January 22, 2004

Wishing I Was Simon, Knowing That I'm Paula

American Idol and Survivor are really the monarchs of the reality show universe, and of them, I find Idol the most consistently fascinating. It’s 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.

There’s the meritocratic dream that Simon, Randy and Paula vigilantly guard. In it, you can get ahead if you’re good enough, talented enough, if you've got the right stuff. Then there’s 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”. There’s 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 we’ve seen appear to be authentically deluded, but I can’t believe that all of them are. There’s something deeper going on here, a clash between two Dreams.

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 Houston’s Idol hopefuls? We’d all turn the radio off. It’s 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. He’s an enjoyable, witty spectacle in his own right, but there’s 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 he’s doing as a kind of public service to an American society besotted by an unwholesomely egalitarian narcissism. But in this season, he’s 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 more?”

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 don’t 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. It’s 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 don’t mind saying that something’s 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 that’s 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 didn’t 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. Isn’t that another kind of kindness, to tell people that they’re dreaming the wrong dream? Certainly it wouldn’t be kind or right if you knew one of the truly wretched to tell them they’re 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.