T(w)een Idols

Are your fingers ready? Voting starts for American Idol this week (with a new option to vote via Facebook, in addition to calling in or voting by texting) and the Top 24 seems to be full of talent.

It also happens to be one of the youngest groups yet.  Thanks to John Kubicek's calculations we know that this is a slightly younger Top 24, on average, at 21.25.  The eldest contestants are 26, so there is a decade between the babes and their older competitors.

AI made headlines this summer when it announced they were lowering the age limit and 15-year-olds could audition.  One of those 15-year-olds is Thia Megia, part of the Top 24 (though she has turned 16 since her initial audition).  Lauren Alaina is also 16, and considered an early frontrunner.

American Idol isn't the only reality show on television with increasingly younger contestants who are top competitors.  Former Idol judge Paul Abdul's recent show, Live to Dance-- which rather quickly came and went-- awarded first prize to 10- and 11-year-old ballroom dancers Amanda and D'Angelo (who are amazing and adorable, check them out).  The first runner-up was 11-year-old Kendall Glover.  They beat out an 83-year-old dancer, along with many professional dancers in their 20s and 30s.

And this year the oldest competitive reality show of them all, the Miss America Pageant, crowned a 17-year-old.  While in the early days of the Pageant there were younger winners, since the introduction of age limits in 1938, Teresa Scanlan is the youngest to take the crown. On one of the beauty pageant message boards I read, posters refer to the current Miss America as "the fetus."

Americans have loved precocious performing children since the days of vaudeville. Historian Gary Cross has written about two different types of kids adults love-- the cute and the cool.  Today's performing kids manage to capture both sentiments.

Given the historical record I'm reluctant to say that young performers, and winners, are a new trend.  What I can say is that these recent success stories are linked to children's tendency to specialize at an early age.  Part of the appeal of Amanda and D'Angelo is that it is rare to see ballroom dancers with such fantastic ballroom and dance technique at age ten.  They didn't get to this level by playing soccer and piano afterschool in addition to their dance classes.  Moreover, this isn't Thia Megia's first time on a reality show; at 14 she competed on America's Got Talent.  I'm guessing she didn't spend her time learning tennis or the violin in between appearing on two of the most popular talent competitions-- she's been singing.  Finally, Miss America Teresa Scanlan was homeschooled until she was 16, which allowed her to devote her time to pageant prep (she started competing at age 13) and develop her musical talent on the piano.  Early specialization, which means more hours of instruction and practice earlier in life, allowed all of these t(w)eens to become better younger.

All of these young people are definitely talented and they have worked for their successes.  Hopefully they won't regret all those years of practice for a singular goal when they are 29-- like another t(w)een idol, Britney Spears.  I'm guessing neither Thia nor Lauren will be singing "...Baby One More Time" on Wednesday night's Idol show.  Will you be voting for either of them?

[PS. I've written elsewhere about the labor laws that protect child performers, and how those laws need to be tightened for kids on reality TV shows, which is very relevant here. If you are interested check out my USA Today piece or my Contexts piece.]