I have never been a fan of American Idol, and in particular I have never enjoyed the cutting assessments of would-be contestants who do not make it past that first audition. Not being a regular viewer, I would catch an ad for the up-coming season now and then, and there would be Simon Cowell saying the sorts of things to these young hopefuls that sound funny in theory but indulgent and cruel in person. What a mean man, I thought. What a mean show.
And then one day I found myself watching a kind of American Idol retrospective made up almost entirely of these first auditions, and my opinion was changed completely. What I saw was this: a parade of young men and women completely out of touch with reality. It wasn’t just that these people weren’t particularly strong singers yet, it was that they were still singing to themselves in front of the mirror. Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell’s remarks were usually, it seemed to me, the result of the exhausting job of having to tell person after person that they were essentially living in a fantasy world and that fantasy was now over.
There is a difference between imagination and fantasy. Imagination is the engine of change and all progress. But the imagination is interested in the connection of all things, as it pulls from what has been to create what will be. While the imagination pulls you ever forward, it is firmly routed in the moment, for that is the source of all its creativity.
In fantasy, we wish to skip ahead. We are uninterested in the journey from Here to the Fantasy Land, we just want to get there, without all the bother of learning how. What those delusional American Idol contestants learned in one machete remark was that they did not in fact ever want to be singers. Being a singer was an idea they decided to finally test for the first time on national television.
I feel for these people, however, because I have spent more than my share of time in Fantasy Land. It’s an unsatisfying place. But I only traveled there when I told myself the road to some city I desired to reach might prove too difficult. What if, by luck or a fatal lack of ability, I never arrived? Safer, it seemed, to invent the city myself. Eventually, however, I left Fantasy Land forever when I realized that it wasn’t that I was worried that I couldn’t get to where I wanted to go, it was that I might I never have wanted to go in the first place. That was a chance I was willing to take.