In the carefully orchestrated universe of American Idol, Ryan Seacrest plays the equal and opposite force to Simon and Kara’s mean-girl critiques: No matter how much the judges bash a contestant, Seacrest is there as a post-judgment palate cleanser, getting in the final, positive word to America, entreating us to vote for a singer regardless of his or her performance. But last night, something went terribly awry. Before Didi Benami performed “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted,” we saw a clip of her rehearsing with guest mentor Usher, during which the song moved her to tears. So after her live performance, Seacrest had a follow-up question. “I know this is going to go to a raw and emotional place,” he opened. Oh, dear, we thought, this can’t go well. And it didn’t.
He asked just what it was about this song that made her so weepy — and, to be fair, that’s just Good TV Interviewing 101: draw out the pathos. But poor Benami, who generally can’t get through a sentence or two without crying, tried to deflect the inquiry with vagueness, yet Seacrest wouldn’t give up, and asked again. She protested with, “You make me answer these uncomfortable questions!” and it became clear that she had no interest in revealing the painful personal anecdote behind the song choice. At that point, anyone with good manners, especially anyone as experienced as Ryan Seacrest, especially anyone in front of millions of people, would have politely changed the subject. But in a fascinatingly weird turn, he continued to harp on the issue, determined to rip her wounded heart from her chest and wave it at the text-voting audience; his persistence even elicited cries of “Poor girl!” from Kara, of all people.
To his credit, it seemed that Seacrest was trying to help Benami get votes by forcing her to play the sympathy card. Should she have just answered his questions? America loves a sob story even more than it loves on-key singing, so perhaps Seacrest was right to keep pushing her. But because she resisted, he ended up looking pushy and Benami suspiciously guarded, especially because reality-TV viewers are used to seeing people dump their most painful secrets before the first commercial break of the premiere. She’s not long for American Idol, but Seacrest just might have inadvertently pushed her over the edge.