‘Idol’ judges tell it like it is

“Start spreading…” was all the hapless contestant managed to belt out before he was stopped in his tracks by the merciless Simon Cowell.

Yes, “American Idol” is back for its fifth season on Fox, and the Chicago tryouts, aired last week, were once again near-obligatory viewing for the younger set.

The “news,” evinced in the preliminary round, was that there are an awful lot of very untalented young people –many of them totally unaware of their lack of talent.

That’s where Cowell comes in: He’s doing a service that apparently few parents are willing, or able, to do for their kids. He, and to a lesser extent fellow judges, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson, are unafraid to tell these celeb-obsessed, camera-crazed and/or self-absorbed kids that they are just not going to make it.

In some cases the implication — at least judging from the youngsters’ appearance onscreen — is that they may not even make it in life, let alone as singers.

That of course is part of the malicious-delicious fun of the series. But running through the show are other disquieting leitmotivs.

The “tough love” judgments of Cowell & Co. are to some extent what these contestants unconsciously crave, because parents seem to have given up every pretense of objectivity in regard to their kids. Not surprisingly, a number of the contestants came with their mothers in tow, or in some cases, it was actually the mother who had the kid in tow.

Cowell easily sussed it out.

Take one particularly spaced-out, inarticulate, and bizarrely tanned contestant, Chrystal Parizanski. Cowell not only cut the 16-year-old’s perf short but told her he wanted to meet her Mom. The mother was ushered onstage, looking almost as bizarre as the daughter. The finality of his dismissive “nice to meet you” said it all.

It’s certainly one of the factors that has made for massive tune-in, seeing “truths” getting told or inadvertently revealed, as well as witnessing the range of reactions to the judges’ put-downs.

A few contestants, like one young woman who in her spare time (from singing, we assume) herds cows, took the advice to continue with the cows with quiet dignity. A few others exited with offstage comments like “Kiss my a…” or “I’m better than Carrie Underwood. What do they know!”

We live in a “can-do” society, where practically no one has the gall to tell another they just aren’t good enough, and most of these kids have imbibed more false hopes than sodas.

Take David Radford, 17, who is seen singing “Dream a Little Dream of Me” with his friends in a parked car in some small town in smalltown America. And he says to camera that his mother is “one of the most talented singers I’ve ever heard.” Then we hear her. Her singing is as painful as his. Radford gets a thumbs-down from the judges.

The most disturbing element of the entire “Idol” phenom is that it illuminates (or inadvertently stimulates?) the fixation that so many youngsters have on a showbiz career.

Thirty years ago, kids wanted to be all sorts of things — doctors, lawyers, Indian chiefs, whatever; a few wanted to act or sing or write. Given the limited idols now hyped by the media (or worshiped by their parents), most kids now dream about “performing.”

And most of their energy is misplaced.

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