Within the first 30 seconds of her new VH1 show, Linda Perry manages to effectively shade every other music-competition reality series on TV. Success in the music industry, she tells us, is “not about spinning chairs and picking people out of a lineup — it’s about hard work in the studio.” As the former frontwoman of 4 Non Blondes and, more importantly, the songwriter and producer behind Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” much of Pink’s massively successful 2001 album Missundaztood, and even a good deal of Courtney Love’s post-Celebrity Skin output, Perry certainly has the authority to make that kind of statement. But with Make or Break: The Linda Perry Project, her aim isn’t just to challenge formulaic shows like The Voice and American Idol (both of which are currently in ratings free-fall) — it’s to change popular music.
“The music industry is missing passion and emotion,” Perry says, early in the show’s debut episode (which airs tonight and is already streaming on VH1’s website). This is most definitely a reductive statement, but when you survey the pop-music landscape, it’s not entirely off-base, either: from Lady Gaga to Katy Perry to Miley Cyrus, polish and persona seem more valuable than genuine feeling in getting an act to the top of the charts these days. (Perhaps that’s starting to change, though.) Despite releasing the most personal album of her career in December, Beyoncé’s mask of perfection remains impenetrable. Even R&B, perhaps the most emotive of all mainstream genres, has lately been characterized by a sort of numb listlessness.
“Emotion” does become a bit of a buzzword on Make or Break, but at least it’s one that Perry has earned. A cursory glance at her discography reveals that her biggest successes (including 4 Non Blondes’ sole hit, the karaoke standard “What’s Up”) have come out of demanding honesty and commitment from musicians. “I’m great at producing people,” she recently told BuzzFeed. “I’m great at working with people and collaborating. And if my biggest gift of all is that I’m really good at pulling things from people and helping them become better at what they’re doing, I’m here, as I believe all of us are, to be of service.” Perry has a reputation for leaning hard on her collaborators and clients (one that stars like Pink, Aguilera, and Steven Tyler emphasize in a series of quick interviews that, interspersed throughout the premiere, feel a bit too much like testimonials on an infomercial).
This is the Linda Perry magic that the hopefuls on Make or Break (four solo artists and three groups) both crave and fear as they make themselves at home in LA’s historic Paramour Mansion. It’s a diverse cast, at least for a bunch of musicians desperate to break through to the mainstream, with acts encompassing everything from rock and folk to pop and hip hop. What they all have in common, Perry tells them, is that they have talent — that’s why she wants to work with them — but for some reason their careers have stalled.
Casting artists who are all, in their own way, veterans of the industry is Make or Break‘s first major point of departure from the American Idol formula. Instead of crafting fairy tales of fresh faces and powerful, untrained voices (not to mention, in Idol seasons past, figures Simon Cowell found sufficiently fuckable), Perry presents a group of performers who’ve had the much more common experience of toiling in obscurity for years, despite possessing at least some of the raw material for success. They haven’t won the lottery; as the show’s title suggests, they’ve reached an impasse. One act, an all-female rock group called Hunter Valentine that’s been at it for a decade, needs immediate attention from Perry when it becomes clear that the relationship between its longtime frontwoman and a new member has gone toxic. “You have to do something drastic,” says Perry, or the band will go nowhere. That pretty much goes for everyone on the show. If these artists don’t give their all now, they’re bound to fail, and that makes them the perfect candidates for a Linda Perry intervention.
Aside from its premise, Make or Break is also somewhat radical in its structure. Rather than making every contestant hit the same marks each week — rehearsing, then performing, then hearing judges’ critiques, then finding out whether they’ve been eliminated in an unnecessary additional episode — the premiere finds Perry taking just a few artists into the studio to work. First up is a guitar-toting busker named Gabriel Mayers. “He bores me… he’s got no fire,” Perry complains, and then proceeds to bring it out of him by enlisting the help of her band. By the end of their session, he’s full-on emoting into the microphone — not quite like a pro, but certainly in a way that more’s compelling than his original sing-song style. Anjuli Stars, a hip hop artist who’s worked with big names yet remains unsigned, impresses Perry right away, running with a challenge to freestyle and also revealing a strong singing voice. Perry isn’t so sure about Noah Hunt, the teen-friendly dreamboat who seems unable to improvise.
But no one’s eliminated by the end of the episode; it seems that Perry will decide in a more organic way when an act has proven unworthy of her help, and make her cuts then. Even the outcome of Make or Break isn’t set in stone. By the end of the season, Perry will sign at least one — maybe more — of the artists to her record label.
This seems like a healthier process for the musicians than what we’ve seen on those once-mega-popular network franchises, but will collaboration and creativity be as effective in entertaining an audience as glamor and drama? I worry that it won’t. If Make or Break‘s approach to the reality-TV music competition is refreshing, it’s also risky. As someone who’s probably more interested than the average viewer in the behind-the-scenes work of songwriting and recording, I appreciated Perry’s personalized challenges, blunt judgments, and heartfelt advice — yet they didn’t always hold my attention.
The premiere feels sluggish, in a way that’s partially due to editing that feels too loose and aimless, and nothing we learn about the musicians makes viewers particularly invested in their development. Ironically, what the show seems to lack is the passion and momentum Perry is working so hard to bring out in the studio. Make or Break is a great series in theory, and one that I hope will stick around, but it’s as vulnerable on VH1 as its cast members are in the music industry. It’s only going to succeed if it finds that fire.