In Search of Instant Stardom

May 17, 2006 at 5:35 PM EDT

ROGER ROSENBLATT, NewsHour Essayist: Say what you will about “American Idol,” it has changed America or, in the very least, has crystallized a cultural change long in the making. The show is about instant fame, fame of galactic proportions.

“AMERICAN IDOL” POTENTIAL CONTESTANT (singing): Oh, say, can you see?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Tens of thousands compete, most with little talent except for self-humiliation.

From fame to forgotten

"AMERICAN IDOL" POTENTIAL CONTESTANT (singing): Like a virgin...

ROGER ROSENBLATT: A dozen or so are eventually chosen. The many become two. And then there is one, as the song in the chorus line puts it, one singular sensation. What happens to that one? National attention for a year or two, and then a likely fade to a little more than zero.

Of the hundreds of thousands who have yearned to be the next "American Idol," only Kelly Clarkson has really made it big. Compared to odds like that, the chances offered on the latest and most mindless TV show, "Deal or No Deal," look pretty good.

Yet these two programs are linked thematically as they are to all the so-called reality shows...

JEFF PROBST, Host, "Survivor": Survivors ready? Go!

From showbiz to the news biz

JEFF PROBST, Host, "Survivor": Survivors ready? Go!

ROGER ROSENBLATT: ... "Survivor," the makeovers of house and face, and many others, because ordinarily obscure folks are converted to people who are suddenly seen.

CABLE NEWS GUEST: It absolutely is a cult. They use brainwashing. They use terror to control these kids.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: And those shows, in turn, are connected to phenomena outside show biz, such as the relatives of crime victims appearing for TV interviews immediately after the crime, and films of the crimes themselves, from a surveillance camera pointed at a thief in a store, to cameras mounted on police cars, to a camera present even at the house where the Duke University lacrosse team made the news.

Every life is public

In the 21st century, every life is public. From publicity to fame, one small step. The lesson seems to be that nothing is required of personal achievement, but simply hanging around, no training, no natural gifts, no work, certainly.

The kid foresees status and riches leading from playground basketball to the NBA, though if he thinks about it he knows the odds there, as well. "But if I'm good enough, and if they notice me."

In some ways, we're living the modern version of Lana Turner being discovered on a stool in Schwab's drug store. "Surely, someone out there will make us a star, don't you think? Just keep that camcorder running."

Harmless? I'm not sure. The trouble with believing in the big, impossible dream is that it diminishes the importance of the small and possible ones: education, a trade, a skill, a job. Such things don't come with stretch limos and groupies, but they are the stuff of a satisfying and useful life.

"The beat goes on..."

SIMON COWELL, Judge, "American Idol": Houston, we have a problem.

"AMERICAN IDOL" POTENTIAL CONTESTANT: Is there anything I could improve on or anything?

SIMON COWELL: Yes: Don't sing again.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Simon Cowell is known as the meanie judge on "American Idol" because he tells most of the contestants to go home.

SIMON COWELL: There is only so much punishment a human being can take.


SIMON COWELL: No, I can't.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Of course, he has it both ways, debunking the illusion he profits from. But he's right, which is why the audience boos him.

SIMON COWELL: Whatever you think about it, it was grotesque.

PAULA ABDUL, Judge, "American Idol": Oh, stop it!

RANDY JACKSON, Judge, "American Idol": Not grotesque.


KELLY CLARKSON, "American Idol" Winner (singing): Some people wait a lifetime for a moment like this...

ROGER ROSENBLATT: "Some people wait a lifetime for a moment like this," sang Kelly Clarkson when she became the first "American Idol." A lifetime? You mean deep into your teens? Had Ms. Clarkson been the last "American Idol," the story could be sweet.

But the beat goes on. And millions -- millions -- awaken every day actually believing that life is luck and consists of the noise of eternal applause. Could this be your day?

KELLY CLARKSON (singing): Some people wait a lifetime for a moment like this...

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Not a chance. I'm Roger Rosenblatt.