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Burnett's Urban Etiquette

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Second place is just fine

I used to have a really stupid t-shirt when I was in high school. Actually, I had several with the same logo: "No Fear."

My buddies and I loitering at or near the 17th Street Surf Shop on the Virginia Beach ocean front thought we were the coolest cats on earth 'cause of our flowered shorts, Vans, goofy "No Fear" gear, and beach cruiser bicycles (and later pick-up trucks with surf racks that rarely bore surf boards).

Anyway, one of my then-favorite "No Fear" t-shirts had a quote on the back - "Second Place is the First Loser!"

The suggestion, of course, was that anything less than first was a failure. And while I was a stupid kid who wore and said all sorts of relatively harmless stuff, I'm sorry now that I bought into that hype.

What made me think of that shirt today was the return, this evening, of American Idol, and - bear with me - that, in turn, made me think of a series of 20/20 specials John Stossel did in recent years about this movement to eliminate winners and losers from American culture. He reported on little leagues in which every kid was given a shot as pitcher or quarterback so every kid (and parent) would feel good, or leagues where score was no longer kept, so none of the kids would feel bad. So what we've been producing are children who grow up to think that they're always gonna be OK. They can't lose 'cause there's no such thing as losing to them. If there's a prominent position to be had, they assume it's theirs for the taking.

I really think these kids in recent years have been growing up to become American Idol contestants.

On the one hand American Idol has proven that t-shirt slogan wrong, as reported by my colleague Howard Cohen in the Miami Herald today. Over the years the second place finishers of that contest have done quite well, often outshining the winners. On the other hand though, the show is the adult version of these twisted no-score, no-loser little leagues.

I won't front. I love watching American Idol. But more than watching the talented folks in the end, I enjoy watching the criminally untalented folks in the beginning. It's cruel, delightful fun, to
watch someone howl like cat and then stare incredulously at the disappointed judges.

But there is something wrong when such a huge number of people have been groomed to think that they can do anything.

We can't do everything, folks. I swear I nearly sought counseling in high school 'cause of how long it took me to get strong enough to slam dunk a basketball. It was as if me being 6'3" made dunking my right! I sang in an A Capella barbershop quartet in high school and college. We had fun. But I was smart enough not to try to go solo.

Some of us aren't good at much. Some of us have one solitary skill like a needle in a haystack. Others of us are loaded with the works: talent, skill, looks, luck, etc. Trust me, while I'm endowed with enough to do well in life if I work hard, I am definitely not the latter. And that's OK. I won't split the atom. I won't ever dunk again on my rickety knees. I won't live in the White House. I won't win American Idol. But I will keep doing what I'm actually good at, and since we're talking clichés, that, my friends, is what we mean by "slow but steady wins the race."

As funny as it is, it is also a shame that over the next few days we will watch people spinning their wheels at singing, when they could have already moved on to something they might be good at...if only friends and family had told them years ago "You're just not that good at this. But you're awesome at that! So why not give that a shot?"

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  • My favorite part of the show, the only part that I watch, is the beginning. I love the auditions.

    Wait, that's my second favorite part of the show. My absolute favorite part of the show is Paula Abdul. We have so much in common. We both drink. A lot. She's a slightly better dancer though.

    By Blogger mist1, at 5:26 PM  

  • Paula Abdul is a better dancer than you? For shame!

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 5:31 PM  

  • I used to DJ in a Karaoke bar and your point was clearly illustrated many times each night. Even if they sounded like a bag of cats being put through a wood chipper,
    I still had to tell them they were good.

    By Blogger Hammer, at 5:50 PM  

  • I'm for anything that can help to eliminate the winner versus loser attitude that prevails in school. There is little correlation to the real world. Well, OK, there's a connection - in a competitive business environment - but even there, hopefully there's teamwork and not a top winner and a bunch of losers.

    By Anonymous The Sarcasticynic, at 6:17 PM  

  • I'm convinced those early contestants on American Idol know full well that they can't carry a tune in a bucket. They are just looking for attention.

    By Blogger GrizzBabe, at 7:30 PM  

  • I rest my case! The young lady who just went first on American Idol blew chunks. Not literally. I mean she was bad. But when the judges told her she was bad, she was stunned. Her mother hugged her and told her no worries. Her boyfriend consoled her. And she said "I can't believe this!" She should have believed it. She was awful. And if her family loved her they would have told her long ago that she sucked...and that she should go to college or something 'cause singing wasn't in the cards. There's nothing wrong with not being good at everything.

