the pulse

Humiliation and shame? They'll do it for a song

Yes, there are cruel souls in this world who probably told the people seen last week trying out for "American Idol" that they knew how to carry a tune. Most of them had voices that could kill every living thing within a five-mile radius. A few appeared to have other problems as well. But it matters little. Denial is a powerful thing, though not quite so much as the lure of the camera itself.

What would surprise most people is that even when the full extent of their mortification is spelled out for the "Idol" amateurs, despite being pummeled with merciless disdain by Simon Cowell and exposed as talentless boobs before 39 million witnesses gawking at them as laughingstocks, these calamitous crooners hardly grasp the depth of the embarrassment they're supposed to be feeling. In fact, I suspect, most feel none at all.

Disgrace? Degradation? Dishonor? Not even a tiny chance. This is the big time, baby. They're somebody. They matter. Fame is the name of the game, regardless of how fleeting or painfully earned. Or dubious. Notoriety is its own reward. The means matter significantly less than the end result.

The latest ethos of insta-celebrity extends well beyond the renowned Andy Warhol observation. Time magazine may have gotten it right after all when it declared "You" as the 2006 "Person of the Year." Having grown up with camcorders, digital cameras and filmmaking software, the latest generation has been well-equipped to parlay self-obsession with instant gratification to create its own culture of navel-gazing narrative.

Add to that the explosions of YouTube and MySpace and the wider blogosphere and it grows clear that the lust for public recognition has gone mainstream. Along with it has come a certain sense of entitlement, the notion that all of us deserve that brush with stardom. It's the same psychological driver that spurs toddlers to seek any attention from mom and dad, the nature of it taking a back seat to the acknowledgment itself.

Did William Hung understand that he was a human punch line after becoming "Idol's" poster boy for uproariously dreadful performance art? Undoubtedly. Didn't matter. He had his time in the spotlight and made a decent chunk of change as reward for going along with the joke. And who's to say it isn't more personally fulfilling to live as a feeble has-been than an anonymous never-was?

A friend of mine who produces reality television takes great glee in describing for me every latest gambit that's virtually guaranteed to make participants look like pathetic, humanity-challenged shmoes. It always inspires the same flabbergasted query from me: "How are you going to convince people to do that?"

"Don't you get it?" he always shoots back. "That's the easy part. Getting them to sign the release is a no-brainer." Why? Because people who are rarely if ever on television are blind to context. It's as if the camera lens itself emits a mind beam that disables those parts of the brain that control reasoning, morality, self-awareness … and of course, melody.

This point was driven home to me rather dramatically some 51/2 years ago when my now 85-year-old mother was working as an extra for movies and TV. I flipped on the tube one day and there she was on "The Tom Green Show," performing erotically suggestive moves in tandem with several other seniors in a segment dubbed "Sexercise."

I summoned the courage to ask her what possible reason she may have had for agreeing to do this.

"They asked," she replied simply.

Hard to pass up an offer like that.