I rarely watch American Idol, but when I do, it’s with some fascination. I’m fascinated by the range of singing skills in the early stages of the show, especially the unskilled singers; how is it that we can hear so clearly when they’re off pitch, but they can’t hear it themselves? I’m fascinated by the casual rudeness of the judges in eliminating singers. And I’m fascinated by the ritual plot lines: the contestant who surmounts poverty/ illness/ unemployment, the teary-eyed revelation that winning the competition would mean everything. If you’ve seen the show, all of these elements may sound familiar to you.

I recently attended a talent show put on by a local youth group.  I loved the show, even though it was frankly not up to the standards of an American Idol performance. There were some wavering pitches, and forgotten lyrics. The ukulele player lacked a music stand, so another kid knelt in front of her with the music held up over his head, and when she needed a page turn, she tapped him with her foot. It was a relaxed, informal, happy affair. 

Because I’ve been thinking about American Idol recently, part of me watched this talent show thinking about how the judges might score each singer. When I watched this way, I noticed the insecure singing and lack of polish. I also noticed that when I watched this way I felt like an unconnected outsider. Watching with judgment took me outside of the intimate space created by the connection between the kids and their audience.  I caught the details of each performance, but missed out on the heart.

Fortunately, I didn’t watch this way for long. It was much more fun to join in the party. We in the audience listened with rapt silence to some songs, hooted with appreciation to others, and called out encouragement when the singer forgot his lines. Each kid bounded happily off the stage after his or her presentation, and no one got booted from the show.

Afterwards, I understood why I’m so uncomfortable with American Idol. It’s not just that the judges are rude or that the format is clichéd. What bothers me most is that American Idol poisons our ability to appreciate local talent, ourselves included. American Idol and shows like it put us in judgment mode, where we compare each performance against a perfect ideal. Buying into this mindset puts us in a world where only a very few lucky people measure up.

Fortunately, we can choose not to live in that judgment mode. After all, it’s not that perfect performance that’s so important in most of our lives. What most of us crave is connection. That was the gift the kids on stage gave us with their singing, and the same gift we gave them with our unqualified appreciation. This is a gift I wish for all of us. I wish for – and work toward –a world where no singer is idolized and every voice is valued. That’s my American ideal. 


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