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George of the Jungle 

Thursday, May 8 2003
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Illustration by Peter Bennett

When George Bush made his daredevil landing last week on the USS Abraham Lincoln — an aircraft carrier obviously chosen to give him some Great Emancipator mojo — the event’s iconography came straight from Top Gun, but its essence was worthy of Hot Shots! Everyone knew the whole thing had been choreographed to provide the president with big-dick footage for his 2004 re-election commercials. Reducing the sailors to extras in the war they actually fought, Bush wrapped himself up in the bright banner of their triumph. He knows that America likes winners.

Rupert Murdoch’s minions know it, too. Even as Fox News portrays Saddam’s ouster as being only marginally less heroic than World War II (and with much cooler visuals), Fox’s American Idol 2 doesn’t merely grab millions of viewers — it keeps reassuring them that they’re players in a hit show. A couple of weeks ago, smirking host Ryan Seacrest, who resembles a tree slug impersonating the MC in Cabaret, welcomed us with exciting news: American Idol 2 wasn’t just the highest-rated program, but a song by the contestants, “God Bless the U.S.A.,” was the number-one single, and the new album by last year’s winner, braying Kelly Clarkson, had reached the top of the charts. The studio audience roared, thrilled to feel itself at the center of — what? Bush culture?

By now, everyone is aware that America has become a two-tier society in which CEOs make 200 times more than their workers (it was only 40-1 in 1980) and political candidates woo wealthy contributors but scrupulously avoid even mentioning the poor. What makes the Bush administration distinctive is its embrace of a philosophy we might dub Populist Social Darwinism. It boasts of returning power to ordinary people (“we want to give you back your money”), then pursues policies that will produce a few highly visible winners and unravel the social safety net, leaving the majority of people to fend for themselves.

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Naturally, such political values don’t flourish in a vacuum, and it’s no surprise that today’s most memorable TV shows are reality programs such as Joe Millionaire, The Bachelor and, of course, the aptly named Survivor, all of which are essentially Darwinian games of selection, extinction and survival. Supreme among them is the riveting American Idol 2, whose calculated junkiness is so transcendent that I can’t decide whether to be aghast or genuflect. The show succeeds in taking the hoariest of ideas — the old-fashioned talent contest — and transforming it into the mirror of our national life.

One must envy the cunning (or luck) that led its producers to scuttle the first word of the original British title — Pop Idol — and replace it with “American,” a depleted adjective suddenly reinvigorated by 9/11. As it turned out, the renewed patriotic flourish of this word could hardly have proved more fitting. The winners of American Idol aren’t so much genuine pop stars, who succeed through the mysterious workings of talent and mass taste, as they are manufactured American idols. In the end, success has far more to do with fulfilling cultural fantasies than knowing how to put across a song.

You don’t need to be a music whiz to understand this. You need merely listen to Joshua Gracin, one of the four remaining finalists, who’s been hailed in Entertainment Weekly for his “Garth Brooks twang.” Wrong. There’s only one striking thing about the 22-year-old Josh: He can’t sing a lick. Yet week after week, the public votes to keep him on the show, even as affable panelist Randy Jackson declares that Josh’s pitch was too sharp and fussy Simon Cowell gripes that a singer so rotten wasn’t kicked off the first week. (What a masterstroke of cliché to make the truth-telling villain a bitchy Brit!) But Josh does have two things going for him. He’s a Marine and this is wartime. And evidently that’s enough in the current climate. “When Josh crooned the first few lines in the group’s ‘God Bless the U.S.A.’ performance,” wrote E.W., “he left no doubt that he’s proud to be an American. And we should be proud to have him as an Idol.” Josh may not have the stuff of a real idol, but he’s got a uniform to prove he’s American.

So are the other contestants, of course, but some Americans are more equal than others. After the April 30 show, a friend who’d never seen the series called to ask, “Is it just me, or is that show blatantly racist?” Actually, neither. From the beginning, one of American Idol’s scariest features is watching this country’s invisible voters boot off accomplished black performers in favor of lousy white ones. This may have reached its nadir last week, when the talentless Josh was one of three “safe” contestants while the two dark-skinned African-Americans, single-named Trenyce and mountainous Ruben Studdard, were made to sweat — one of them had been voted off. The shocker was the possible elimination of Ruben (one comes to know them all by their first names), a Luther Vandross in waiting who is so clearly the competition’s best singer that the panelists were rolling their eyes and suggesting, not all that subtly, that the public needs to kinda, you know, vote honestly.

This isn’t to say that last week’s vote was an overt racist attempt to knock black singers off the show, though such feelings are doubtless part of it. At my parents’ lily-white retirement home in the Midwest, all the golfers root against one guy. Guess who? Still, the show’s skewed balloting probably has more to do with an insidiously casual racism based on familiarity and comfort. Just as NFL owners pass over promising black coaches in favor of white retreads with whom they feel socially at ease, so perhaps American Idol 2’s viewers tend to vote for the contestants who somehow seem the most like themselves — or their dreams of themselves. Which tells you something about the demographic for flag-waving “event” television. If this show were broadcast on wigger-happy MTV, both the music and the voting would have a different racial cast.

In the end, Ruben lived on to sing again, and Trenyce, who may now want to reclaim her real name, got the hook. But she didn’t depart without doing her bit to fatten the Murdoch fortune. It’s part of the diabolical genius of American Idol 2 that the contestants aren’t merely enlisted into commercials for the show’s sponsors — you know, Ruben and Clay crooning for Ford — but are also used to cross-promote other Fox product. Last week, Josh, Ruben, Clay, Trenyce and Kimberley were filmed at the premiere of X2. Afterward, they told us how fab the movie was (could they have actually seen this dud?), and their praise was folded into the show. In Trenyce’s last hurrah, they even used digital effects to turn her eyes milky-white, just like Halle Berry’s Storm. As she walked off the stage for the last time, leaving behind America’s most popular Marine to mangle more music, she may well have been pondering the cruel law that still underwrites American Idol and, for that matter, American Populist Social Darwinism: survival of the whitest.

 

Connoisseurs of schadenfreude have had a delightful week. Alabama fired its football coach, Mike Price, after it was revealed he’d spent $1,000 on (and an unconscious night with) a stripper whose name, Destiny, proved all too uncannily true. Iowa State’s basketball coach, Larry Eustachy (the state’s highest-paid government employee!), was forced to resign after photos showed him at a post-game Mizzou party guzzling beer and nuzzling a coed. Dude, never kiss the chick whose boyfriend is holding the camera. While these Coaches Gone Wild moments allowed sportswriters to mount their high horses — does anyone worship and loathe their subjects more intensely than these wannabe jocks? — these stories gave me no pleasure. One shouldn’t exult in another man’s frailty. But I must confess that I hooted when Newsweek and The Washington Monthly reported that manatee-shaped Republican William Bennett, America’s former drug czar, ex–secretary of education and tireless Clinton scold, has gambled away up to $8 million in casinos over the last decade.

To be fair, for all his well-paid sanctimony about America’s moral decline — he gets 50 grand for a speech and made a small fortune from The Book of Virtues — Bennett has done nothing illegal, nor has he ever spoken out against gambling. But it does seem convenient that the only victimless vice that he doesn’t denounce just happens to be his own — the guy seemed plenty happy to imprison poor drug addicts. Still, the most pathetic part of the story isn’t that Bennett lost all that money but that he lost so much of it in the dehumanized realm of the slots and video poker. I don’t know what grandiose fantasy Bill thinks he’s living, but it ain’t exactly 007 at the chemin de fer table in Monte Carlo.

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