Idols "Give Back"

Last night was American Idol’s second annual edition of Idol Gives Back—a 2.5 hour telethon extravaganza in which the Idol finalists (eight are left) are joined by scores of celebs, musicians, and—of course—Bono, to raise gobs of money for a couple dozen charities. When they first did this last year, I was pleasantly surprised to see such a successful (and relentlessly money-grubbing) TV megahit using their unprecedented exposure to raise money for charity. What could be wrong with that?

In watching it last night, however, I was left feeling rather less “inspired” and more, well, cynical about the whole ordeal. There’s something very odd about the event. For one thing, it’s the one night of the year in which Simon Cowell’s “humanity” is paraded around as if it were sincere and regular (last night he was “inspiring” a woman with Lupus). But then later he was publicly skewered by Jimmy Kimmel (unloading about Cowell’s man-boobs and v-neck T-shirts), apparently to keep the “Simon is to be hated” continuity in check. Are we to emulate or loathe Simon? I’m not sure.

Or maybe it’s just that the whole thing felt so formulaic and emotionally contrived. Why did I wince during a segment in which all-American girl Reese Witherspoon promotes the Children’s Defense Fund “freedom schools” initiative in New Orleans (as Moby’s “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?” plays in the background)? Why is it that I really wanted to fastforward through a heart-wrenching segment in which Forest Whitaker consoled children with malaria in Africa (as Sia’s “Breathe Me” plays in the background)? Why is it that—when Gordon Brown announced from 10 Downing Street that the British government was donating $200 million to the fundraiser—all I could think about was how curiously large Gordon Brown’s ears were?

Maybe I’m just dead inside, but nothing in Idol Gives Back particularly moved me. Maybe I’m just really really cynical about celebrities who talk about “giving back” but then drop $2000/day on personal stylist fees.

During one of many “celeb goes to Africa” sequences of the show, we hear Alicia Keys proclaim the following: “If only everyone could come to Africa, I know it would change them all… It’s crazy when you think about it: how you can change the lives of people forever, for the price of a pair of shoes!” Very true, Alicia! Especially with the shoes you wear—those $400 Jimmy Choos and $900 Manolo Blahniks can go a long way in saving lives in Africa!

And what of the requisite appearance by Brad “my wife is a UN Goodwill Ambassador” Pitt? Wearing a beret and standing shoulder-to-shoulder (and shovel to shovel) with Bill Clinton, Pitt lifts the spirits of a FEMA-trailer community in New Orleans (and promotes his ambitious “Global Green” campaign to rebuild an eco-friendly New Orleans). It’s great that you’re building sustainable low-income housing in the Ninth Ward, Brad, but if you really want to help the impoverished, why not start by auctioning off your excessive array of designer clothes, hats, and accessories?

Alas, I’m probably just bitter about my own failings in “giving back.” Or maybe I’m just cranky because my ears are still burning from the mawkish rendition of the Rent rouser “Seasons of Love” by the Idol finalists (decked out in GAP Red shirts). Or perhaps it’s because I had to suffer through two performances by Miley “Hannah Montana” Cyrus. TWO! Then we were forced to watch Miley and her dad (Billy Ray) return to their Appalachian roots in Clay County, Kentucky to expose the destitution of white trailer people in the hills.

By the way, it’s no coincidence that so many of these segments feature superstar celebs going “home” to the poor, depraved conditions of their childhood. It’s a nice message of “hope” to all those who suffer: someday you might escape the shambles of your lot and become an American Idol! So funny how Idol manages to legitimize their own rags-to-riches mythology, even on a night when the attention is supposed to be elsewhere. Other predictable moments of self-promotion included a segment on Daughtry (“The biggest-selling band of last year”) playing an acoustic song in a Ugandan village, a requisite Carrie Underwood ballad performance (available on iTunes!), and shots of various Idol alums in the audience (reminder: Elliott Yamin is still selling records!).

Of course, to counteract the endless tales of disease and squalor, there was a parade of comedians (Dane Cook, Sarah Silverman, Ellen DeGeneres, David Spade, Jimmy Kimmel, Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, even Rob Schneider) to lighten the mood. And this was a nice touch—because it reminded us that this is, after all, first and foremost entertainment: pop, fluff, trifle…

Idol is a show for our pleasure and consumption, and it’s a show that knows how to make a lot of money for FOX. I guess I shouldn’t be displeased that they also know how to make money by spectacularizing the act of giving a lot of it away.