Too Much Is Not Enough

“I am big,” sneered Norma Desmond, the superannuated silent-movie star in Billy Wilder’s mid-century classic, Sunset Blvd. “It’s the pictures that got small.” Today, Ms. Desmond must serve as the patron saint for any number of superstars wondering where the magic went. But now, of course, it’s not just the pictures that have gotten smaller. Audiences have shrunk too, and so has our interest in just sitting back and watching. When we’re not playing videogames, we’re starring in reality TV series. When we’re not starring in reality TV series, we’re blogging. In a world of niche markets and interactivity, it’s almost impossible to be big like Norma Desmond was big, and one day soon, our own disgruntled superstars will descend upon suburban shopping malls and cineplexes with AK-47s blazing.

But even as the potency of superstardom diminishes, the idea of it remains as tantalizing as ever, and thus I direct your attention to Superstar USA, an anti-talent show that aired on the WB in May and June. A deft amalgamation of Fox’s American Idol and MTV’s Punk’d, eager hopefuls who turned up for the show’s open auditions thought they were participating in a search for the next overnight pop star. Superstar was really on the prowl for karaoke Kevorkians, song-butchers so lethal they could kill classic hits in five notes or less.

Superstar employed three judges, all closely modeled after their American Idol forebears. Eighties novelty rapper Tone-Loc provided mechanical urban flava in the manner of American Idol’s Randy Jackson. (However, understanding that it is technically impossible to jam more “dawgs” and “a’ights” into a sentence than Jackson does, Loc simply played it cool.) Second-tier pop star Vitamin C was a revelation in the Paula Abdul role of MILFish nurturer: Who knew the woman behind generic hits like “Graduation” and “Smile” was so funny and appealing? Lastly, there was television producer Chris Briggs, an acerbic, leather-clad cad, Superstar’s Simon Cowell.

Together, this trio dispatched talented performers with hilarious poker-faced viciousness. “I didn’t sense there was the preparation with that song, which is disrespectful to Gladys Knight,” exclaimed Briggs to one singer. “And it’s a little disrespectful to the Pips.” Awful performers, on the other hand, were greeted with equally exaggerated deadpandering. “You made love to that song,” Briggs told a finalist named Tamara after her semi-narcoleptic performance. “You seduced it over dinner. You massaged it. You led it discreetly into the bedroom. You disrobed it. You laid it upon the bed gently. You found a rhythm.”

No matter how tone-deaf or rhythmically challenged, the performers ate up such praise like Ruben Stoddard attacking a box of donuts. Eventually, twelve finalists were flown to Hollywood to compete for a recording contract and a $100,000 prize. There, they received state-of-the-art celebrity processing (image enhancement, vocal triage, dance lessons, etc.) and engaged in more performances. Rosa, a pretty twenty-two-year-old from Mexico City, sang in a quavering soprano that transformed hackneyed pop lyrics into strangely beautiful Martian poetry. High-kicking, hip-grinding Nina Diva favored costumes that made her look like a hooker moonlighting as an aerobics instructor. Eighteen-year-old Frank, a manorexic clothes-horse from New Jersey, belted out “Survivor” in a nasal monotone while stalking the stage in high heels and flared slacks with fishnet cuffs.

As I write this in early June, the WB has yet to air Superstar’s final episode, wherein host Brian McFayden reveals the truth behind the show and destroys the visions of superstardom swooshing around inside the contestants’ fame-addled heads. At times, it has seemed like the show is actually a hoax on its viewers, with the contestants in on the gag. After all, could sweetly confident Mario, a cadaverous nerd with the dance moves of a depressed flamingo, really think he had a legitimate shot at international superstardom? Didn’t he have friends or family to give him a reality check?

