American Idol is Exploitive


I admit it. I really like watching American Idol – for the most part.

It’s neat to see people with hopes and dreams working hard and going after them. That’s a big part of living in America. That’s a big part of being human, period.

And hearing the stories and struggles that some of these people have gone through is both inspiring and touching. They are stories of hope. Of course, many of them need to go get day jobs while they keep on hoping, but they are hopeful none-the-less.  Which is good.

But I always take issue with American Idol in its opening shows each season. They travel from city to city auditioning courageous Americans willing to stand up, perform, and get judged.

One of the most “entertaining” aspects of this portion of the competition are the personalities that show up to audition. The most interesting people in the country turn out to try for a shot at being the next American Idol. Some of them act crazy on purpose – and that’s truly entertaining. Some of them are total actors just trying to do something outrageous to get on TV. And it’s funny. Bad singing and people goofing around is funny.

But some of them have some other issues going on.

It is obvious that a number of people they show each year have psychological or social disabilities. They truly believe they can sing. They believe they are gonna be the next American Idol. And they act a bit strange. Or they talk funny. Or they have a hard time relating to people.  It’s obvious they have a hard time perceiving what is really going on.

Yes, it’s a competition. And if they aren’t good enough to make it then they shouldn’t make it. That’s the real world. But there’s something more questionable going on here.

There is a lengthy process contestants go through in this audition. They must get past multiple early rounds of judges before they even get the chance to appear on TV in front of Simon, Paula and the gang. This means that in order for these socially disabled contestants to get to that level they’ve “won” multiple earlier rounds of the competition.

So no wonder many of them are in utter shock when they get on TV and the judges tell them in front of millions of people that they are foolish, dreadful, and a joke. American Idol preliminary judges have graduated them to later rounds ahead of thousands of other more talented singers, pretending these individuals have a chance – just to set them up to be embarrassed on national TV. Just so Randy can laugh in their face. Just so Paula can give them some ridiculous, insincere compliment. So Simon can give them the cold hard truth about how they’ve wasted his time.

Just for ratings. Just for money.  Yeah, real quality people.

And then millions of us watch and laugh at someone else’s expense. Why? So we can feel better about ourselves by laughing and pointing at somebody having a harder time in life than we are?

Meanwhile, some person – that we’ve depersonalized – who struggles with some real issues in life is heartbroken, embarrassed, and a little less hopeful than they were before. And maybe they realize we’re laughing at them and maybe they don’t.

But so what if they don’t know the difference.  That’s not how we should treat each other. American Idol judges could easily and politely turn those people down in the first round. But they don’t. First they deceive them and build up their confidence. Then they call them fools for believing them – crushing their hopes and dreams on camera in front of millions of Americans. All for a buck.

And of course, this is indicative of just about all “reality” TV shows these days. They exploit people.

American Idol needs to get back to being a talent competition. That is good for Americans. They can do without the taking advantage of those that need our help the most. And we can do without watching it.

10 comments Add comment

Caroline January 14, 2009 at 8:16 pm

The participants don’t just get humiliated in front of the American audience but else where in the world too. Yes, I used to find the preliminary rounds entertaining and hilarious but not anymore. Now, I find it painful to watch. I don’t care for those who try to be funny & just want to be on TV, and I pity those who are being exploited. Nowadays, I just try to catch the last few episodes where the real competition heats up.

Phil January 14, 2009 at 8:29 pm

Couldn’t agree more Matt. It’s sad really. But such is the American way. Look at the popularity of talk shows, made for TV court shows, etc. I actually think that these shows appeal to the masses because they serve as personal confidence boosters. Folks get addicted to the enjoyment seeing someone with worse problems than their own. Same type of semi-voluntary exploitation.

It’s disgusting TV really, across the board.

Doug M January 15, 2009 at 10:44 am


While I agree with you that AI judges are doing this terrible thing of bringing people who are not “aware” as maybe they should be and embarrassing them, I do not believe AI is should receive all the blame.

I, too, have laughed at how they embarrass these folks and especially the people who have all their faculties. I also find it sickening when the person is obviously put up in front of the judges so they can make fun of them. It’s deplorable and I am in no way excusing AI.

But let me say this, the persons that we are speaking of should have NEVER found their way into an AI audition to begin with. PC has made it where we cannot be honest with people. If I am not very good at something then I should not be lead to believe that I am by those who love me the most. Where are these persons parents, relatives and friends? Why did they not tell this person the truth?

I think the problem you speak of is much deeper than reality shows… it is really the inability of people to be truthful.

Kirsten Johnson January 15, 2009 at 11:43 am

I completely agree. What is strange to me is how people do not see this disregard for humanity, or simply turn a blind eye to it. I have watched maybe ten minutes of an American Idol show and to me it seemed more like watching someone going up on stage only be emotionally tortured than watching people with genuine talent. SOMEWHERE these people in these later rounds have gotten the idea they can sing, as you said, and sing well! American Idol has always just seemed barbaric to me, like putting the weak in with the lions in the Colosseum and then laughing at them when they do not have the ability to escape torture and embarrassment. It is just in a different form.

Matthew Warner January 16, 2009 at 12:58 am

Good insights, all! Thank you for sharing.

chelsea s. January 22, 2009 at 11:00 am

more people tuned into AI than Obama’s Inaguration speech. Which is worse? :/

lionel (acid42) January 22, 2009 at 12:12 pm

You’ve got a good point. We laugh because they’re so bad.Whoever does prelim judging has probably set these guys up for failure while the cameras roll.

I think maybe it’s time to stop watching.

ed humphreys July 8, 2009 at 1:53 pm

Exploitation with a capital E, tens of thousands of wannabee singers in every major city in the u.s. with tens of thousands of supporters paying to attend the tryouts. I think it rates up there with the ponzi schemes. It is no longer entertainment but a mania in a nation starved for decent entertainment and so many amatuer singers getting their hopes up and bypassing the traditional way to the top with local talent shows and talent searchers sorting them out.
Talent will out, if effort is expended. There are no short cuts to fame. Hard work and lot of luck.

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