    On the other hand she may have just been nervous. Being first to go on American Idol is like being the black guy in a horror movie. You're gonna die before the opening credits are done rolling.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 8:22 PM  

  • Sarc, I agree that winner/loser 'tudes could stand to lighten. But I think too many people are ill prepared to lose these days, because growing up everyone around them told them they were awesome at everything they tried. And they really weren't. Their best preparation for life would have been a reality check early on, I think.

    Grizz, some of 'em have to be in on the gag.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 8:24 PM  

  • I like to think most of American Idol's more embarrassing moments are brought to us by people who know they can't sing. In which case making a fool of yourself is the next best way to get airtime.

    By Blogger thirdworstpoetinthegalaxy, at 8:31 PM  

  • Great commentary! How can the same group that launched Carrie Underwood turn around and give a year's worth of fame (and semi-legitimacy) to William Hung?

    Life isn't fair and having a good personality will only get you so far. Believe me, I hit that glass ceiling a long time ago. Allowing kids to think that their deficincies will be compensated for by others gives them the wrong impression of real life. Just ask Dan Quayle. I'm just kidding...ok, kind of...

    By Blogger Michael C, at 9:33 PM  

  • I like when people ask if I can sing (I have no idea why people have ever asked me that either...) and I usually reply, "yes, I just doesn't sound good!" but I still love wailing while I'm in my car...because, of course, there is the invisible shield around me... :)

    By Blogger Claudia, at 9:49 PM  

  • Why can't you live in the white house? I'd vote for you.

    Think about it, your political platform could be called "The Burnettiquette Method: How to get along with others or suffer repeatedly administered neighbor-enforced street justice."

    By Blogger QofD, at 10:08 PM  

  • Queen, you flatter me. If I did run I'd call on you to run Homeland Security.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 10:27 PM  

  • I couldn't agree with you more. Too many people go through life being told what they want to hear instead of what they NEED to hear. You don't have to be mean about telling someone 'something just isn't for them', but letting them go on thinking it IS when it clearly is NOT is not doing them any favors.


    By Blogger briliantdonkey, at 11:09 PM  

  • Some of them probably do think they are star material - but I get the feeling the majority of the ones that really stink, know they stink, and are just there to have an opportunity to be on TV (no pride)

    They all want to be the next William Hung.

    By Blogger Pamela, at 12:46 AM  

  • I've never watched the show, and never will. I need more substance in television shows, like Leave it to Beaver for example.

    I can't even understand how kids would enjoy playing games where there are no winders or losers. What's the point?

    By Blogger captain corky, at 4:31 AM  

  • I really get pissed off at the parents who seem to encourage their kid to audition, even when the kid is horrific.

    The juggler last night? He broke my heart when he broke down on his mom's shoulder outside the room. I wanted to strangle the mother, when she kept telling him, "You'll be famous." That's almost reason to call child services. Could she not hear? Did she really not know her son was terrible? And she's encouraging him to keep trying? Morons.

    By Blogger SWF41, at 9:46 AM  

  • I'm 5'9" and white and I can dunk a basketball in my 30s.


    By Blogger Matt, at 10:45 AM  

  • Anyone driving a Suburu is definately not fronting.

    By Blogger Matt, at 10:47 AM  

  • I'm an Idol addict - and I love what you've written here.

    I think our society and parents are to blame somewhat. We are told that "we can be anything we want to be," as a supportive, encouraging testament to the American dream, when in reality, we CAN'T. We have talents and skills in certain areas - and horrible weaknesses in others. Learning how to identify and maximize those strengths is a major part of life.

    Secondly, we parents and educators are at fault for telling every child he or she is "special." Not everyone is "special" or "entitled" in America. Some of us are just average!

    The first part of Idol make me cringe and laugh at the same time. I just wonder why they let some of these folks into the 3-judge arena - they are supposed to weed them out at the stadium level in pre-auditions. I think they let some of the most wacky ones thru just for ratings.

    By Blogger Tiggerlane, at 11:36 AM  

  • A lot of my family members sported the No Fear gear while playing D&D, as well as the "Big boys need big toys" while driving around in Ford Escorts.

    You can't believe a T-shirt. I also can't believe you were in a barbershop quartet. Were you a tenor?

    By Anonymous 123Valerie, at 12:36 PM  

  • Hear hear!

    Great post.

    By Anonymous Freddie, at 12:37 PM  

  • I'm completely horrible at writing, but I love to do it.

    Do what you love, not just what you are good at.

    By Blogger Winter, at 2:55 PM  

  • it is so good to know that there are intelligent people in the world who actually watch American idol and aren't ashamed to admit it. I curse it, write about it, mock and and then every year seem to tune in again. What is it about this show?

    Yes, I think it is high time that parents are honest with their children. Gently of course, but honest nonetheless.

