American Idol: It Begins

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Last night's guest judge: a bobblehead doll Victoria Beckham
I've never watched a whole season of American Idol before, but that's a minor detail. Actually watching this show doesn't seem to be necessary to know as much about it as the most devoted fans: Amateur singers + judges = quasi-drama. I also know that this is a transition year for the show; judge and boozy weird lady Paula Abdul is no longer around, and Simon Cowell is leaving after this season to launch a U.S. version of The X-Factor. Plus Ellen DeGeneres is going to be a judge, starting from the Hollywood round on.

Basically, it's not so much a show as a brand that viewers experience every January. Everybody knows Simon; I defy you to remember who won last year. (A guy named Kris Allen; thanks, Wikipedia!) I'm sure I'll use this space over the next few months to deal with questions of fame and identity, and how each successive winner has been less famous and relevant, and how the judges have become bigger characters than the singers, and how it's all just a pre-fab dream machine for vocalists, but for now: On with the horrible voyeurism of watching people fail!

Tuesday night's premiere was the first of the audition episodes designed to weed out the weak and let viewers revel in the losers' shameful realization that, contrary to American myth, not everybody can carry a tune. The ninth season kicked off in Boston, where 9,000 people showed up. Entire books could be written about the neuroses at work: Do they think they're actually good, or do they just want to be on TV? Is there a difference? Producers screen that crowd down to about 200 who make it through to the judges, and it's from that group that winners are chosen to go to the Hollywood elimination round. Last night, 32 people made the cut, so I'd guess they'll pick that many from the other cities.

The hour unfolded about like you'd expect: You get good vocalists and bad ones, and in between you've got banter among the judges and cloying, manipulative taped pieces that beat you over the head. Regular judges Randy Jackson, Kara DioGuardi (who joined last year to be the new, mildly less crazy Paula), and Simon won't be joined by Ellen until later, so they've got rotating "guest judges" until then. Last night, it was Victoria Beckham, aka Posh Spice, looking heavily lacquered and fresh from a concentration camp. She added nothing at all to the proceedings, likely because she doesn't have a personality. I'm looking forward to Neal Patrick Harris' ep, though. If he sings "Nothing Suits Me Like a Suit," I'll be happy.

Anyway: Most of the people were average or bad, and some were downright terrible. (I'm thinking of the confused, acne-ridden Asian boy who sang "All By Myself." That was pain.) And when I say terrible, I mean it. Their lack of talent coupled with the brain-hemorrhaging sadness of watching them fail on national TV just burned. I have to give props (that's what kids say, right?) to Ryan Seacrest, who was relentlessly affable, even with the nutbar girl who loved anime and shrieked a Janis Joplin song and burst into tears when she got rejected. "They said I was bizarre," she said to Ryan. "That's weird," he said with quiet support, as if he were an outsider. Dude has skillz.

For now, you don't need to know the names of those who got through, but you can tell who'll make it because they'll have a taped piece about their way-too-tragic home life (dying grandma, brother with Down syndrome) before they audition. Now, clearly, the producers go shoot a little thing about winners for color. But to slot it in the ep before the person's audition while they say stuff like "I hope I make it"? Dude! It's clearly bullshit drama. But that's reality TV for you.

There were quite a few people going for the neo-crooner thing, like the 16-year-old girl who blasted "At Last," so good for them, I guess. I liked them and was happy to see them succeed because they actually had style, and they knew that volume did not necessarily equal quality. The audition scenes were free of background music or crazy editing, too, letting the sheer awkward tension of the moments do the work. The show's shameless, but you can see why it's the biggest thing on television.

Anyway, I'm sure I'll act "wackier" or whatever as the season wears on and my blogging becomes a cry for help as I force myself to sit through yet another five-minute elimination ep stretched to an hour and a half. But for now, think about this: The tagline for this season of American Idol is "They all start somewhere." True, but where do they actually go?

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