The first ads announcing next year's American Idol season have just started showing on TV. The dazzling lights, shots of Simon Cowell scowling, smiling, staring ... and footage from those amazing auditions during which folks without of a ghost of a chance, and that's putting it nicely, react with shock and rage when Cowell and his fellow judges reject them.
Arguably the most popular aspect of one of the world's most popular shows, the American Idol auditions are striking because they reveal the total disconnect between the singers' talent and their perceptions of their talent. They think they're good enough to record chart-topping CDs. They think they're good enough to be assessed by industry professionals on national TV. They enter the audition room unaware that their performances will be aired not as art but as comedy. And millions of snickering viewers wonder: Can these people not hear themselves? Who encouraged them to sing in public, much less to believe they had a shot at stardom? Because somehow, somewhere, sometime in their lives, these auditioners were told things that filled them with impossible pipe dreams.
I call it Mirror, Mirror Syndrome.
In the fairy tale "Snow White," the vain queen gazes expectantly into her looking-glass and intones: "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?" Obediently, the mirror tells the queen that it is she. For years and years it says so, until one day the mirror replies that the queen's seven-year-old stepdaughter Snow White is fairer. The queen flies into a homicidal rage. These days, the mirrors are parents and teachers who think they are helping us, raising our self-esteem, by saying: You are a star. And anything's possible. In her book Generation Me, psychology professor Jean Twenge calls "anything's possible" our era's new mantra. She grew up hearing it herself. "Can little girls grow up to be mathematicians who are also supermodels who are also astronauts?" Twenge writes, mimicking the wishful thinking. "Of course! Anything's possible!" Barraged with praise, the young are blinded, hypnotized and paralyzed. Twenge's book includes an anecdote about a young man fresh out of college who, almost immediately after being hired for an entry-level position at a large firm, "told a startled manager that he expected to be a vice president at the company within three years. When the manager told him this was not realistic (most vice presidents were in their sixties), the young man got angry with him and said, ‘You should encourage me and help me fulfill my expectations.'" What mirror on what wall gave him that idea?
In a 2007 Pew Research Center survey, 81 percent of 18-to-25-year-olds declared that their "top goal" is "to get rich"; 51 percent asserted that their top goal is "to be famous." Some respondents marked both "rich" and "famous" as their top priority. Those who seriously, not just in fairytale fantasies but seriously, believe that they are meant to be rich and famous will feel devastated if they become not stars or even executives but, say, stagehands or sound engineers. Social engineers have experimented on generations of children with the anything's-possible mantra. The results, both at their best and worst extremes, are what fuel American Idol. What makes this show (and I'll have a lot more to say about it once the season begins -- just try to stop me) so popular is that it forces its participants to recognize their own strengths and weaknesses. As a singing competition judged by music-industry professionals on national TV, it promises blunt honesty. And -- hypnotized by Mirror, Mirror Syndrome -- we have as a society become so used to avoiding and denying blunt honesty that we are, as a society, muzzled and gagged. And deep down we resent this. Because at some level we realize that accurate judgment is crucial. It reveals our strengths and weaknesses, and until we see these clearly we will forever flail and wander, lost. Self-awareness, forced upon us American Idol-style, is a magnificent even if unwelcome gift.