Sweet Emotion on American Idol?

Not being a huge American Idol person, or post-Rocks Aerosmith fan, everything in Jon Caramanica’s […]

David Zahl / 2.17.11

Not being a huge American Idol person, or post-Rocks Aerosmith fan, everything in Jon Caramanica’s article in this past Sunday’s NY Times, “Steven Tyler Escapes From Idolatry,” was news to me. Those of you who’ve seen the episode in question can tell us whether it was indeed a lightning-striking instance of grace on TV or a carefully played media-moment (or both, as the article suggests). But there’s an unmistakeable note of Nazareth here – in regards to Mr. Tyler, that is – of folks being caught seriously off guard by his charisma/character/kindness, of their preconceptions being exposed for what they are (myself included), not to mention the sheer unexpectedness of grace, ht CW:

Fame isn’t all gold, honey and massage oils; it’s also the successful navigation of a steady stream of unlikely and uncomfortable situations. At this, the first few weeks of the 10th season of “American Idol” have proved, Steven Tyler is an unalloyed genius.

The moment when Mr. Tyler, one of this season’s new judges, claimed the show as his own came during the third night of auditions. Chris Medina tried out with a muscular version of The Script’s “Breakeven” after telling the story of how his fiancée, Juliana Ramos, suffered a brain injury that left her in a wheelchair, able to move her left arm and little more. After he sang, he brought Ms. Ramos in to the audition room at the judges’ behest. By any measure it was difficult to watch, testing the viewer’s urge to turn away, to wish for a speedy change of scene.

Randy Jackson and Jennifer Lopez introduced themselves to Ms. Ramos, but Mr. Tyler took charge. “Hi, girl,” he said, shaking her hand. “I just heard your fiancé sing, and he’s so good.” At this point, as she teetered back and forth, he was gripping her shoulder and staring at her comfortingly: a rock, a confidant, a seducer. “You know, because he sings to you all the time,” he said, leaning in to her, stroking her hair, kissing her warmly — all with tenderness — then whispering in her ear, “That’s why he sings so good, because he sings to you.”

It was a stellar embrace, the sort of practiced sincerity that’s one of the wages of extreme celebrity. Except that, over time, it can shake free of its dishonesty, as was the case here. In that moment Mr. Tyler was both deeply practiced and deeply humane. It made for a stunning display of kindness unusual not just for “Idol,” but for all of popular culture in matters of dealing with the severely disabled. 

Whether Mr. Medina was being fair to his fiancée by bringing her on the show may be an open question, and whether “Idol” producers were being fair to both of them may be one as well.
But the moment Mr. Tyler embraced Ms. Ramos was galvanic. Until that point Mr. Tyler — who has long had a bad-boy reputation as the frontman of the commercial juggernaut Aerosmith, which has sold approximately 60 million albums over 40 years — threatened to be an amusing attention hog on the show and, in the minds of some, a buffoonish liability.

A star like Mr. Tyler or Ms. Lopez has nothing to lose when offering a contestant, entrée into their rarefied space. They’re not just pushing someone’s career forward a little from behind, they’re welcoming them from the top.