OUR CORNER: Let’s evaluate what is important

“American Idol” should be retitled “American Idle” because it sits millions (30 million for its new season’s premiere) in front of their televisions while they imagine fame and fortune coming quickly and easily.

If the U.S. government were in the business of state-run programming, “Idle” would be its most ingenious creation. The brilliance behind the show is its ability to disguise an infomercial for the American Dream as harmless entertainment.

The concept of the American Dream is counterintuitive since it is a dream and not reality. I recognize a dream doesn’t always apply to something imagined in a state of unconsciousness, but may be used to refer to a lofty goal, but the fact remains a dream is something few will achieve. This is not to say dreams should not be pursued, but people would be better off if they tempered dreams with a dose of reality.

The term American Dream is credited to James Truslow Adams, who coined it in his book “The Epic of America” in 1931.

In his book, he viewed the American Dream as the opportunity for people to succeed based on their ability independent from their position in society.

At some point the concept changed to refer less to the rewards of hard work and more to the instant gratification of stardom and riches. When Americans decided it took too much effort and too much time to become a successful movie star or musical artist, the concept arose of being plucked from obscurity by appearing on a talent show.

What once took years of practice and dedication now only requires the time to travel to an audition, wait for a turn to sing and hear if they made it or not. When I was coming of age, dreams were balanced with a healthy dose of realism. Children were told it was wonderful to dream big, but important to prepare for what happens if their dreams weren’t manifested into reality. It was understood the likelihood of attaining superstar status in the NBA or the music industry was slim. Parents and educators didn’t tell kids this to crush their dreams, but rather to prepare them for the likely disappointment which awaited and therefore soften the blow. This way if they didn’t make it, they would know they gave it their best shot, and would follow another career path.

Instead, week after week a parade of aspiring singers audition on the show and when they’re told they aren’t going to the next round, they react as if they were told they could never see a loved one again. This would be somewhat understandable if at least half these contestants had a modicum of vocal talent.

“I want this so bad,” a contestant often says with tears in his or her eyes.

Simon Cowell recently nailed the problem with this when he told an egregiously talentless dreamer that he wanted to fly to the moon but wasn’t able to. Cowell admits something everyone needs to recognize in themselves, which is they have limitations. There is no shame and no defeat in admitting we don’t have the ability to do something.

I want to have children with Keira Knightley, but I recognize this dream’s grandeur and don’t go about my day expecting to bump into her at Starbucks, nor do I cry myself to sleep at night because she didn’t ask me out, thinking, “I want this so bad.”

Encouragement and ambition are healthy, but delusion can be an obstacle to success by keeping someone preoccupied with something which will bear no fruit.

People used to discover their talents and channel them into a career suited for them, but now they pick a career and try for the talent. If the talent isn’t there, they just fixate on how badly they want it, thinking that’s enough.

Even more disturbing is the statement by so many contestants that this is their last shot. More than a few contestants come from an impoverished background and the show serves as what they view as their final opportunity to do something with their life and improve their circumstances. Families with several mouths to feed and what are likely few prospects are shown waiting for their child to emerge from the audition room with a ticket to Hollywood and presumably Easy Street.

This is the dark side of “American Idol.”

A cruel situation exists when someone from a poor region in Tennessee sings in front of a panel of multi-millionaire judges who will determine whether to help another destitute wannabe star out of indigence.

The show dangles this life-changing moment like a carrot before a donkey and viewers continue to walk toward it unaware they’re being teased.

The American Dream was not meant to represent a quick extraction from poverty and a faster plunge into wealth, but the opportunity for everyone to work and achieve a comfortable living based on their merit. The equal opportunity may always have been an ideal, but now it’s almost as improbable as the dream itself. For years America has been becoming a two-tier society in which there is a shrinking middle class. I often am frustrated with people who rush to support the middle class and largely ignore the poor, but the fact is when the middle class is gone, more of them will have joined the ranks of the poor than will have ascended to the ranks of the rich.

To be fair, there are other shows giving this misrepresented view including “The Real Housewives” series, “The Hills” and “The Bachelor,” which all in their own way show opulence in the hands of many who didn’t earn it. “The Bachelor” features lavish vacations and stays in exquisite hotels with such frequency many viewers are likely to assume it is commonplace for people to experience this lifestyle.

The reality of course, is much more dire, since as of November 2009, more than 36 million Americans, or one in eight, used food stamps to buy their groceries.

It isn’t just TV shows responsible for the illusion of a wealthy society. When the program isn’t on, viewers are subjected to a series of commercials (at a volume absurdly higher than the show) which further perpetuate the mythology of a society in which a profligate lifestyle isn’t problematic because, hey, it’s America and everyone can afford it.

We’ve all seen the commercial in which the couple eagerly views their computer screen together, seeing a bargain on a five-night vacation to Disneyland with the husband proudly saying, “We can do that.”

I believe the point this advertisement wants to drive home is not whether the family actually can afford the trip, but the concept that they deserve the trip and should take it, because after all, this is America.

The problem is most people cannot afford this trip and while many do deserve it, deserving and responsibly affording are sometimes mutually exclusive.

Nevertheless, while under the influence of this drug of promised wealth dealt by “American Idol” people will buy those airfare tickets, the latest cell phone and this week’s iPod with their credit card.

When I wrote at the beginning of this column I could see “American Idol” as a form of state-run television it is because it would be in the government’s interest to keep its citizens’ heads turned toward the thrill and hope of riches rather than focused on the existence and causes of poverty. What people need to start doing is look at why so many view an audition on TV as their last hope of getting out of poverty and look at how this can change.

President Barack Obama gave his State of the Union Address Jan. 27 and spoke of keeping a college education affordable and stated health care reform is still needed. These are important measures to improve society and reduce the perpetuation of poverty, but more people were riveted to Steve Jobs’ unveiling of the iPad, with eyes gleaming like a child’s on Christmas morning. They can always charge it on their cards when it hits the market.

Until people realize the importance of eliminating the perpetuation of poverty and put a greater priority on education and social equality than instant fame, creativity and ambition will decline as the need for food stamps rises.