More young people now believe they have the talent to be famous, whatever the reality.

So you think you can sing. But is it possible that, actually, you can't? As Australian Idol launches on Channel Ten tonight with the Melbourne auditions, audiences across the country will again be subjected to the spectacle of hordes of teens and 20-somethings with ambitions in reverse proportion to their talent.

And if you think it's bad for us, spare a thought for the judges, who not only have to sit through hours of caterwauling but have to then deliver cogent criticism – something the wannabes are often experiencing for the first time in their lives.

''I'm finding the kids these days are not prepared to take criticism. I think that's kids in general,'' says Idol judge Ian ''Dicko'' Dickson. And he blames the parents. ''There seems to be an absolute rabid desire to give kids as much care and attention as possible and I think a lot of it takes the form of over-affirmation,'' he says. ''And we see this a lot on our show. You can see it's the first time any of these kids have had a real brush with reality.''

Adding to the problem is a sense of unrealistic entitlement. ''There's all this – 'if you dream it, if you visualise it, it will happen'. We hear this bandied about all the time: you can be anything you want to be,'' Dickson says. ''Well, clearly that's not the case. If you're tone deaf, you're not going to become a singer.''

Sadly, increasing numbers of young folk believe they are both entitled and able, thanks to their parents, thanks to lazy new-age mumbo-jumbo, and thanks to a general milieu that makes it all seem so easy. The roster of TV and radio game shows and talent quests is endless. Just this week a promotion for a remake of the movie Fame opened with the line ''Got talent? Get famous!'', and offered a chance at – you guessed it – instant celebrity. And that's on top of an advertising and marketing machine that makes a glamorous life seem not just accessible, but the norm.

''We market unrealistic aspirations to young kids all the time,'' Dickson says. ''They're bombarded by messages all the time of this perfect, exciting, sexy adolescent life. It's hardly surprising their desires far outstrip their needs, and their abilities.''

A report from the Pew Institute in the US a couple of years ago found that for 81 per cent of 18-25-year-olds, their chief ambition in life was to be rich. For 51 per cent of them, what they most ardently desired was to be famous.

Long-time theatre producer John Frost (The ProducersPriscilla, Queen of the DesertWicked) has really begun to notice what he calls a lack of ''stickability'' in his younger performers. ''A lot of them don't really want to do eight shows a week. They'd rather walk down the red carpet at the Logies,'' he says. ''I don't think younger people are prepared to do the hard yards. They come in and think it's all fantastic and glamorous and think they're going to be a star overnight, and then when the reality hits them, they disappear very quickly.''

Frost says as a kid starting out, the most important advice he was given was to shut up and listen. These days, that kind of advice isn't administered nearly enough. ''People can't say what they really think any more,'' he says. ''And one of the positive things about shows like Idol is, all right, you get up there and fall flat on your face. And if you're smart enough to take it on, falling flat on your face is an important life lesson.''

Dr Samantha Thomas, a health sociologist at Monash University, says the desire to be noticed is a pretty fundamental human impulse, but the global nature of new technology makes it both easier to put yourself out there, and much harder to stand out from the crowd. ''So we start seeing footage of kids fighting in the playground, texting pictures of their privates, all that kind of thing. It's about kids trying to be special and different and carving themselves a bit of a niche – but also making that visible to as many people as they possibly can. And that's a new thing.''

Likewise, while we've always had celebrities, the nature of celebrity has changed profoundly. In the 19th century we went crazy over explorers and adventurers. In the 1950s it was a handful of carefully groomed movie stars. Then musicians joined the pantheon, then sports stars. In the past decade, the list of who counts as a celebrity has exploded.

''Back in my day [Thomas is 36] we had a few A-list celebrities who we all looked up to, but nowadays we not only have A-list celebrities we have Z-list celebrities and then we have reality TV celebrities – who are the people who are famous for doing nothing. And all these things conspire together to make young people want to be famous because they think they can. It seems accessible and easy.''

Like Dickson, Thomas is one of many who see the under-30s as an entitled generation. They've grown up in a period of unprecedented prosperity, raised by two working parents. ''It's a very spoilt generation because parents are trying to assuage their guilt for putting their kids in day care,'' Thomas says.

This is also a generation who have always been on camera, who have had their lives recorded from the time they're in the womb. Perhaps, unthinkingly, parents are normalising the idea of performing for the camera.

Nor is it just the kids who are suckers for celebrity culture. ''I'm always slightly horrified with the number of parents who put their girls into these child-modelling agencies, or these very young kids we see on things like Australia's Got Talent. Parents taking kids to auditions, even birthday parties with pamper sessions and glamour shots,'' Thomas says. ''I wonder if as well as the messages we get from the media and popular culture, parents are also reinforcing this in kids, that this a natural and exciting thing to aspire to.''

We love to blame the media – and certainly it's blame-worthy – but young people's obsession with fame is a much more complex equation.

''It's part of the family, part of media, part of consumer society. It ties in so many aspects and agencies within our community,'' Thomas says. ''Then you look at something like the rise in cosmetic surgery for teens. It's the parents who are paying for it. Do parents think they have to have the perfect-looking child who's also a super high-achiever? Or are they just not setting boundaries? Maybe this is the generation of 'look at me' children and 'can't say no' parents."

