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'American Idol': Inside 'Idol Gives Back'

April 9, 2008 |  7:11 am

Miley

It is said that every generation gets the telethons they deserve. The 1970s sat up through tuxedoed marathons of schmaltz and sobs, live from the Vegas Strip with Jerry Lewis and his kids. The 1980s saw the telethon break free of its lounge-y restraints and develop into a Godzilla-sized, stadium-busting monster with Live Aid. 

In recent years, telethons inspired by 9/11, the Indonesian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina were painted in bleak, somber tones, set in dark rooms where, safe from the hysteria of live audiences, the celebrity hosts spoke in a whisper.

In "Idol Gives Back," however, charity may finally have been put in the hands of producers who understand better than anyone alive just where the national heartstrings lie and just how much tugging they can endure.

If Jerry Lewis sought to kibitz us into giving, Bob Geldof sought to bombast us into giving, and the organizers of the 9/11-tsunami-Katrina events sought to shame us into giving, and if the "American Idol" producers know one thing, it is that there is nothing like a guilt-free song and dance to put an audience of potential givers in the mood.

For the crowd Sunday night at the Kodak Theatre for the advance taping of the 2-1/2-hour spectacle, the night was many parts more uplift than downer. Interspersed with the heartrending films of African orphans and Appalachian and introductions from A-list stars, the performances were clearly the stuff of the most private fantasies. Opening with a jet-propelled, bring-the-crowd-to-their-feet group number by the current contenders surrounded by the “So You Think You Can Dance” dancers, the lineup of performers was like seeing the "American Idol" deities materialize before one’s eyes, sending the legions of shrieking decked-out teenage girls into the stratosphere as Mariah, Snoop, Gloria Estefan, Carrie Underwood and (two!) performances by Miley Cyrus unfolded -- not to mention a near riot-inducing drop-by from Brad Pitt.

Stripped of the mawkish renditions of “Wish You Were Here” that have populated this decade’s fundraisers, the tone was heavily contemporary and euphoric -– far more Rihanna than John Lennon.  The revelation that for an entertainment event to achieve anything, it must first entertain may not seem revolutionary, but when one looks back at the latest round of weepers, produced and cast by Hollywood’s greatest, one realizes that in our culture, the genius of "American" Idol may be its ability -- perhaps alone on the landscape -- to do the obvious; while all around it show business flails for a foothold with esoteric contrivances, "American Idol" merely hits the nail on the head -– but does it flawlessly, to achieve dominance of the Universe.

Just as the show transformed the most hackneyed, antiquated, old-timey of formats -– a singing contest -– into a goliath, so too perhaps can "Idol Gives Back" remind those who would motivate the masses for a larger good that nothing entertains a crowd like old-fashioned entertainment -– keeps them in their seats and encourages them to lower their defenses so that the messages and pleas for help can get in.

Before the show began, producer Nigel Lythgoe declared the show’s intent to raise $100 million for charity.  When one looks at the rest of the television lineup, can one imagine any other show -– "Two and a Half Men," "Dancing With the Stars," "CSI" or "The Biggest Loser" – achieving anything on so grandiose a scale?  Can one imagine any of them even trying?

The "Gives Back" show has now become part of the Idol Industrial Complex alongside the show itself, the tie-in specials ("Idol Tonight," "Idol Extra," "Idol Rewind," "Idol Wrap"), the tour, the albums, the management contracts, the summer camp, the merchandise, the iTunes videos and the Happy Meal treats.  For a show that seven years ago was largely derided when it debuted as a desperate Fox attempt to flog ratings with a “Star Search” rip-off and mocked far and wide as an insult to the music world and the death of culture, "Idol" has become more than the savior of American culture (and record sales), with our biggest stars flocking to kiss the ring --  it has become American culture. Welcome to the Age of Idol.

-- Richard Rushfield

(Photo by Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)

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