What does it say about a culture that routinely places form over substance? We do it in journalism, we do it in politics, we do it in publishing, but nowhere do we do it like we do in the entertainment world.
It may be what popular televised talent competitions have become, but you have to wonder, whose fault is that? The producers who bow to audience demographics? Marketers who pander to immature, crass consumers who have no point of reference to distinguish between talent and glitzy packaging? As viewers have we become too lazy to think? We’re fed the lowest common denominator of programming – the vulgar appeal of cannibalistic voyeurism. And yet we’re glued to the television, tweeting and whining “OMG this is awful” as we stuff our mouths with Cheetos, Fritos and Pepsi-Xfactor. Charming, aren’t we?
From the first American Idol, I was no fan of Simon Cowell. As a musician and a writer, I know painfully well the power of so-called critics who trod on the tender seedlings of talent with their harsh words and hobnailed boots. The damage is seldom repairable. I think particularly of judges whose egos drive their cruel commentary – they’re competing with the poor desperate souls who stand before them, praying for any crumb of encouragement.
Begrudgingly, I have come to adore and respect Simon. In his current role on The X-Factor, Simon is the one person who tells it like it is. When contestants dreams are bigger than their talent, he says so and I echo his sentiments as I shout at the television: “OMG, you need to go home.” However, the cynic in me knows that these shows select some contestants for the promise of just how bad of a train wreck they will bring to the millions of viewers. Someone has figured out that watching emotionally unstable contestants spiral out of control with paralyzing stage fright accompanied by a gut-wrenching gush of tears, is great television. Why? Because the measure is how many teens and tweens with obscene purchasing power are watching, and they don’t know the difference between tragedy and comedy. Talent is incidental to the spectacle.
Case in point: this week in the Teen Group, one very young female contestant, Diamond White, demonstrated remarkable confidence, talent and resilience. But ultimately she was tossed out in favor of a slightly older male teen, Arin Ray, who has no vocals but he knows just how to bite his bottom lip and grind his groin for the throngs of screaming young girls. That’s all it takes, as Elvis well knew – but his talent always came first.
Judge/mentor of the Teen Group, Brittany Spears, is an amazing surprise and an amazingly serious judge who amazingly takes her amazing job very seriously and does her amazing best, with an amazingly limited vocabulary. But despite Brittany’s lack of eloquence she made a shrewd and calculated decision when she selected Arin to go forward. No doubt her decision was based on anticipated audience voting which begins next week. Her little teen heart-throb will likely garner far more votes — because that screaming female audience votes – big time – for the boys, not for the talent – and Brittany wants to win. That audience isn’t old enough or sophisticated enough to recognize little Diamond’s serious potential. The producers don’t care. It’s not about talent, it’s about ratings, and votes, and controversy. A vampiric formula that sucks out every ounce of human drama.
Does this behavior do anything to elevate society and cultivate the best in any of us? Nope, but we’re gonna watch anyway. I appreciate talent – in all its forms, even the unsuspecting hoards of star wannabes who risk everything, including the ultimate humiliation, to have an audition with anyone – even someone who’s own interests trump the contestant’s. Guess I’m rooting for the deserving underdog who might just beat them at their own game.
Disturbingly, today’s contestants have their cart before their horse. They display an alarming arrogance that suggests winging it will do. Why not? If all the players on their first grade soccer team got a trophy for coming in dead last, shouldn’t they expect a similar result from a perfect storm of misaligned values and unrealistic expectations.
I could go on and on about what is patently wrong with The X-Factor. Demi Lovato comments to every contestant about what she sees behind their eyes. Canned critique de jour, anyone? L.A. Reid, in an unbelievable display of BAD FORM, shamefully dissed his team on day one, telling them he didn’t want them. Now on every episode he savagely ridicules any contestant mentored by Simon. There are the over-the-top musical arrangements meant to camouflage, not enhance a performance; three mega-screen-backdrops, sure to distract from any flawed performance.
Do I need to mention the current “hosts?” One doesn’t hesitate to read his question twice, even though it was just answered. Oh, sorry, is paying attention a host requirement? The other host can barely read the teleprompter so don’t be expecting her to articulate that string of words with anything resembling conversational phrasing. I think it might be above her pay grade. OMG, hosting is like, soooooooooo totally hard. Well, actually it is if you do it right, and you need to be good at it to not look pathetically ridiculous – but then, isn’t being pathetically ridiculous what she’s traded on for the entirety of her twenty-minute career as a celebrity? Meoooow.
Ah, the producers definitely have our number, don’t they? The American audience: attention span on a very short leash, reduced to a mindless Roman Colosseum mob, screaming for the lions to be thrown to the Christians. Er, is it the other way round? No matter, it’s not a pretty sight either way, and speaks volumes about the lack of substance in our culture, never mind our willingness to keep watching even when it’s bad bad bad.
However, do allow me to offer an alternative to the train wreck above. The Voice, is another show I had little hope for in it’s first two seasons. But surprise! In this season, the talent is dazzling in its range. Where have all these wonderful people been hiding? No doubt, wishing the entertainment industry would go against the grain and create an a venue like The Voice that actually elevates and rewards substance.
Judges Adam Levine, CeeLo Greene, Christina Aguilera and Blake Shelton, actually get it right. They have honed their craft with years of struggle, and each one is a skilled vocalist – not just a pop star. They have much to give and that’s the core of the show, that and how the contestants apply that sage advice to their performances. Theirs is an esprit de corps that’s fun, bringing levity to the high drama of what’s at stake. But always the contestants come first and that shines through.
Carson Daly, one of the Desert’s own, does a smooth, credible job as the host and gracefully keeps things moving, doing his best to avoid awkward moments. Of course the coaches want to win the competition, but they’re going about it by making their contestants the very best they can be. That’s not hard when you have incredible raw talent with which to work. No need to shove contestants into ill advised costuming and strange hair arrangements, or plunge them into wild productions that obscure the performance.
So, I’ll go out on a limb here and tell you that there is so much potential on The Voice, any one of my favorites could win: Terry McDermott, Amanda Brown, Dez Duron, Loren Allred, Casadee Pope – they all have extraordinary talent and something else in common…they’ve been working on their craft for a very long time. It shows.
Bravo The Voice…but don’t worry – the producers/networks/or whomever the powers-that-be are – someone will undoubtedly find a way to screw it up. They always do. Enjoy it while you can. Just remember my old saying: Talent isn’t rare…talent with discipline is rare.