American Idol: From "Pants on the Ground" to Breasts in the Air

For a show that’s typically categorized as reality television, American Idol has at best a strained relationship with a little thing called reality.

As Sinatra sang “My Kind of Town,” last night’s show opened with a heavily enhanced montage of Chicago, all cobalt skies, glistening El trains, and swearing and rejected singers. Nice. From there, we traveled back to President Obama’s election-night speech, at which point Idol used “Yes we can” as a poignant transition between the dream of a better world and the dream of catching a little primetime exposure.

Sounding more like January Jones than James Earl Jones, Ryan Seacrest sought the properly solemn tone as he said of the President, “His influences have been felt all over the country, and today many of the Idol hopefuls are following in his footsteps.” If that’s the case, next fall’s first-year law class at Harvard should be a doozy.

I’m sure President Obama took great pride in knowing that he'd served as the inspiration for Idol’s latest version of its weekly Cirque du So Lame. There was Brian Krause and his prancing version of “Tiptoe Through The Tulips,” which proved there is only one Tiny Tim (and for good reason, too). And clearly after reading Obama’s The Audacity of Hope, “boob boxing” Amy Lang glanced down and decided to do a little bit of community organizing of her own—with visions of future summer stock productions of Hairspray dancing in her head.

In one week, we have gone from “Pants On the Ground” to “Breasts In the Air” as Idol sought to anoint its next viral superstar. As I watched “Pants,” I predicted to friends that General Larry Platt was a lock for an encore on the finals show, but in no way did I imagine that his little ditty would lead to millions of YouTube hits. Even more miraculously, "Pants" so inspired Jimmy Fallon that he actually did something funny.

Idol is highly selective in its use of reality. Last night we learned of gold ticket winners overcoming asthma and a divorce in the family—difficult for talented contestant Katelyn Epperly no doubt, but hardly the most compelling television. Now Platt, he really had a story, which despite the months between the Atlanta auditions and the broadcast, Idol either never uncovered or simply didn't bother to spotlight. He’s not just some crazy old man in the neighborhood. As we have since learned, that title of General dates back to Platt’s days as a civil rights activist.

Right, I know, it’s just Idol and maybe because Chicago is my hometown I was more aware of all of the disconnects. Mercifully, we didn’t get Victoria Beckham or some variation of a Jonas brother as a judge, but considering Chicago’s musical legacy, I’m not sure how country-pop superstar Shania Twain ended up as guest judge. While Randy referred to Kanye West, we heard nothing about the blues (why no “Sweet Home Chicago”?), Chess Records, Motown predecessor Vee-Jay Records, or Smashing Pumpkins and the Wicker Park scene.

All ancient history I suppose, just like the civil rights movement or, for that matter Kris Allen. But we did learn that Chicago was “the jewel of the Midwest” and “the candy capital of the world,” two things that many native Chicagoans, including me, had never heard before. Add it all up and it was a rough night on Idol.

At the end of the show, I turned to my wife and asked, “was it me or did that feel far longer than an hour?” “Yes it did,” she said. As for last night's contestants, with a few notable exceptions and even with some presidential inspiration, no they couldn’t.

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