In the end, Superstar USA was real: The contestants’ inventive vocal flourishes, performance tics, and singular fashion choices were too off-handed and variegated to have been crafted by some reality-show writer. Which, of course, means that Superstar USA was indeed a pretty mean-spirited enterprise, capitalizing on unsuspecting oddballs, and using predatory editing techniques and off-screen manipulation to exaggerate their haplessness and their hubris. One example: The contestants were apparently told which songs to sing only minutes before their performances, and thus didn’t always know the words. Jamie Foss, a beautifully upholstered blonde from Erskine, Minnesota, met this challenge with can-do aplomb, writing the lyrics on her hand. The producers loved her ingenuity and promised that the cameras would cut away from her whenever she needed to consult her notes. In reality, of course, they zoomed in on her hands repeatedly.

The idea that people whose aspirations run circles around their abilities deserve to be publicly humiliated for such folly gains currency with each passing TV season. MTV laid the groundwork for this conceit, perhaps inadvertently, with shows like FANatic (crazed fans meet their favorite stars) and Becoming (crazed fans don their favorite stars’ clothes and make music videos). True, these shows were somewhat subversive in relegating superstars to bit-player status and making fans the biggest stars of all.

Very punk concept in theory, it was often the opposite in practice. As everyday teens interacted with their heroes, the differences were thrown into bold relief. The superstars were beautiful, self-assured, worthy of worship. The fans were awkward, tongue-tied geeks, obvious and unsightly trespassers in the realm of celebrity.

On Fox’s American Idol, designated dream-killer Simon Cowell explicated the subtextual cues of FANatic and Becoming with bracing clarity. “You’re absolutely dreadful,” he tells aspirants who don’t measure up, because for him, it’s not enough to break bad news, he wants to break spirits too. For American Idol, the old order still holds. A precious talented few belong on stage; the rest belong on Barcaloungers, and they need to know their place. The artistic sanctity of near-gods like Barry Manilow and Elton John must be preserved.

At Superstar USA, the ruling forces are more attuned to the zeitgeist. They know that talent is just another commodity now. Sure, it may be relatively scarce on a per-capita basis, but in an age where services like iTunes put thousands of songs at your fingertips, it’s still available on-demand. In fact, there’s actually a talent glut: Thousands of expertly styled, technically accomplished Stepford singers are milling around out there who know exactly what’s expected of them and exactly how to deliver it. They’ve studied, they’ve polished, they’re suffocatingly professional. Indeed, how else to explain the popularity of William Hung, American Idol’s own Johnny Rotten, except as the audience’s collective gasp for fresh air? Gently wobbling to “She Bangs,” politely dismissing Simon’s fussy strictures, Hung reminded viewers of Punk Rock 101’s primary lesson: that technique can be oppressive and limiting—an uptight, middle-aged, British-accented drag.

American Idol remains resolutely married to the idea of talent. In contrast, Superstar USA just wanted to entertain. “Cookie-cutter pop star wannabes with good voices need not apply, because we’re looking for someone different,” declared host McFayden. “There is an infectiousness to these people that’s fun to watch,” said judge Briggs. And however conveniently such sentiments helped to mitigate the show’s inherent sadism, they were also true. If Mario and Nina Diva and all the rest had merely been bad singers, the show would have gotten old fast. What kept it engagi
ng was their personalities, their unique twists on stale pop-star conventions, their style, and their spirit. Sure, none of the WB’s superstars are likely to go platinum, but for a few weeks in the spring of 2004, they were the most interesting thing on TV—candid, vulnerable, full of enthusiasm and irrepressible confidence. Best of all, they were completely unpredictable.

They were also pretty disposable, but these days, who isn’t? While Superstar USA drew criticism for exploiting naïve dreamers—the Parents Television Council dubbed it the “ultimate sick joke”—it also poked fun at its own inconsequence in an era where superstars are a dime a dozen and loyal fans are the scarcest resource of all. Indeed, remember who got hired as judges. Tone-Loc was a superstar himself once, going double-platinum on his 1989 debut album. Vitamin C was a viable commodity even more recently, with a platinum album and five Top 40 singles between 1999 and 2001. Both are smart and personable, both have musical talent, and yet despite their successful track records, look where they are now. In her time, Norma Desmond would have been too big to participate in a low-budget, gimmicky reality show that hardly anyone watched, but in 2004, fame’s a bitch, and real-life former icons have to pay the bills somehow. That, perhaps, is superstardom’s cruelest joke of all.