In the middle of January, American Idol scored a huge ratings win when they decided to air a tryout clip of an elderly black man named General Larry Platt, singing his original composition “Pants on the Ground.” The song took off and is now a part of American pop culture…at least for the next few months.
The first time I saw the clip I couldn’t help but feel torn. I felt joke discomfort: the uneasiness I often get when someone makes a joke that I sense is not quite right, yet I still feel like laughing. “Pants on the Ground” does seem inherently absurd and there is something really adorable about Platt. Yet how should we feel about the way American Idol used his clip? Does it encourage us to laugh with Larry Platt? After watching several different Platt appearances, I’m still not sure if Platt is funny because he’s trying to be, or just by accident. If we’re laughing at Platt instead of with him, how much of this is about race?
Reader Gavin Jones sent us an email about Platt, lamenting the way Platt was the butt of jokes on Youtube and the late-night show circuit. Gavin says
It just seems like we live in a Bizzaro world where the more virtuous artists are fake blonds, singers whose subjects are ultimately selfish, and Soulja Boy types, and someone like Larry Platt is somehow not legitimate. Simon Cowell said he had a ‘sinking feeling it would be a hit’. Mary J. Blige couldn’t stop laughing DURING his audition. I wonder how her (and all of our lives) would be different if he didn’t exist. SOMEONE, ANYONE should mention some of this after one of those clips or in some commentary.
In a greater sense I wonder how much this has to do with race. Obviously there’s no immediate way to quantify that but it’s curious that of all the thousands of applicants to American Idol over the years, the only objects of ridicule are William Hung and Larry Platt.
What rankled Gavin is particular is that Platt is actually a hero in Atlanta, thanks to the work he’s done for the civil rights movement. From Yahoo:
But Platt is not just some William Hungian TV clown angling for 15 minutes of YouTube fame. His real legacy in fact extends all the way back to the ’60s, when he was a teenage crusader for the Civil Rights Movement in Georgia…The man was even honored with his own holiday in Atlanta, Larry Platt Day, on September 4, 2001, for his “priceless and immeasurable contributions to society” and “his great energy and commitment to equality and the protection of the innocent and for his outstanding service to the Atlanta community and the citizens of Georgia.”
On that fateful day, the Georgia General Assembly declared: “For the past 40 years, Larry Platt has given of himself in service to the people of the City of Atlanta, the State of Georgia, and the nation…Larry Platt merits the highest recognition for his many valuable contributions to the Civil Rights Movement and his dedication to the struggle for equality and human rights.”