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'American Idol' contestants: You're so vain!

Mark Harris thinks singers should remember that not every song is about them

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By now, it won’t come as news that American Idol is off its game this season — ratings are down, the energy level is low, Simon Cowell has one foot, his heart, and most of his flattop out the door, and when Ryan Seacrest approaches the tranquilized-looking contestants for those painful pre- and post-performance interviews, he practically needs to slap cardiac shock-paddles on their chests to get a lively reaction. Conventional wisdom has placed the blame on a substandard bunch of karaoke/cabaret/pitchy/it-was-just-a’ight-for-me-dawg performers, but that’s not the whole story. The real problem with Idol‘s class of ’10 is that they have absolutely nothing to say. And I don’t mean when they talk. I mean when they sing.

Did you see the show’s recent excursion into the Lennon-McCartney songbook, during which the wannabe Idols took on some of the best pop tunes in history? Remember when Ryan made the gigantic mistake of asking them why they chose the songs they chose? Here’s what we learned: Siobhan Magnus picked ”Across the Universe” because it contains the line ”Nothing’s gonna change my world” and she strongly feels that nothing is going to change her world. Winsome little Aaron Kelly grabbed ”The Long and Winding Road” because apparently his ”Idol journey” has been, like, long. Also, winding. And roadish. And when Casey James was interrogated about his choice of ”Jealous Guy,” he looked like a high school slacker trying to fake his way through a pop quiz before landing on a meaningful connection to the song, which is that he is a jealous guy. If Idol is a trial (and in so many ways it is), Ryan generally serves as the contestants’ defense attorney. That week, he inadvertently helped the prosecution.

The problem persisted into last week, when shy guy Lee DeWyze was asked by ”mentor” Alicia Keys to speak the lyrics to Simon & Garfunkel’s ”The Boxer.” I cringed when I saw his eyes light up with the realization that ”Hey, I am just a poor boy! And my story’s seldom told! I have squandered my resistance for a pocketful of…lyrics I don’t understand.” But really, Lee’s story isn’t seldom told; it’s told with practically every contestant’s performance, in which all songs are inevitably processed into two minutes of autobiographical self-amour. And boy, is this ever the wrong way for aspiring artists to think about their craft.

I don’t really blame the contestants: Most 16- to 24-year-olds think everything is about them; double that for the ones who want to go into showbiz, and double it again for those who actually end up on TV. But when did it become a gospel truth that the highest value of art is as a form of self-expression? Maybe the fault lies with a hundred thousand middle school teachers who, with the best intentions, try every day to make writing or painting or singing or acting or dancing less intimidating by telling kids that it’s all about letting whatever’s inside you come out to play. And that can be great advice, but when you find yourself under a spotlight as glaring as American Idol, the line between self-expression and self-absorption is very thin, and the road to pathological narcissism isn’t long and winding but perilously short.

It’s not just Idol that succumbs to this inward gaze. It’s evident in everything from bad indie movies by young filmmakers who have nothing to say but still want to make movies about people just like themselves to Glee, which had the entire juicy Madonna catalog to work with last week and beelined straight for, you guessed it, ”Express Yourself,” the dreary midtempo anthem of me-ness that has launched a million step classes. But since it’s Idol that needs a reboot, what if, next season, contestants are told that besides powerful pipes, the main artistic value they should bring to the stage is not ”self-expression” or a compelling backstory but empathetic imagination — the ability to throw all of your vocal prowess into singing about people who are nothing like you and are confronting emotions and crises you’ve never encountered? Instead of trying to make every song about you, make yourself about every song. Think big. Imagine deeply. As Henry James wrote, try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost. Or, if that’s too highfalutin for Idol, just draw from the more accessible artistic philosophies of Madonna and En Vogue: Open your heart, and free your mind.