Setting boundaries is one of the golden rules of contemporary parenting, but so is being supportive. It's a difficult balance to strike, and one in which some parents are clearly failing.

Even kind-hearted Marcia Hines, speaking about her role as Idol judge a couple of years ago, was frank about the importance of constructive criticism – and the unwillingness of many of the young singers they saw to take it.

''I do believe kids don't like being told how it could be done better,'' she said. ''A lot of the things we see when we watch those auditions is very bad parenting.''

''It's an interesting and delicate issue, that balance between affirming and encouraging children's strengths, but at the same time with a level of realism,'' says Melbourne University educational psychologist Erica Frydenberg. Parents – and teachers – are supposed to make their charges feel special. But not superior. We're supposed to reward effort, rather than achievement. But what if the effort is actually pretty poor?

''Every kid isn't the superstar,'' Frydenberg says. ''That's just the reality. What you don't want to do is discourage at a very early age. You want to provide opportunity but without giving unrealistic feedback. That's part of healthy communication, being direct without being destructive.''

''Children need praise and acknowledgement. It's a very important part of gaining a sense of self-worth and self-esteem,'' says psychologist Dr Simon Crisp, a specialist in youth issues. ''I think there's a difference, though, between someone being told there's something special about them, and being told there's something inherently superior.''

Crisp believes it's not so much that parents won't criticise their children, but that they're forgetting to teach them the value of communal effort, and of humility. ''We've conflated the idea of importance and value with being famous,'' he says. ''We see them as being synonymous but in fact they're very often not. For a society to be successful we need people who are leaders and people who are followers and people who quietly stick at things without being noticed. We can't base a society on everybody being a leader. Part of a parent's role is to help a developing young person understand the contribution they can make in ways other than attracting fame.''

Failure to do so not only creates a generation of look-at-me brats, it can have grave consequences for the young person's wellbeing. If we grow up without boundaries, if we never learn our limits, if we are instilled with the belief that we're destined for greatness, it can have profound psychological (and subsequently physical) effects when that destiny isn't fulfilled.

Writing in The Guardian last month, Madeleine Bunting attributed skyrocketing rates of depression and associated illness among young women to what another expert had identified as a ''narcissism epidemic'': young women had developed huge expectations of themselves and their lives, made unrealistic predictions about what they could achieve, and then came crashing down when none of that eventuated.

Idol's Dickson says even worse than enduring the ghastly singing is the broader implications for the deluded youngsters he sees. ''The worst thing is the tragedy of overbearing parents who have just absolutely cosseted their children from any reality at all. I think those kids are in for a world of pain and underachievement. And I think at some point the relationship is not going to be able to bear the discrepancy between what the kid's been told, and what the reality will be. When reality does hit, the kid's going to look at the parents and say, 'why didn't you tell me?'.''

Crisp says one of the worst things a parent can do is protect their child from failure. ''You can never get enough of it! The road to success is paved with a thousand failures. Failure provides important feedback about what works and what doesn't. It helps develop persistence and the ability to continue in the face of hardship and setbacks.''

In fact, he believes one of the jobs of a parent is to actually enable failure. ''That can be as simple as allowing your toddler to fall down. They're learning the limits of their balance and stability. From that they improve co-ordination and balance. Teenagers and young adults need to experience setbacks and learn from that – that helps build their skills and abilities and ultimately leads to greater success.''

What's telling about the Idol experience is that it's the kids who went in without superstar aspirations who have succeeded. People such as Guy Sebastian, Shannon Noll and Damien Leith had already done a fair bit of hard graft in building their careers. All of them came from solid, unpretentious and decidedly non-theatrical families, and all of them were far less interested in celebrity than in simply making a living from their music.

When Rob Mills rocked up to the Idol auditions in 2003, it was very much with a suck-it-and-see attitude. ''I'd auditioned for Pop Star a couple of years before, just thinking, what might happen? Mainly I was thinking maybe it could help me work out what path I wanted to go down.''

Mills had already experienced a healthy quota of failure in his 21 years, including not making it into Pop Star, not making it as an AFL footballer, and not making it as an electrician (he discovered he was colour blind). He was working in a factory and playing in a band when he auditioned for Idol. And he didn't really make it there, either, voted out at No. 5. In short, along with a family who were both sensible and supportive, he couldn't have had a better preparation for life – as an entertainer, or otherwise. ''I always loved performing and singing,'' Mills says. ''But the way I was raised, you just got a job, worked, earned enough to support yourself.''

As it turns out, he's done a little better than that, starring as Fiyero in the current production of Wicked. But he's done it the hard way, the-old fashioned way. ''My stepdad said to me when I was a kid, 'I've found that the more I practice, the luckier I get'. And I really took that on board. So for auditions I'd go to a speech class, singing lessons, acting lessons, really prepare the piece.''

Mills says it has also been crucial to get good advice – even when it's negative. ''The most important thing is to get criticism from people you trust. Dicko, for instance, is a ripping bloke, really honest, really supportive, really knows what he's talking about."

Mills has also valued the times he's fallen flat on his face. ''That old saying of what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger is so true. If you're brought up in a bubble or with a silver spoon, you're going to get knocked one day and you're not going to be able to handle it. But my upbringing was: you don't take anything for granted. You're always aware how fortunate you are, you're respectful of what you have and what comes your way. And you never stop learning.'' (…)


Source: WA today –