I am not embarrassed to say that I watch “American Idol.” It is a fairly new habit and won’t last long. When Simon goes, I’ll go too. Without him, the show is 100% cynical. With him, that number drops to 98%.
I’m fascinated by “American Idol,” how it invents instantly famous people while simultaneously wringing every possible source of income from a group of wide-eyed wannabes. Each year, some of the contestants get rich and famous almost overnight. Some of them gain a tiny bit of Warholian fame, enough to power the small marquees of local venues for a few months. The overwhelming majority of them go home to their lives with an interesting story to tell at parties.
Two weeks before the finale, the three remaining contestants return to their hometowns. Whatever their life was before “American Idol,” they are now pop stars. They fly in a private jet and get a police escort to a stadium, where 10,000 people they’ve lived among, essentially ignored, for 20-plus years, suddenly treat them as if they’re Mick Jagger. Can you imagine how that must mess with someone’s mind? Last year they were watching on TV just like the rest of us.
In the end, whoever wins becomes an indentured servant, trading their naïve idea of fame – borne instantly, not gradually accumulated -- for a few years of their artistic soul. When that ends, they’re free to sink (Ruben Studdard, the gray-haired guy) or swim (Daughtry, Kelly Clarkson) on their own merits. It’s a very strange arrangement, almost as cynical as the one that puts very young, attractive girls with overweight middle-aged men who drive nice cars.
This year, one of the finalists is Lee Dewyze, a 24-year-old from Chicago who describes himself as a “paint store clerk.” His appeal is Johnny Bravo-esque; he fits the suit. He’s polite, he dresses neatly but not like a square. When he ends a performance, he stands in front of the judges near tears he’s so overwhelmed by his good fortune.
His competition is another in the tediously endless line of women who think they’re Janis Joplin. The machine that makes raspy-voiced female blues singers only contains one basic mold, I guess, forcing legions of otherwise fine and creative people into singing “Me and Bobby McGee” in the hopes that, by imitating a dead rock and roll legend whose prime happened to occur when Baby-Boomer taste-makers were teenagers (literally, not figuratively, like now), they will cast a spell that transfers all of the freshness and exceptionality of Joplin at Monterey Pop to themselves. Weirdly, on “American Idol,” it always works.
It’s just not very interesting. What is interesting is Lee Dewyze, this clean-cut, ready for production boy from Chicago. For the past month, his very clean-cut, normal-looking parents (who don’t show up in a ponytail and leather vest, like the girl’s dad) have been in the audience for each show, beaming with pride.
There’s nothing quite like watching your child succeed. It’s awesome. I refer to the final scene of “School of Rock,” where the angry private school parents, having unmasked Jack Black as a charlatan, burst into the Battle of the Bands to give him a piece of their minds, only to stumble onto their children performing as a very tight, catchy rock group. Can you imagine not knowing your kid could do this, then suddenly finding out he or she has some incredible talent you didn’t know about? And that talent has a thousand people screaming with joy?
That’s how Lee Dewyze’s parents must feel right now. And that’s how Chris Ballew’s grandmother must have felt the day she stood in front of us at an outdoor show at the Seattle Center by Chris’s shockingly successful mid-1990s band, The Presidents of the United States of America. Someone standing next to her found out who she was. “You must be so proud,” she said to the grandmother.
“Oh, yes, I am,” Grandma returned.
Knowing a little bit about The Presidents of the United States of America, I found that moment interesting for one reason: two years before that day, her grandson Chris was an almost 30-year-old graduate of Brown University with no career. His success came from nowhere. Now, firmly established as Seattle rock royalty, he’s set for life.
So, too, will be Lee Dewyze about 24 hours from now. Tonight he’ll find out if he’s “The American Idol,” but at this point it doesn’t really matter. By the time the sun comes up Thursday morning, he’ll already be well into a successful – at least monetarily, if nothing else – career as a musician.
Lee wasn’t lying. Before “American Idol,” he really was a paint store clerk. You can search YouTube and find some videos of him leading a band or doing karaoke, and he managed to release two independent albums over the past few years. Essentially, though, he was 24 and working a dead-end job, chasing a massively challenging, unlikely dream on the side.
Even worse, Lee was a high school dropout. He attended Prospect High School, in Arlington Heights, Illinois, until his senior year. Then he transferred to an “alternative” school, which I understand to mean one of those places they send stoners, where class attendance is optional. Even so, he didn’t graduate.
Here’s a 24 year-old high school dropout working at a paint store. We went postal three weeks ago because the Jawa had four Bs on his progress report. You think Lee Dewyze’s parents didn’t spend some time worrying about their son?
One of my favorite parent games is to go up to people and ask them the following question: “If your child came to you after graduating high school and said, ‘Mom, Dad, I’m not going to college. I’m going to move to New York and try to make it as an actor’, would you support him or her financially?” “Trying to make it as an actor,” we know from the stylized life stories of successful actors, often means several years of living in poverty and working horrible jobs, wearing inadequate outer wear during blizzards and learning to smoke cigarettes. And those are the success stories. Sandra Bullock says, “I’d tell him to major in acting in college, then.”
I spent a few years showing up for Christmas on my parents’ dime, living in squalor and pretending I was trying to “make it” as a writer. Nobody seemed too worried. Mostly, they seemed annoyed and embarrassed. I’m not sure if they read this blog or the Sunday real estate section of The Examiner and beam with bride. Then again, writing a blog and a weekly column in San Francisco’s second-most popular daily newspaper isn’t exactly winning “American Idol” or becoming an internationally-known rock star.
When you look at it that way, four Bs aren’t a big deal. Unless they turn into a job selling paint at Home Depot.