Roots of the Big Fish approach: American Idol

Have you ever had a moment when it seemed as if you, and perhaps you alone, felt that something was wrong?

Do you know the sort of experience I’m talking about? It’s like when someone tells an ethnic joke and everyone laughs except for you …. not because you don’t “get it,” but because you do get it and it seems cruel. Or when, as happened to me just the other day, you glance around a romantic restaurant full of young couples and realize that no one is speaking to the person they’re with, but that everyone is instead staring at smartphones?

I had one of those moments years ago while watching a wildly popular television show. And that moment was one of the pivotal events that led, eventually, to the creation of the Big Fish in a Small Pond system.

Let me explain:

In early 2005, American Idol began its fourth season. I had never seen the show, but was aware of it because everyone was aware of it. It was a huge hit.  The whole country seemed to be talking about it as the start of the new season approached. So I made a promise to myself to watch.

I missed the premier, and missed the first few episodes after that as well, so that by the time I actually tuned in to the show, the audition stage was over. And that turned out to be a critical difference between how I saw the show and how others saw it.

American Idol, as you probably know, is a contest. Viewers vote on how well a singer performs. And by the time I began watching the show, the herd had been culled. There were only a handful of performers left standing. And they were talented.

Some  of them, certainly, were more talented than others. Carrie Underwood, who would go on to win that season, was simply stunning. I and millions of others fell in love with her.

But by the time I started watching American Idol the difference between Underwood and the other contestants was minimal. Everyone left in the contest then had great talent. It was possible at that point to watch the show and think that any one of those contestants could go on to fame and fortune as a singer.  It was possible, in other words, to imagine that any of them could become a Big Fish in one of the most competitive Big Ponds on earth — the entertainment industry.

In January of 2006, Season Five began. And this time I watched from the beginning. It was a vastly different experience. I managed to watch one or two of the first episodes, which featured some of the thousands of people who come to the first round of auditions, before I gave up on the show forever.

And here’s why: those early auditions are full of people who do not stand a chance of ever making it as singers. Many of them are horrible singers. And many of those horrible singers are also, clearly, delusional.  There are also tons of folks who audition who are good,or even very good, singers. But they are clearly not great. And it’s instantly clear when you watch them that they will never be great.

Yet when they are rejected they seem surprised, and are often angry. It’s as if they were simply unprepared for facing one of the most obvious truths of life: only a tiny, tiny percentage of people will ever be rich and famous.

The day after those early auditions, I would go to the office or visit with friends or just listen to conversations around me and everyone seemed to be talking about American Idol and everyone was having the same reaction: they were laughing about the auditions.  And the undertone of that laughter was contempt. There was an anger there, and a bitterness and that repulsive form of glee called schadenfreude.

But I didn’t find anything about those auditions funny at all. Rather, I found the whole thing sort of soul-crushingly sad. The auditions were filled with people who clearly suffered from grandiosity and delusion to a degree that suggested mental illness. And there were others who just seemed naive, lost and vulnerable.

And everyone laughed at them, and the ratings were great, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong.

As I thought about all this, I noticed a few things:

  • People all around me were taking delight in the fact that there were slews of people who would never be famous, yet didn’t realize that they would never be famous.
  • The level of delight increased in inverse proportion to the contestant’s talent.  The less talented a contestant was, the funnier it seemed to people.
  • The level of delight increased in proportion to the contestant’s delusion. The more surprised a contestant was to be eliminated from the competition, the funnier it seemed to people.

I started thinking of all this as the “fame-schadenfreude problem,” and it seemed to me that:

  • Fame-schadenfreude was new.  This was not something my parents or grandparents would have experienced.
  • Fame-schadenfreude is born of a growing sense in America that people are supposed to be famous. It’s an expectation similar to the way we think we’re supposed to be self-sufficient or successful or patriotic.
  • Fame-schadenfreude was making us nasty. Watching troubled, sad, delusional and possibly mentally ill people fail isn’t funny. It’s heartbreaking. But as a culture we reacted to the dashing of people’s dreams as if we watching the Marx Brothers.

Although I was ashamed to admit it, I also realized that I wasn’t immune to fame-schadenfreude. I didn’t experience it when watching American Idol, probably because I have no interest in singing. But I was perfectly capable of being cruel about untalented people who thought they could make it big in the industries where I make my living (business journalism and content marketing).

In the years since I first watched American Idol, a few things have changed. The show itself is not the phenomenon it once was. But that’s largely due to the proliferation of copycat shows. The reality-TV-competition format is on television in multiple languages in multiple countries around the globe now.

More troubling is that the nastiness that surrounds reality TV is no longer limited to the shows themselves. There’s something newly, and more deeply, cruel about the whole culture now.

If there’s good news here it’s that nearly everyone seems to recognize that something is wrong. As early as 2011 people were noting the new level of cruelty, and predicting that it would grow worse. No one has an answer. And no one seems to truly understand what has happened to us.  People blame the Internet, they blame politicians, they blame reality TV, and they blame each other. But they never blame themselves.

But it is clear that our obsession with fame has grown to its logical conclusion:  we would kill for it.

So look:  I don’t have the answer to fame-schadenfreude. I see it everywhere. And I tend to see similar phenomena — the WWIC problem, the rise of anti-celebrity news like TMZ, etc.  — everywhere too. But I have no idea what to do about any of it.

I do, however, have an obligation to think about what the culture’s obsession with fame might do to me. I’m not immune to fame-schadenfreude and I’m not immune to the charms of wealth and the lure of prestige.  I’m as capable of envy and narcissism as anyone else. And there’s something about our culture today that will reinforce those vulnerabilities if I let it.

In the years since I started thinking about all this I began to notice that when I responded to the call of fame (taking prestigious jobs at big-name media brands like CNN), it’s made me unhappy.  Although I’ve never been a Big Fish in a Big Pond,  I’ve been a Small Fish and a Medium Fish in Big Ponds many times, and I hated it.  There’s something about the places that attract the fame-focused that makes me miserable. And they seemed to make everybody else there miserable too.  (It’s also worth noting that I have a few friends who actually did make it big. They are, by any measure, really and truly famous. Yet they’re not very happy.)

By contrast, I began to notice that when I ignored the lure of fame and responded instead to the call of service (taking responsibility for a community that I wanted to help), it made me happy. I’ve been a Big Fish in Small Pond a bunch of times, and I’ve loved it. And as I looked around among my friends, colleagues, associates, acquaintances, neighbors, etc. I realized that the happiest people I knew weren’t truly famous, but they were all famous within the tiny niches in which they chose to spend their lives. They were all Big Fish in Small Ponds.

So I’m glad that I watched American Idol. Because it taught me, in a roundabout fashion, that there’s a better approach to life than auditioning for reality TV or mocking the people who do. I call it the Big Fish in a Small Pond system.

— by Paul Conley