January 22, 2004
Wishing I Was Simon, Knowing That I'm Paula
and Survivor are really the monarchs of the reality show universe, and
of them, I find Idol the most consistently fascinating. Its like
a full-body physical performed on the American Dream, and what it finds, I think,
is that the Dream has split into two very different forms out there.
meritocratic dream that Simon, Randy and Paula vigilantly guard. In it, you
can get ahead if youre good enough, talented enough, if you've got the
right stuff. Then theres the moral outrage and personal pain of the people
turned back by the sentinels. I understand most of the rejects to be saying,
Success is my birthright
everyone should be a success. Theres
a sort of weirdly egalitarian howl of rage coming from the disappointed contestants.
How dare Simon turn me away? He has no right. Who chose him?
Americans all have the right to be American Idols! Everyone deserves to have
their desire, that's the American Dream!
This is the only
way I can understand the anger and hurt that most of the losers in initial auditions
display, because otherwise there is the troubling alternative possibility is
that they honestly, deeply, insanely believe that they really are good singers
who could be major successes in commercial music. Ok, yes, a few of the folks
weve seen appear to be authentically deluded, but I cant believe
that all of them are. Theres something deeper going on here, a clash between
Seen as Idol
shows it to us, the meritocratic Dream looks like only healthy one. As Simon
Cowell reminds us, what do we think would happen if the losers on Idol
actually tried to sell their wares in the entertainment world, if we turned
on the radio and heard song after song from the miserable ranks of Houstons
Idol hopefuls? Wed all turn the radio off. Its one thing
to watch the untalented receive their just blowoff from the mercilessly funny
Simon Cowell, and another thing to be subjected to the untalented when we expect
to hear something good.
But like most people
watching, I keep mulling over my comfort level with Simon Cowell. Hes
an enjoyable, witty spectacle in his own right, but theres also a kind
of excitement watching someone be so ruthlessly honest because you realize that
you rarely see it, and at least in my case, almost never do it in that way or
for those reasons. I think Cowell is being perfectly straight and totally authentic
when he says that he sees what hes doing as a kind of public service to
an American society besotted by an unwholesomely egalitarian narcissism. But
in this season, hes clearly beginning to wonder when the lesson is going
to sink in. The pupil has received many strokes of the best from the master's
switch, but he keeps coming back and asking, Please, sir, may I have some
It all reminds
me of some of the practical dilemmas that every teacher faces when grading.
Now Cowell and his companions are dealing with an unmistakeable and unbridgeable
gulf between wretchedness and excellence, though I sometimes wonder if the early
rounds of Idol dont omit some duller auditions from ambivalently
mediocre people in between. In ten years at Swarthmore, I think I have only
once graded a paper that was unmistakably awful at the level of sheer badness
that Cowell is stomping on, and I pretty well stomped on it myself, though with
kinder, gentler rhetoric. Most of the time my lowest grades (D or F) reflect
failure to complete assignments or similar problems.
But there is this nagging issue about what one does with an ordinary essay, a bland, decent, no-foul essay, an essay that would be good enough in most professional and real-world contexts. This being Swarthmore, a highly selective institution, a bland essay is a really good essay in the wider universe of analytic writing by undergraduates in America. (As our students are fond of saying, "Anywhere else it would be an A.") Why should I grade that paper harshly? And yet, such an essay, reasonably common, often stacks up unfavorably against a smaller number of papers that are remarkable. Its a puzzle. A tightly meritocratic vision would argue for making the spread between the ordinary and extraordinary as wide and unmistakeable as possible. A more egalitarian vision would say to minimize the distance when the ordinary is good enough: why deal unnecessary rebuke to a student who has done nothing wrong, who has made a good faith effort, and who one can confidently certify as a capable person.
In practical terms,
this comes down to whether a bland, ordinary essay gets a "B" or a
"C", at least in my classes. I tend to slant towards giving the good
enough work a good grade--a "B", in this case--and having the difference
between the best and the good and the solid be relatively small. I dont
mind saying that somethings bland or descriptive or generic in comments,
but somehow I do mind coupling that to a strongly negative grade. I do mind
hurting people for what seems a subtle or small distinction.
I watch Simon Cowell and I sometimes wonder if maybe thats a mistake, wonder if it's a bad idea to be a Paula. A very select few of the people that Simon dished up abuse towards didnt seem unspeakably bad, and even he observed that a few of them might have careers as singers in bars or local theater or Broadway or weddings. Isnt that another kind of kindness, to tell people that theyre dreaming the wrong dream? Certainly it wouldnt be kind or right if you knew one of the truly wretched to tell them theyre great singers or marvelous performers no matter how much you loved them or enjoyed their company. Anybody who has to grade the work of students is running errands for meritocracy, in the end, and it ill-serves us to self-delude too much with gentle words about the dignity and self-worth of all people in all things that they set their minds and hearts to accomplish. But maybe Paula's the best of both worlds: the meritocracy guarded, while the pain dulled with soothing words.