Marisa shows that American Idol and similar competitions are not about talent at all. They’re about the humiliation of the contestants.
The first time I watched David Lynch’s Rabbits, I was fascinated and frightened. The series of short films shows a group of humanoid rabbits sitting, standing, and walking in and out of a living room. The room looks like the standard set of a sitcom, and the fragmentary dialogue is accompanied by the unnerving music that is characteristic of Lynch’s movies. The part that frightened me the most was the laugh track that punctuates the rabbits’ words, because it obviously reminded me of all the sitcoms I watched. Later, when I watched those TV shows again, I found the laugh track very unsettling. I hadn’t noticed the unnaturalness of those shows until Rabbits showed it to me, emphasizing it and framing it so that I could realize how strange it is to hear other people’s laughter telling us when it’s appropriate to laugh too. I had the exact same experience when I watched Marisa Olson’s work, which criticizes talent shows instead of sitcoms.
In 2004, Marisa Olson auditioned for American Idol, the popular singing competition we all know. While she was in the process of auditioning, she wrote about each part of her training on a blog she titled Marisa’s American Idol Audition Training Blog. The blog quickly gained millions of followers and, because of that, the producers of American Idol became interested in her as a contestant. Even though her participation on the show was recorded, the producers later realized that Marisa’s blog was meant to be satirical, so they never aired the material.
Of course, the people from American Idol never gave Marisa her footage, but she managed to share her experience with the world by creating a “fictional-reenactment” of her auditions. She called it “The One That Got Away,” and throughout the video we see the same performances she delivered in front of the judges. Along with them, Olson describes her experience on the show with that caustic sense of humor that entertains and unsettles at the same time. As viewers, most of us know that the situation is laughable and that it’s all a performance, but we’re so uncomfortable that it’s impossible to laugh.
Marisa’s acting is purposefully stiff and unnatural, and it slowly turns excessive and full of grimaces as she reacts to footage of the judges’ usual feedback, which goes from flattering encouragement to cruel rejection. Her performance is even more disturbingly enhanced thanks to the way in which the video is edited: with rough cuts, cartoonish zooms, and annoying background noise, followed by sudden silence. Basically, she intentionally made every single mistake you’re not supposed to make in post-production, which makes the whole thing gripping but painful to watch. As she herself explains, she’s interested in failure and the representations of it, and with this video she ironically succeeds at that on many levels, including the fact that some people didn’t realize it was a parody.
How is that possible? The parody should be obvious, as it constantly points out how the show uses people’s hopes and aspirations to tear them down for ratings. Marisa shows that American Idol and similar competitions are not about talent but about the humiliation of contestants. The artist's digital work is clearly uninterested in esthetic pleasure, and for that reason a lot of people wonder if it’s art or just messy social commentary. Luckily, it can be both.
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Images by nadia lee cohen.