Searching for fame with your pants on the ground

How American Idol has turned hollow celebrity into a worthwhile achievement

Herein, the second in a semi-regular series chronicling the ninth season of American Idol.

Behold the power of living without embarrassment.

Some months ago, a 63-year-old civil rights activist named Larry Platt went to an American Idol open call in Atlanta. Aside from not possessing the necessary vocal talent, he far exceeded the show’s age limit. Still, he was allowed to audition for the show’s judges and proceeded to sing a self-penned song entitled Pants On The Ground, an infectious jingle meant to warn against the peril of wearing ill-fitting jeans.

Last Wednesday, that audition aired on Fox. By Thursday night, Late Night host Jimmy Fallon, impersonating Neil Young, was signing his own rendition of Pants On The Ground. Saturday afternoon, after leading his team to victory over the Dallas Cowboys, Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre sang the chorus during the team’s locker room celebration. On Monday, Platt, who marched in Selma alongside Martin Luther King Jr., was a guest on The View. A small record label is offering him a chance to record Pants On The Ground. In the meantime, he has achieved the triple crown of Internet fame: YouTube tributes, a million-member Facebook group and homemade t-shirts for sale on eBay.

And a week since his existence became part of the popular consciousness, his fame now has its own backlash. “Sure, he may be an amateur culture warrior and not at all a singer, but he’s no buffoon,” Jon Caramanica wrote for the New York Times on Tuesday. “Laughing at Larry smacks of racism and ageism, the most hollow sort of fandom.”

Hollow fame is integral to each new season’s preamble. In addition to the inspirational stories of hardship and the romantic pursuit of undiscovered talent, the open auditions dwell on the silly and deluded. Those unaware of their own inability and those who have learned from watching those failures that wanton displays of ridiculousness might get them on TV (the figurative descendents of William Hung) are brought before the judges to be celebrated or mocked, if ultimately dismissed. This week’s episodes included a spiky-haired woman calling herself the Crazy Accordion Lady, an army veteran who sang Tiny Tim’s Tiptoe Through The Tulips while prancing around the room, a plus-sized theatre kid who could do this thing with her breasts, a man in a sequinned cape with a white feather stuck to the side of his face and someone in a chicken costume, in addition to a variety of screamers, whiners and wailers.

Some—a young man auditioning in Orlando had to be led away in handcuffs after refusing to accept the judges’ verdict that he couldn’t sing—seemed genuinely to believe they could be the next Kelly Clarkson. Some—the person in the chicken suit, say—were clearly pursuing a slightly different kind of fame.

“That wasn’t serious, was it?” Cowell asked one contestant.

“Is this a joke?” he asked another.

The answer in all cases is probably both yes and no.

Some of this might be cruel. Most of this is instructive. Larry Platt’s direct connection to the civil rights movement sort of seems to complicate matters, but it’s difficult to say how. He told the Associated Press that “he and his civil rights colleagues sacrificed too much for today’s youth to walk around with sagging trousers.” In a response to Caramanica, Dave Itzkoff likened Platt to the Macarena and “Where’s the beef?” And that’s just about the highest level of achievement many of these fame-seekers could aspire to.

Maybe he can transcend Idol as he apparently hopes. And there’s probably something less than hollow here. But, for now, Larry Platt would seem simply to have achieved the sort of fame he implicitly sought by showing up to audition.