I have loved and faithfully watched American Idol since the first summer season. I vividly remember the moment I heard Kelly Clarkson sing and found myself pausing in the middle of mindless channel surfing, arrested by such genuine talent in such an unlikely place. That was five years ago, before anyone knew the show would become a ground-breaking popular culture phenomenon. Maybe that’s why I have a sympathetic view of its attempts to raise money to help children in poverty.
There was shallowness and narcissism in “Idol Gives Back,” from the corny jokes and gratuitous shots of dancing celebrities to the unnecessarily cruel final revelation of the “most shocking results ever”: the decision that none of the contestants would be cut that week. It is easy to understand how appalling this must seem to anyone who tuned into the show for the first time.
But American Idol is a television show, not a church denomination or a global development organization. They had no obligation to address these issues at all. Has there ever been a series in television history that has voluntarily raised over $60 million dollars when it could have been recycling dirty jokes and laugh tracks? The show’s approach to national and global poverty may have been condescending and self-congratulatory, but at least it was a beginning.
Many of the children, teenagers and even adults who faithfully watch the show probably never think about malaria nets or AIDS orphans, let alone during prime time television. It is a real step forward for a 13-year-old girl to persuade her parents to donate money for school supplies, when her most profound gesture of humanitarianism until this point has been voting for hopeless but loveable contestant Sanjaya Malakar.
My own experiences in Africa taught me never to judge anyone for their shock, guilt and anguish upon first witnessing this level of poverty. It is a major physical and emotional challenge to travel to developing nations. When I saw “Idol” host Ryan Seacrest and judge Simon Cowell trying to comfort people who were dying of AIDS, my mind flashed back to my trip to Kenya as a 19-year-old college student. Children ran along the road beside our jeep, calling out “Muzungus!” White people! I gave away my jewelry to teenagers and wrote hundreds of postcards to kids who pressed their addresses into my hands.
No matter how informed or intellectual we might be, the cultural distance and economic injustice are simply overwhelming. What can any of us do when we’re alone in a shack with sobbing children? Would it have been better not to hug them? I agree that these rich Hollywood entertainers were not helping, but I have been in their shoes, and they came across as genuinely doing their best.
The short video appearance of George W. and Laura Bush the week following “Idol Gives Back” was yet another reminder that television is never going to be the same again. When does the President of the United States appear on a reality TV show? President Bush thanked everyone for their donations and joked about singing a song, demonstrating the bizarre and powerful alliances that can be formed between people in this wealthy nation. Rather than condemning American Idol—or the Bush administration—for simplistic thinking, we can take a cue from Bono and honor their sincerity while pushing for more profound change.
Now that the event is over, we can educate ourselves on ways to go beyond that one-time $20 donation or those 10 extra votes for Jordin Sparks. My husband and I give almost 10 percent of our income to global relief organizations and hope to raise that amount when we can. World Vision, Doctors Without Borders, The Carter Center, Mennonite Central Committee, UNICEF, all need our ongoing support.
One thought that ran through my head during the special: “Wow, it is so easy to raise millions of dollars in America.” At the very least, “Idol Gives Back” has made it clear that we should all be doing so much more.
Eleanor Nickel is an English professor at Fresno Pacific University. She teaches courses on literature and film and has published several articles on film and television, including Seinfeld and The X-Files, in academic journals. An avid American Idol fan, Hersey won’t answer the phone during the show, even for family members.