    By Blogger Dayngr, at 3:40 PM  

  • Never rocked the No Fear since it was the province of mullets here, but I did bust out some bolt flip flops for the brief moment when they were hip with wannabe Florida surfers.

    Not a fan of Idol, but America needs a variety show (or its stilted modern equivalent). The formula set in place by Uncle Miltie and Ed Sullivan still works like a Model T production line.

    As far as separating the wheat from the chaff by picking winners and losers, I'm all for it. We must have some way to discern and identify excellence, greatness, and superiority in performance and reward it accordingly. The fastest runners, finest singers, deepest thinkers, eloquentest orators, et al. should be found and actively promoted to inspire others to greatness. Or make them feel like crap for having no talent. Besides, if somenody else isn't a moron, then it's you.

    For real, tho', earth bound glory can't serve as motivaton for improving humanity if its attainment is so easy as to be meaningless.

    By Anonymous Big Daddy, at 3:41 PM  

  • II don't seem to have a dog in this fight, but I never let that stop me before. I quit watching TV in mid August of 06 and I can't say I've missed it at all, except for not being able to follow these strange narratives.

    What I have always believed is that parents, and society as a whole, owe children a mirror where they can see themselves clearly. If the reflection is distorted, either positively or negatively they are being cheated out of the chance to achieve their potential.
    Sounds like you tried enough hats on to find out which one fit James. I think we're all the richer for that decision.

    By Blogger wordsonwater, at 11:35 PM  

  • Briliant, I'm with you. It needs to be said - not cruelly, but it needs to be said.

    Pamela, we're worse off than I thought if fame (or infamy) is that important that folks want to be like Hung.

    Capt., I agree on the winning/losing thing. There's no way I would have played sports growing up if not for the excitement that comes with sometimes winning. All that stuff about doing it for the exercise and the sportsmanship? least part baloney.

    SWF41, that was really sad w/the juggler. I thought he was gonna run out in traffic after being crushed. And his mom should have been pimp-slapped for telling him he'd be a star.

    Matt, I have to admit I'm impressed - not 'cause you're white and can dunk, but 'cause you're in your 30s, 5'9" and can dunk. And you're right - no way I could front behind the wheel of a Subaru.

    Tiggerlane, it's a definite ratings gimmick having the losers make in front of the judges at all. But you definitely can't help but feel bad for those who get shot down. Seriously, where were their friends and family members? Why didn't they tell them?

    123Valerie, I never wore the "Big Boys..." t-shirts. I did sport a "Big Johnson" Tee, but just once before my folks got hold of it and the shirt met an untimely end. Oh, and I was not a tenor. I was a baritone.

    Hey, Freddie! Thanks for the vote of confidence.

    Winter, I agree with you about doing what you love. I just have a problem w/the folks who've been kidded into thinking they can become famous at something just because they love doing it. They - AI contestants, for example - give little to no considerationt to how good they actually are.

    Dayngr, I have no shame. I watch it. The show is like crack. It's addictive. And yes, I think honest but gentle is the way to go.

    BD, as usual I had to think hard about your commentary 'cause I admit it was over my head at first. But I got it: winning/losing is motivation. It's incentive.

    WoW, as always, thank you for the insight. You are right. We have to be straightforward. If we are straight w/folks we won't have to worry about being mean. We had a stretch of several years when I was younger that there was no TV in our house. We had books, board games, and outside play. I didn't suffer for it.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 12:17 AM  

  • ya know what blows the goat in my mind? how i see these parents who coddle their kids. my younger cousins are a generation of pussies.

    i dont mean like "go kill something son, and become a man" type of shit, i mean helmet and padded body suit wearing, afraid to play sports the hard way wearing, lacking of any competitve nature babies.

    EMO!!! good god!!!

    we are all sad once in a our lives.. no point in making it a fucking popular trend!!!

    i had a rule in my house growin up... you do the crime you better be willin to pay the price. i fear the wooden spoon. i see some of these damned kids actin stupid and the first thing that comes to my mind is my mom would have smacked me into next teusday!!!

    okay... that was an old biddy comment. im done. i'm old. damnit.


    By Blogger Yasamin, at 12:27 AM  

  • Awwwwe, Yas, you're gonna make me cry.

    Ha! Kidding. But I feel you. A generation of wusses is coming up. My mom used to pop me too - not into next Tuesday though, into next month! It's why I walk with a limp now.

    Joking, mom. I wasn't abused. What? No, don't hit me! I swear I was joking.

    Gotta run...away y'all.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 12:38 AM  

  • hahahaa!!!

    exxxxactly!!! lol she put the FEAR in me. lol

    By Blogger Yasamin, at 12:52 AM  

  • I couldn't agree with you more James!

    Very well said ;)

    We hope to see you two soon!


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:11 PM  

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