as having the ultimate “bad taste,” even some folks calling the over-the-top adoration of certain Idols as “Idoltards.” Granted, when a Melinda Doolittle can’t win her season, or the most recent winner, Lee Dewyze, can’t sing in tune, this just lends credence to the caricature of Idol contestants and the “fans” who worship them.
And let’s not forget how incredibly hard first Idol winner Kelly Clarkson worked to shed her Idol image, even titling that breakout sophomore album, Breakaway, in a way that signaled exactly what she was doing. Not to mention runaway successful alumni like Daughtry and Carrie Underwood are appreciated by audiences who didn’t realize they were on American Idol (then again, they had the backing of Simon Fuller, who was careful to support them in such a way that they weren’t instantly looked at as Idol alumni).
There is a genuine paradox of celebrity culture that “reality TV” has complicated. On the one hand, “celebrities” are people we look up to (although paparazzi are there to show them in their worst possible light), while “reality TV” serves the opposite spectacle: it offers “real people” we could look down on. People who make fun of shows like American Idol and the contestants who participate on it, they do so because they can’t possibly imagine anything good coming from a show that gives equal attention to non-talented and pathetic attention-seekers like William Hung and General Larry Platt. It is what it is. We, as a culture, love the spectacle of people we think we’re superior to.
Such an ideology also explains why, when David Archuleta simply blew everyone away with his heartfelt and magical rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and then took longer to reach that level of magic again, he was quickly turned into a punchline. His beauty, sweetness, and phenomenal talent prevented the “average” viewer from feeling superior to him, so insecure people living in a culture that encourages mockery and cruelty did what they do best: they started nitpicking, got annoyed at his heavy breathing caused by his vocal paralysis (Vote for the Worst nicknamed him “Gaspy”), decided he was “fake” because no one is really that sweet, and labeled him “creepily dad-dominated” (I’ll never get over the fact that some media critic uttered such words and expected to be taken seriously after that).
After such a stigma, placed on top of the stigma of just simply being on American Idol, I think David is the bravest person out there. I love his self-awareness and his realization that, despite this stigma of appearing on a reality TV show (which is really hard to shake because “reality TV” does create people whom audiences want to look down on), he can still overcome it by being true to himself and being determined to make really good music.
Having read Chords of Strength, I am convinced that David has the true conviction needed to really excel and become one of the great ones. We all have to start somewhere, and David’s acknowledgment that Idol is but a small window of opportunity that can be smashed open indicates that he will rise above it all. Slowly but surely.