The Unbearable Lightness of Being An American Idol

San Antonio CURRENT

SAN ANTONIO, TX, May 1, 2003

By Laura Fries

In recent years, those of us who love music have been hard-pressed to enjoy MTV and its plastic progeny. It has been difficult to watch the evolution of girls like Britney and Christina: power-hungry she-sluts given new noses and boobs, scanty outfits, and way too much airtime. Even scarier is the realization that these girls are just puppets. Behind the gyrating thong (which is certainly distracting) are the guiding hands of the companies who fund our modern superstars. When Britney sings “Ba-da ba ba ba, ba-da ba ba ba,” Pepsi is right there behind her, chiming in with: “The joy of Pepsi, yeah.” Pop-tart singing sensations are cash-in-hand for corporations wooing the ever-fickle preteen market share. But why wait for a young Mouseketeer to groove her way to the top? Why not create your own Superstar?

American Idol on Fox has decided to do just that. As ethnically diverse 20-somethings battle it out karaoke-style on national reality television, Americans flock to the stores. In the midst of an economic slump, we fork over $18 for a cover of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” — which hit No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart last week — by the American Idol Finalists.

A quick visit to the American Idol Web site, www.idolonfox.com, exposes the forces at work behind the popular show: Visit the “Old Navy Fun and Games” section for trivia, or the “Herbal Essences Music Section” for music snippets of the program. Check out the “Nokia Phone Photos” that the Idols have been snapping of each other, or use your “AT&T Wireless Phone” to vote for your favorite contestant. Sign up for the “Win Their Wheels” contest, sponsored by Ford ˜ whose logo, come to think of it, looks a lot like American Idol’s.

For those of us who felt like prying ourselves off the couch this weekend, the “Coca-Cola Behind the Scenes” mall tour offered the perfect opportunity to interact with our favorite puppets, er, Idols. On Sunday, April 27, the American Idols came to Ingram Park Mall. No, Kelly wasn’t there. And neither was Ruben. But last season’s losers, er, disqualified contestants, Jim Verraros and RJ Helton, were in da house, as well as the smooth-talking Charles Grigsby, who was voted off the island only last month.

The temporary red stage was set up in front of Dillards and Eyemasters — complete with a red velvet couch crested with Coke‚s infamous white-stripe wave. In a small red tarp tent, three contestants waited for their cue — ribbing each other in a puny battle of wits.

“WHERE did you get that necklace?!” demanded Jim in an affected lisp.

“This one?” asks Charles, selecting the cross on a chain.

“No, the other one!” retorted Jim.

This faux homo routine continues until Charles finally selects the correct necklace (he’s wearing several): a white coral strand identical to the one around Jim’s neck. “From a fan,” answers Charles, just seconds before Jim whines, “And I thought I was special!”

“We’re both special,” replies Charles (who is surprisingly nice for a guy who greets reporters with a passionate hug and a hand placed strategically on the small of their backs). RJ, who has been quiet up until now, turns on his heel and snaps at Jim, “You’re only special if you’re nice! And you’re not nice!”

Fortunately, the boys are soon called up to officiate onstage: a small, but steady stream of mall-goers who jump at the chance to sing onstage for the chance to win a “Coca-Cola and Simon Malls” gift card in an American Idol-style karaoke contest. (Runners-up received a Coke inflatable chair.)

Nicole Mauricio, a 10-year-old from Timberwilde Elementary, nails a gift-card-winning version of “I Will Survive,” belting the love-lorn ballad with a passion not expected from a pigtailed girl in a pink sweater. Older kids get into the action too: 46-year-old Dee Dee Huff took to the stage with Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women,” breaking halfway through with a touch of Nelly. “It’s getting hot in here,” she intoned as she lifted up the top of her florescent pink track-suit, exposing her black shirt underneath.

After each contestant‚s performance, the three Idols gave lengthy, self-referential evaluations. To the third girl who performed Christina’s “Genie in a Bottle,” RJ gushed, “The three of us just decided that you are a pop star FO‚ SURE!”

“HOLLA!” yelled the red-shirted MC.

The crowd consisted mostly of shoppers who paused to sample a Tropical Sprite Remix as they watched the hilarity, but there were a few dedicated RJ fans: chubby young girls who screamed his name, apparently unaware that the man waxes his eyebrows, if you catch my drift. The Mix 96.1 booth held a drawing for the Coke Couch onstage, but its bored employees didn’t seem to be enjoying their day: “I have better things to do than watch American Idol,” one commented.

With all the pressures of product endorsement, strenuous mall tours, and that one fan, how do our Idols relax? Jim answers that very question, posed by an audience member during a Q&A: “Since we perform at all the malls and stuff, I really like to shop. Bowling and stuff, that’s fun. Dancing and stuff, that’s fun.”

But the boys manage to stay humble, despite all the fuss. “If you forget where you came from, of course you‚ll be bigheaded,” Charles says solemnly. “You can’t forget that you were nothing before this.”

THIS STORY

was published in the last page of the San Antonio alt-paper, traditionally reserved for quirky essays, social commentary, and other rotating bits of epherma.