By E.J. Dionne, Jr.
WASHINGTON—Do you find it obnoxious when super-rich people in the music industry come forward to preen about their exquisitely sensitive social consciences?
Is there something worse than a multimillion-dollar televised entertainment operation patting itself on the back for weeks on end in celebration of its brilliantly inventive and groundbreaking approach to philanthropy?
Actually there is something worse: a total indifference to human suffering. If pampered stars and their corporate patrons have a hankering for public approval or—could it be?—a sense of authentic obligation, perhaps that behavior should be encouraged.
Those among the 30 million or so regular watchers of Fox’s “American Idol” (yes, I confess I’m one) will know I’m referring to the “Idol Gives Back” spectacular that airs on Tuesday and Wednesday to raise money for poor children in the U.S. and Africa.
Television has been used to raise money for good causes before. Jerry Lewis began his telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association way back in 1966. The “Idol” folks are keen on distinguishing their dazzling collection of stars from Lewis’ ancient exertions, but old Jerry deserves some credit.
What marks a genuine cultural change is “Idol’s” interest in poverty itself. The extravaganza is not just about collecting money for some good causes (America’s Second Harvest, Save the Children, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and UNICEF, among others). The program will, in effect, be a sustained, two-night argument to “Idol’s” viewers that they might have an obligation to do something about injustice and the pain of others. This is subversive.
Everyone involved in the “Idol” effort bristles at the idea that there is anything controversial about their project, and far be it from me to get in the way of their fundraising.
Randy Jackson, the “Idol” judge who hails from Baton Rouge and will appear on videos about American poverty, waxed eloquent about how important it is for “Idol” to shine “its huge spotlight on what’s happening, especially in New Orleans.” But he politely pushed back when I mentioned the P-word. The show is “not political at all” and “people think too much about what the issues are as opposed to going out and helping people.”
Richard Curtis, the screenwriter for “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Love Actually” and in many ways the inspiration behind this week’s broadcast, also walks away from anything that smacks of politics. Curtis pioneered “Red Nose Day” in Britain in the 1980s, which has raised nearly a billion dollars—and awareness of poverty.
Yet it’s revealing that Curtis, who worked up the idea for “Idol Gives Back” with the show’s creator, Simon Fuller, had his views on poverty shaped by the work of Bono, Bob Geldof and the success of the Live Aid concerts in 1985.
Red Nose Day has been successful, Curtis says, because it is seen as nonpartisan. But the power of the movement stems from the idea that help for the poor, which flows easily after disasters such as a famine or a tsunami, should not be on-again, off-again. Instead, he said, it should focus on “the day-to-day urgency of poverty,” the “concept of long-term development” and on how the most basic things—“clean water, food, medicines”—are out of the reach of millions around the globe. That has implications.
Note also that this idea, like “American Idol” itself, is a British import. It reflects the culture that shaped Prime Minister Tony Blair. He in turn has transformed British conservatism at least as much as he’s changed his own side. Support for an assault on poverty both at home and abroad is thus much further advanced across Britain’s political spectrum. Imagine: Simon Cowell, “Idol’s” know-it-all judge, has been complicit in this new British invasion of social consciousness.
I’d actually prefer to be completely caustic in writing about “American Idol.” But Mark Shriver, vice president of Save the Children’s U.S. programs that will benefit from the show, may be right in seeing “Idol” as taking “a huge risk” in focusing on poverty. One of the show’s producers, Nigel Lythgoe, said of the honchos at Fox: “They weren’t as positive as I think we were and slightly nervous. Anything that saves your network every year, you don’t want to play around with.”
Then again, as Curtis notes, “American Idol” is a show that encourages families to talk things over, so why shouldn’t it “deal with issues that people should talk about?” Anyway, how much longer did we want to keep talking about Sanjaya?
E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at symbol)aol.com.
(c) 2007, Washington Post Writers Group