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May 25, 2011

Culture: ‘Idol’ chatter

I rise today in defense of “American Idol,” which crowns a new winner this week.

This is no outtake from the annual LEO Fake Issue, no cheap provocation to get your blood pressure up. This is the real deal.

For starters, the show is about naked ambition. I like that. There’s something universal about wanting to be a star. Granted, an endless procession of self-deluded dupes must get weeded out along the way, and they’re played for laughs. So what?

Some people can sing. Under pressure. They wait in line for a cattle-call audition. Some come back months later to sing 15-second a cappella blurbs for celebrity judges. Some go to Hollywood, where they’re pitted against hundreds of other craven suck-ups who’ll smile in your face while secretly wishing you ill. It’s boot camp — sleep deprivation as sport.

Once the show moves to real time, big names work with the kids. In seasons past, that was typically someone different each week. Singers would all have to do a Neil Diamond song, for example, and he’d work with them individually. This year, impresario Jimmy Iovine is the weekly arbiter, with help from folks like Don Was and will.i.am. “Jimmy Iovine is on ‘American Idol’?” one of my discerning friends asked incredulously. Well, yes he is. And Iggy “Bleepin’” Pop performed one week, too.

“Idol” can tell a story. Even during the early rounds, producers zero in on interesting personalities and follow them (with cameras rolling — always rolling) back to their civilian lives. Years ago, as I recall, there was an African-American girl from the rural South. She was plus-sized — she played on her high school football team, with the boys, on the offensive line. She cared for her invalid mother. She couldn’t sing worth a damn, but she made me cry. (And be honest, when the dude came in and sang “Pants on the Ground” for the judges, didn’t he say what you’ve been dying to say for a long time?)

This season is nothing special. There were some interesting characters, but probably no Carrie Underwoods. I liked Casey Abrams from the moment he brought a vocoder to his audition. He sorta resembles Jim James. He did Nirvana and a weird cover of Screamin’ Jay’s “I Put a Spell on You.” He ignored Iovine’s advice and played a jazz song while accompanying himself on upright bass. Ballsy.

I liked James Durbin. He’s got Tourette’s. He was bullied as a kid, and he seemed to be wiping snot half the time. He sang Judas Priest and his touching version of Harry Nilsson’s “Without You” reminded me what a great song it is. He was sweet and courageous.

And I grew to like Haley Reinhart, who was voted off last week — but not before performing Zeppelin’s “What Is and What Should Never Be” with her dad seriously rocking a Les Paul. That’s cool.

As for the final two, 16-year-old Lauren Alaina is too shy, while Scotty McCreery, all of 17, is a nice kid with a nice voice who makes Limburger look like Kraft Singles. (Scotty did figure into some interesting moments. During the Hollywood round, when contestants had to partner up for group performances, he got dissed by a dude who was too full of himself. Scotty got the last laugh but didn’t gloat. And recently, when Lady Gaga counseled the genteel Southern boy about staying on the mic — think about sticking your tongue down your girlfriend’s throat, she says — I thought Scotty’s head might explode. Sublime.)

I know it’s fashionable to look down on that cesspool of reality TV, and that “Idol” is arguably responsible for the onslaught that has ensued in its wake. But I differentiate between shows that reward merit and those that simply stick a camera on narcissists.

Newton Minow, who cautioned us 50 years ago about the looming wasteland of mainstream TV, was prescient. I get that, and I’m not suggesting you quit reading books or patronizing the Louisville Orchestra. But if you grew up watching “Leave It to Beaver” (or “The Office”) and listening to Bob Dylan (or Kanye West), you’ve inhaled the exhaust of that star-making machine.

So, you know, get over yourself.