Does 'American Idol' Exploit the Socially Awkward?

So here we are, in the throes of the audition phase of American Idol -- with Boston, Atlanta, and Chicago behind us, and Orlando, L.A., Dallas and Denver yet to come. For some AI viewers, these early episodes, chock-full of both comedy and tragedy (well, comical tragedy at least), are the best thing about each season -- more compelling than the genuine singing competition that follows "Hollywood Week." Let's face it, many of us enjoy watching the blundering flunkees who can't sing, but do it anyway for our amusement on national TV.

And so far, season 9 hasn't disappointed. Take the latest auditions taped in Chicago, when the camera zeroed in on Brian Krause, an oafish former soldier with strange facial tics and an even weirder singing voice. His song choice? "Tiptoe Through the Tulips," by "one of my favorite artists today, Tiny Tim," said Krause. "Brian, is this a joke?" asked Kara DioGuardi. But it was no joke. Krause took his rejection well, gave a resigned, disheartened exit interview, and left. But I couldn't help but wonder what it was like for him to sit and watch his segment on TV last night. Did he feel humiliated? Did he realize that the show had milked his audition for laughs?

It certainly wasn't the first time. The Boston episode, for instance, gave us sweet, effeminate Norberto Guerrero, of Reading, Penn. "You sing like a 3-year-old girl," said Simon Cowell. "You dress like LaToya Jackson. You've got a beard. The whole thing was just too weird." It was a funny moment. So why did I feel guilty for laughing? Guerrero retreated quietly, looking crushed -- and I felt like I was in on a joke at his expense, a joke he just didn't get.

But how numerous they are, these Idol wannabes who don't get it! Where do they all come from? Derek Hilton, of Bellingham, Mass., could break your heart with his well-meaning smile. So was it wrong to laugh at his moronic remarks? ("I just like how [Chris Brown] touches young kids all around this world," he told the judges, who demonstrably squirmed at the double entendre.) After Hilton got the boot -- "It was just like there were 20 of you [singing] in there, and every one of them were horrible," said Cowell -- Hilton seemed genuinely hurt. "I did my best," he said. "I hit really loud notes. I did everything so well, I thought."

And what about Jesse Hamilton, the easy target from Anniston, Ala.? Gawky, with unfortunate teeth, Hamilton enthusiastically answered Ryan Seacrest's questions about his near-death experiences. (Producers even aired a "cheap dramatization" of the incidents Hamilton described, with an actor playing the contestant as a clueless hick.) When Hamilton choked on his attempt at a Garth Brooks song, guest judge Mary J. Blige struggled against uncontrollable laughter. Millions at home were probably laughing along with her. Was Hamilton aware of this? Seems doubtful.

So here's the question: Is the American Idol exploiting these out-of-touch people? Cowell and his cohorts aren't the first set of judges that contestants sing for; they have to pass through screeners to make it on TV. How could such tone-deaf, naive people make it to the televised judging room, if not for the purpose of providing comedy fodder?

Yes, these sad sacks attend Idol auditions their own, obtuse free will. No one's forcing anyone to sing like a 3-year-old girl on one of America's most popular TV shows. I guess that's why I giggle along as the judges poke fun. But to be honest, it still feels a little mean.

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Do you think American Idol exploits the socially awkward for the sake of comedy? 

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