I'm sitting here watching American Idol, and seeing the damage that we--our public education system and the self-help industry in particular--have done to an entire generation (or two) of American youngsters. I saw evidence of this today in the cafeteria of my daughter's elementary school, which had two big banners on either side of the stage. One said, "You can triumph and come to skill" and the other said something like, "You can be great if only you will." This, as it turns out, is a quote from a poem by Edgar A. Guest, who in my book comes in a close second to Helen Steiner Rice as "suckiest poet of the 20th century."
Guest wrote a lot of pablum, but it unfortunately still seems to be popular pablum, and it fits in nicely with the educational mantra these days, which is, "You can be anything you want to be." Not true. Not even close. But our kids are being told this, and believing it. It is spoon fed to them every day and I, for one, am fed up.
One of the reasons "American Idol" fascinates me, in a morbid way, is the early auditions. You see the weirdos, the entitlement junkies, the tone deaf, the hopelessly clueless, the occasional raw talent, the carefully groomed for stardom...the whole gamut. Two, in particular, stuck out tonight. One was a woman who was making her third try. Very Mariah Carey-esque, which is not a style I like; my own theory was that she had a good voice but that it had all been done before. She was the aural equivalent of a William Faulkner imitator--not to equate Mariah Carey with William Faulkner (which God would strike me down with lightning for even thinking) but because there are so many bad Faulkner imitators. She got canned. She couldn't believe she got canned. She wept. She railed. She protested. "I worked so HARD for this!!" she screamed, as though that alone made it inevitable. "You don't understand!" Simon (the meanie) says, "I do understand." She left, not believing that wishing could not, at this point, make it so.
The second was a girl who was tone deaf. She was the first to admit it. The next question, and a reasonable one, was, "So why are you here?" She started to get all emotional. "I am not a singer," she said, speaking between her sobs, which precipitated some unfortunate mirth among the judges (but come on, it WAS funny)...her thinking was that she could BE the next American Idol who COULD NOT SING. Because they could TEACH her.
Because wishing can make it so. Because you can be anything if you set your mind to it. Because you can be GREAT, if only you will.
I'd love to be a ballet dancer. Unfortunately, even before I developed arthritic knees, I developed a butt the size of Toledo. Dancing was my first ambition and it was never in the cards. Fortunately, I grew up in a period before this "you can be anything" crap was being ladled onto every school lunch tray, so I got over it. Today I get a thrill from watching ballet; my early ambition informed my current enjoyment. Same thing with singing. At one point I had a decent alto voice and sang in some choruses. At some point, my voice--what there was of it--went away. It's just not there anymore. Today I sing in the car, and I appreciate, with passion, the people who CAN sing. Somewhere along the line, I also learned where my real strength lay: writing. That's the one I stuck with, and it's paid off.
These people are not going to get over it these disappointments. They're going to spend years--decades--learning the lesson that talent DOES matter. Enthusiasm counts, singing for pleasure in the shower is a lovely thing, but there are times when you either have the chops or you don't. This is Simon's role on the show, and sometimes he's mean about it, and sometimes it's obvious he enjoys being mean, and I'm pretty sure that in his private life he is a gold-plated jerk--but still: his is the voice of reason. Sometimes it all boils down to this: you are not good enough. Or, you are good in your own idiosyncratic way, but you are not what we are looking for. And if the market is not looking for you, then you do you own thing, figure out a way to pay the rent, and see where your passion takes you. Which is what artists all do anyway. Wallace Stevens was an accountant or a lawyer, I forget, but he had a day job. Herman Melville worked in the U.S. Patent Office, even after he wrote Moby Dick.
I heard a radio interview the other night, late at night, with a singer-songwriter. I don't even remember the program, but the interviewer asked the singer (a woman) what her current projects were. Clearly, he was expecting news of some tour or record deal. "Actually," she said, "I'm working in a bookstore." Here was a talented person who had not found commercial success, but pursued her art anyway. And got a day job to pay the rent, as generations of artists before her have done. The interviewer actually gasped. He reacted as if she had confessed to turning tricks on the corner. Puh-leeze.
We live in a culture which worships fame, and we have taught our children that they are all geniuses, and that anything is within their reach if they just squinch their eyes shut and wish really really hard. What we should be doing is to teach them to look for their strengths--the real strengths, not their inflated ideas of what they think their strengths ought to be, based on years of watching too many Disney Channel chanteuses (and I use the term loosely). Realism is a good thing.
I think "American Idol" can be a great teaching tool; I watched it tonight with my 10 year old (who assured me the other day, "I can sing as well as Vanessa Hutchinson [no, I didn't know who she was, either], but nobody recognizes my talent.") My job is to give her a healthy reality check. Yes, she has a nice voice. Does she have an inflated sense of her abilities too? You bet. If it takes making her watch Simon Cowell bring a few people back to planet earth ("Idiot," I just heard him say to some idiot--righty-o there) to get the idea across that wishing alone won't make it so...then shlock TV is serving a rare and useful purpose. I think we should use it. God knows it needs to be good for SOMEthing, right?