Normally, I'm not one for the reality show-ness because I know what you know: any reality being filmed for entertainment purposes is not reality at all. Even though American Idol is more like a talent show than a reality show, it's the kind of show that deals in reality: if you are talented, you go forward, if you suck you go home. Idol's my kind of show because I like to laugh. Some of the would-be singers are a riot, and there is nothing like watching someone get chopped down and cut to the quick by a panel of judges to make you feel like your living a king's life. Things could always be worse: you could be making an ass of yourself on American Idol.
So, like a lot of people, I was there January 27 when William Hung's number came up, and he stood in front of Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell. I have not been able to figure out what qualifies a session musician, an aging never-was popstar and a bartender type-turned-music industry Svengali to make or break the dreams of thousands of young people clamoring to get into the record industry. But it doesn't matter Hung had the marks of a clay pigeon right off the button.
My favorite contestants are the cats who go on with the intent to crash and burn, just for their 15 minutes of fame, because they have no other way of acquiring national media attention. At first, Hung appeared to be one of these he looked like an Asian Pee Wee Herman hoping to distinguish himself from the other losers by succumbing to every bad stereotype of Asians imaginable. From the book bag and pocket-protector to the bad haircut and the buckteeth, he looked like a plant, someone who dressed up to do this on a bet. Then the sad truth came out he was dead serious, and he wanted to make singing his vocation. If he'd ever seen American Idol, he'd have known that he never had a shot. But I guess he figured if unlikely fat boy anti-Idol Ruben Studdard could get his shot, then anything was possible.
He stumbled through a rendition of Ricky Martin's "She Bangs" as the judges doubled over in laughter. Hung moved like one of those dancing Coke cans from the eighties and sang even worse. There was no way he could be serious yet he was. After the performance, upon noticing the raucous laughter, his bottom lip quivered ever so slightly as he said, "I don't have any training." Cowell tore into him as Jackson and Abdul gave him an "atta-boy" and sent him along. There was no way to know that he would become something of a hero, ostensibly representing shower-singers everywhere with dreams of hitting the big time. We all know that's BS Idol gets plenty of bad singers vying for a chance at the limelight. Hung fits into a stereotype, and his audition seemingly gave some permission to revive it. The goofy, buck-toothed dancing Chinaman hasn't persevered like some other Sambos, but Hung's rise to popularity proves that it ages well.
He isn't like Jackie Chan, or Cheech and Chong professional entertainers playing into a stereotype as part of an act. I just hope he doesn't decide to drop out and pursue a career because that shtick is gonna be funny for about 30 more seconds before someone realizes how abhorrent it is to pimp on foreigners who have no clue about race politics or media savvy whatsoever they just know they want fame, and don't necessarily know the price of fame. Hung's celebrity is so cruel because we are laughing at someone who just doesn't know that we are laughing at his lack of talent, at his lack of cultural sophistication, at his lack of English language skills, at his lack of common sense to know better. This gets far beyond being politically incorrect everyone has a right to some dignity.
Some will argue that he subjected himself to that kind of ridicule by auditioning, and those people might be right. But I'm not certain he knew what he was getting into. I'd feel better if Hung was a plant a professional. But he's not. Hung is just a foreigner in this country trying to get an education, who can't know how being a talent show buffoon will affect his livelihood or the dignity of his countrymen.
I support his right to do whatever he wants it's a free country, and in some ways he may be living his dream, if even for a moment and there is something to be said for that. And I'll never knock anyone on the fast money track: giddy-up. The thing is, he's studying to be an engineer at UC Berkeley, and the market for dancing engineers is probably not so great. If he gets a gig, he may just be hired to be the office goofball, spending more time singing and dancing than working.
I'm not sure if there is anyone in his life advising him, but he needs to get his butt back to the schoolbooks. Dignity is easy to lose but hard to get back.
jimi izrael is a freelance journalist and opinion writer from Cleveland Heights, Ohio. His bi-weekly column, "What It Iz," runs every-other Wednesday on www.africana.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article originally appeared in Africana.com on March 17, 2004. (c) jimi izrael 2004