Kate Bush took to her blog this week to write a letter in support of one Liam Tamne, a contestant on the UK version of The Voice. Tamne was voted off the show by resident musical antichrist will.i.am, despite a performance that seemed objectively better than that of his competition, to much voluble protest from his fans. Frankly, if will.i.am doesn’t like you and Kate Bush does, you’re probably doing something right, and Tamne will hopefully go on to have a successful and productive career. What it all boils down to is more proof that the most interesting thing about shows like American Idol, The X Factor, and The Voice is rarely the winners.
The victors of these shows are a perfect example of a why choosing things by committee is rarely a good idea, unless you enjoy answering “medium” to every question you’re ever asked. The oddballs and genuine personalities are generally weeded out early on, rejected in favor of the sort of homogenous “talent” that’s guaranteed to sell a medium amount of records to a medium amount of people, ensuring a medium return on a medium investment. The people who win talent shows are everything that’s bad about the music industry in 2013 — dull, formulaic, designed to maximize commercial appeal and minimize artistic risk.
This isn’t only a problem artistically; it ultimately doesn’t work — it’s been well documented over the years that the winners on such shows tend to go on to relatively underwhelming careers, while runners-up and other notable contestants often flourish. As Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey argued a couple of weeks back in relation to the movie industry, “you can’t predict what audiences will and won’t respond to, because — whether [producers] want to admit it or not — moviemaking is an art, and when making movies, one must give at least some limited power to artists. You can’t just combine a pleasing menu of ingredients and assume success, as though you’re making energy drinks.”
So it goes with pop stars, also, and it appears that the general public is just as tired of the talent show production line as jaded, despairing music journalists — their ratings have been declining for years. This year’s American Idol, for instance, attracted some 17.93 million viewers, less than half of the 37.44 million it attracted at its peak in 2007. The pattern is repeated across the spectrum of reality talent quests — the audience for the second season of the US version of The X Factor declined 30% from its debut season, and last year’s America’s Got Talent was down 32% from its peak the year before. This isn’t just happening in the US, either — the UK X Factor peaked three years ago after almost a decade of steady growth, and has been in freefall since, shedding 32% of its audience since 2010. The same pattern is reproduced across the globe.
But, ratings decline or not, the talent quest isn’t going anywhere — these shows are super-cheap to make, and even if, say, American Idol never approaches the crazy audience numbers of its halcyon mid-’00s days, it remains a decent risk/reward proposition for Fox, especially in uncertain times. Advertisers love them, too — when even notorious producer Nigel Lythgoe is tiring of the level of product placement, you know the show’s appeal to sponsors remain undimmed.
So talent shows are here to stay. And maybe, just maybe, that’s not an entirely bad thing. For a start, there’s an argument to be made that for all that they’re often underwhelming, they’re still a cut above most other reality TV endeavors, which tend to range from the morally questionable to the flat-out wrong. If stations are gonna make cheap TV, they might as well make cheap TV that a) is not actively, offensively fucking horrible and b) at least has some chance of providing the world with genuinely worthwhile culture, accidentally or otherwise.
The latter point isn’t as unlikely as it sounds — because for all that the unconventional talents tend to get voted off shows early, they still get an audience that they would probably never have otherwise had. The most prominent example of an unconventional talent getting a leg-up to stardom from reality TV is Susan Boyle. Sure, it’s easy to make fun of her, but it’s also genuinely heartwarming to see someone who has an amazing voice and an appearance that meant she would almost certainly have otherwise had no shot at success making it big because she had the guts to get up on stage and sing. (And her first audition on Britain’s Got Talent is still genuinely spine-tingling stuff.)
Still, even if they’re not all Susan Boyles, reality shows have given the world some truly memorable oddballs. There’s something of the freak show of the early rounds of American Idol, et al, but even so, they provide a few rare moments when you see people on television who aren’t conventionally attractive, who may be mentally ill, who come from backgrounds that are rarely represented on TV. Some of them are genuine talents — like the homeless Leneshe Young and her pretty great self-penned audition.
And of course, some of them are, well, just kinda weird; it’s hard to imagine what the viewers of Middle America made of “General” Larry Platt the first time they saw his performance of the idiosyncratically awesome tune “Pants on the Ground,” for instance:
Or the mildly terrifying Quazon and his burlesque song:
Or the apparently endless parade of strange white dudes who somehow came to believe it was an awesome idea to audition with a Pussycat Dolls number:
You can argue that it’s exploitative to put people like this in front of the camera. At times, you’d definitely be right — there’s something genuinely uncomfortable about, say, this, or this. The judges tend to treat the worst and/or weirdest contestants like a joke, and hell, sometimes they are a joke.
Sometimes, though, they’re both talented and weird. Take this guy, for instance, who made it through to the semi-finals of Britain’s Got Talent by rearranging the Star Wars theme song to rid it of trumpets:
How else would a strange Star Wars obsessive ever find himself on national television in a flying saucer? Or these two gentlemen, who apparently have a talent for… um, well, just watch for yourself:
There’s a curious dichotomy about reality TV talent quests — in celebrating homogeneity and formulaic music industry dullness, they also provide a platform for the genuinely strange and idiosyncratic. In that respect, at least, they’re worthy of celebration, as are the, um, unique talents they bring to the world. If we’re stuck with reality TV — and we are — then we should at least rejoice in the fact that it also allows the expression of some of our most unconventional talents. Sometimes, you have to take the good with the bad, eh?