Last week, American Idol morphed into a one-night-only fundraising extravaganza. The purpose of the televised charity event was to raise awareness and money for poor children in Africa and the United States. It was a brilliant idea to use the built-in audience of the highest rated show on television for a good cause, and to use the raw energy of music to emotionally connect people who are wealthy with the plight of people who are poor. The American Idol phenomenon brings in millions of viewers and millions of dollars in revenue and advertising. It attracts big-name celebrities who themselves earn obscene amounts of money. So it is not surprising that the event got impressive results--as of Tuesday night they have raised over $70 million from corporate and individual donations.
The show itself had good intentions, and was at times sincere and thought-provoking. Host Ryan Seacrest introduced video segments showing himself and the Idol judges visiting children and families living in conditions unimaginable to most anyone able to view the show on a television set. The most genuine moments of the night came when the cameras glimpsed the basic raw emotion of people affected by poverty and of the Idol host and judges witnessing it firsthand. And even set against this backdrop of poverty, malnutrition and a lack of basic health care there were a few heartfelt and humble musical performances that hit the right note.
But it turns out that it is impossible to exploit the power of American Idol to raise money for people in extreme poverty without juxtaposing extreme poverty with the incredible excess of the Idol empire. So for the rest of the of the night, these few true notes were surrounded by a string of false ones: some typical Seacrest moments, brief appearances by a handful of lip-syncing, well-dressed celebrities, marginally funny moments with wacky comedians Ben Stiller and Jack Black each doing their wacky thing, and several oddly celebratory and showy tunes. Even portions of the video segments seemed a little off, perhaps because they were set to a Top-40s soundtrack. Someone decided the anthem for poverty in Africa is by Coldplay, while in America it is by John Mayer. There is something odd about hearing Mayer sing "Waiting on the World to Change"--a song featured prominantly on a CSI episode and quite likely your morning commute--while we watch the sad faces of hungry children.
It wasn't the fault of any one person involved. People were trying to talk about unspeakable situations, so of course virtually any moment of the show that involved people who are not living in poverty opening their mouths to speak seemed horribly trite when juxtaposed with stories of dying mothers and orphaned children. And it must be incredibly difficult to approach such a somber topic on an entertainment show without sending people running to Nickelodeon or the latest Law & Order marathon. I get that the producers had a tough job trying to balance education, inspiration, and entertainment, to keep viewers tuned in rather than turning away.
Perhaps the most depressing part of the show, however, was that the producers felt entertainment and inspiration were not enough to keep people watching, that they felt they needed to dangle the possibility of a contestant elimination to keep the audience tuned in long enough to feel guilty or generous enough to give some money. As on any normal Wednesday night, Ryan Seacrest called the names of contestants one by one, and warned the audience that they were in for a big surprise. What could the surprise be? Could the producers have decided to send all six remaining contestants home and give the money that would have gone toward their recording contracts to starving children?
When Seacrest reached the last name, for a moment we were led to believe the surprise was that Jordin, one of the most talented contestants, had been voted off. Jordin burst into tears, and I felt so sorry for her that I forgot for a moment all those kids orphaned by AIDS, or forced to live in trailer parks surrounded by drug and gun traffickers. Not to worry, though--yes, the kids are still poor, but Jordin was safe. The big surprise was...that no one would be eliminated, as it would obviously be inappropriate to send someone home on charity night (but don't worry--this week things got back to normal as contestants sang Bon Jovi songs between Coke and Ford ads before not one but two of them were sent home!!!).
American Idol sells itself as a show for the masses, a show that gives anyone with a telephone and a television the opportunity to participate by voting. Last week everyone was given the opportunity to participate by giving. We were told that most people watching could spare a few dollars, and that even a few dollars would help make a big difference in children's lives. By focusing on the consequences of poverty, American Idol's giant fundraiser also indirectly highlighted the relative excess of the middle and even lower class existence lived by most people in this country. It is an appropriate response to feel gratitude if not guilt for the comfort and access to resources that we have, and perhaps a deep sense of the injustice of our excessive car-driving, mall-shopping, Starbucks-drinking habits, and all of the time, energy, and resources many of us use up on the pursuit of frivolous things. It is appropriate as an average American to feel inspired to give something or do something to help less fortunate people or to change our own lives in some way. And, last week, the show succeeded at convincing many average Americans to give away a few hard-earned dollars.
But American Idol is not really a show for the masses. It is a show for the advertisers and the producers and the big-name celebrities, designed to sell products and music and tickets. Idol's fundraiser was no different. The average American did not bring in over $70 million in one night. The bulk of that money clearly came from corporations, and from viewers who can give away in one night more than most people can make in a year. Such viewers got one special live plea from Ellen Degeneres, who co-hosted the show, and challenged all her rich friends to match her $100,000 donation. But the whole production was really for them. All those well-dressed celebrities were not lip-syncing and mugging for the cameras to get Jane in Cleveland to give $10; they were there because they are part of the elite group of people who can write big checks and appeal directly to other people who can write big checks. And it was that corporate and celebrity in-fest that made the night feel at times so wrong. It was the corporate and celebrity in-fest that drew President Bush's awkward live appearance Tuesday night to congratulate Idol for its success.
A couple of days after the event, I stumbled across the accidental juxtaposition of two stories on the IMDb news (see screenshot below). The first tells us that ABC offered to pay Rosie O'Donell $10 million per year for three years to continue as host of The View. The second says that the preliminary estimated amount of money raised by American Idol was $60 million. That's right--ABC was willing to pay a single person just under half the amount raised by this enormous event to work for three years as a morning talk show host.
The incredible excess thrown at the feet of the small percentage of people in this world who speak in hundreds and millions of dollars is at least as hard for me to fathom as the incredible poverty of the large percentage of people in this world who speak in hundreds or tens or ones. It is wonderful that a few generous people gave away millions of dollars in one night, and also sad that a few people and businesses have that much spare change lying around. For the rest of us, the real lesson of the night was not just that we can do more to feed the poor, but that we should do less to feed the wealthy.