Idol Gives Back’ Creeps Me Out and I Can’t Figure Out Why

Last Wednesday, television juggernaut American Idol launched its Idol Gives Back campaign, raising funds for six charities serving kids in the U.S. and Africa, including the Children’s Defense Fund, the Global Fund, Make It Right, Malaria No More, Save the Children, U.S. Programs, and the Children’s Health Fund. A bevy of stars from Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Tisdale to Brad Pitt and Bono turned out for the event, all urging phone and online donations. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the special raised $22 million in one night, a number which continues to climb as donations still pour in.

On star missing from the lineup was new Kimberly Locke, who made the final three on the second season of Idol. Locke performed on a late-March episode of the show, and it would’ve been nice to see her again. But Locke fans need not fear—she doesn’t need to sing on Idol to support her favorite charity. She’ll be on this Thursday’s episode of Don’t Forget the Lyrics, where no doubt she’ll be competing for her favorite cause, Camp Heartland, an organization with which she works often. Currently, she has plans to host a fundraiser for the camp this September.

So, without Locke, how was Idol Gives Back? As a sometimes-TV-critic, I can tell you that it was about as entertaining as any other telethon. (And I say this as someone who gets sucked into watching Idol every year, even though sometimes the hours it requires to be an Idol fan resembles a part-time job, as a cube-mate and I often complain.) Star after star paraded on stage to perform, followed by clips of different celebrities urging the audience to turn out their pockets and give some money. Some moments were amusing—like Miley Cyrus and Billy Crystal’s comedy routine, where the young singer asked the comic if he was in show business—but nothing I saw was as good as Jack Black auditioning for the judges last year. And other moments, like Teri Hatcher singing Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats”, were just plain awful.

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Then again, I should suck it up. It’s for charity, right? In between the celebrity performances, there were video segments showing how the money raised by Idol Gives Back helps children throughout the world. There were ailing families finally getting sorely needed health care. Orphans, used to sleeping three-to-a-bed in a one-room dirt-floor house, were finally able to attend schools and receive education. It was genuinely worthy, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t moved.

But even with all the, as Ben Stiller called it, “googillian” dollars the show was raising for these causes, I still couldn’t really drum up much enthusiasm for it. I was creeped out by it, and I couldn’t figure out why. This wary feeling crystallized when the show cut to three pre-taped bumpers, each featuring a different presidential candidate urging people to donate. Besides learning that McCain can’t really tell a joke, that moment on the show was pretty revealing for me. Not to single out the presidential candidates unfairly, but I’m positive that their appearances had just as much to do with getting their empathetic mugs in front of an audience of millions of people as it did with raising money for children. The publicity-to-sincerity ratio was just a bit off. I’d much rather see stars do what Kimberly Locke is doing—sure, Don’t Forget the Lyrics is less of a ratings powerhouse, but she gets to serve an organization that she’s personally invested in.

And what does it mean that millions of people responded to the special? I can’t tell if it’s better or worse that millions were raised just because an all-star lineup of celebrities said so. On one hand, it’s better for the children of the world that we’re in such a mindless, do-whatever-the-TV-says culture. On the other hand, what’s the experience of donating to Idol Gives Back? You don’t do any hard work for the charity—you just donate over the Internet. You don’t get to have a meaningful experience with those who you’re helping. And hearing numbers like $22 million thrown around, most of which come from corporate sponsors like ExxonMobil (there’s the publicity-to-sincerity alarm going off again), and it all seems too big to really have an impact and influence others to be charitable when the TV doesn’t tell them to.

So, my mind is still split on Idol Gives Back. Is the laziest, easiest charity—donating money over the Internet or buying a song from iTunes knowing the proceeds go to help children—better than doing nothing at all? Is Teri Hatcher’s out-of-tune “Before He Cheats” performance more admirable than other tone-deaf celebs who stayed home and didn’t try to raise money for anything? Or is Idol Gives Back just another way for celebrities to feel good about themselves while cashing in on American Idol‘s massive built-in audience? What do you think?

Visit the Idol Gives Back official website.

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Or visit a less heralded, more hands-on community service organization.

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