The Talent Show Circus

TV talent shows like American Idol aren’t new by any means – they’ve been around in the UK since the late 1950s, when they transferred from the radio environment.  In a lot of ways, they drew on the “variety” tradition which had been big in the UK for many years.  Variety shows actually grew out of music hall, and covered a number of different types of acts – singers, magicians, comedians, dancers and more.

Viewer voting came in during the 1960s, but of course this was about postal voting in the pre-internet days.  By the 1980s, the idea of the judging panel had appeared, but the shows were still about a variety of different acts, not just singers.

The first show to major on vocalists was Stars in their Eyes, which was inspired by karaoke; the performers weren’t being themselves, it was more about the contestants putting themselves forward as tribute acts.  However, it’s interesting that the most enduring person from this particular show was a guy called Gary Mullen, who became one of the best-known Freddie tributes over here.

The big change to talent shows in the UK came about with the turn of the 21st century with Pop Stars, Pop Idol and the X Factor.  These were all about singers as themselves, and the concept of talent shows as intense reality TV was born.  The singers were shown from the audition stages through a complex selection process.  It was “warts and all” – they were stripped bare and shown at their most vulnerable as well as when they were performing.  We were allowed candid views of them all living together, rehearsing, choosing their style for each performance and enduring the judges’ often very caustic comments. They were also required to perform a large number of musical styles and were voted off by the public, one by one.  It’s a worldwide franchise and the format is repeated in many countries.

pop_idol_2003a

In one way, the modern talent show format is a really good way to get to know performers; you learn a lot of things about them as individuals, and if they progress through week by week, you get to see them perform a wide range of different music.

But – I have a problem with a lot of these shows; in some ways, I find them quite cruel and because of that, I’m very selective about the ones that I watch. Some of them send me to hide behind the settee as they make me squirmy for entirely the wrong reasons. There is a lot of manipulation of the audience by the production team; there have been exposes in the UK press about how footage is carefully chosen to give some contestants an edge over the others and therefore encourage the public to vote in a certain direction.  Also, during the audition stages of some shows, the edit it done to include some of the no-hopers, which must be awful for them to see on screen.  I think if I found that I was nowhere near the standard required, I would want to slink off home and forget about it (although I realise that some people might be OK with getting seen on TV at any price).

I therefore take my hat off to anyone who wants to put themselves through the talent show circus; the upside is that it does give a lot of TV exposure in a short space of time to those that get through to the live rounds, but it looks as though it’s an utterly gruelling experience and not one I would ever have had the faintest desire to do.  Auditioning for opera companies was bad enough, and that was always in private.

From what I’ve seen, singing talent shows are produced to a standard recipe the world over; the producers and judges pick people to suit certain stock roles; Adam was clearly cast as “Rock Guy” and produced some stunning performances in this style, such as the rock classic Whole Lotta Love.

(Video from 21glambert’s uploads)

The judges were clearly knocked out by him singing in this style and it was evidently the first time in American Idol that a contestant had attempted Led Zeppelin.

However, the key to winning talent competitions in the 21st century is versatility. On top of casting people into particular niches, the show format then requires them to morph themselves into many different styles; there will be a movies/Hollywood week, a “rock” week, ballads and so on.  To get through to the next round, the singers have to be successful in whichever style is required, therefore the singers with the most flexible voices are often the people who get through to the final; mess up a week, and you might be out unless you have a very strong voting contingent.

The danger point for Adam was probably the “Grand Ole Opry” week when he opted for an off the wall arrangement of Ring of Fire, including sitars.  The judges’comments were… interesting.

(video from mara1bp’s uploads)

However, having read a lot of comments about Adam’s performances throughout the competition, this song was a WTF moment for a lot of people and made them really start rooting for him as he’d pushed the boundaries to the extreme.

So, what happens if you get through to the final, or even better, if you win the coveted title?  These days the winners are rewarded with a recording contract and a place on a tour.  Then things get a bit more uncertain; in the UK, a lot of winners/finalists from talent shows have sunk without trace.  The problem is that there are so many wannabees out there that the record companies and promoters know that their protégés are expendable; reap the rewards from a couple of albums and tours, and if they’re not exactly what you want going forward, or if there is a better prospect on the horizon, drop them.

The successful alumni from the likes of Pop Idol, X Factor and Pop Stars make a depressingly short list.  One Direction have probably done the best, but they are a formulaic boy band in a market where formulaic boy bands do well, as they are carefully chosen and groomed, and there are plenty of teenage girls out there who will buy the music and go to the concerts.  Some other winners and finalists have successful careers for a few years, then slowly decline; one or two have gone into music theatre or acting.

Why don’t they survive longer? Is it that the public don’t really take them seriously? Is the problem with the record companies’ attitude to talent contest winners?  Do they really make the effort to promote their artists properly after that first or second album?

I wonder whether the formula of taking people through several different styles is right; why not get the singers to perform the music they do best, rather than trying to shoehorn them into something that doesn’t suit them? Musicians who come into the public eye through the usual route (record company) don’t have to go through these sorts of shenanigans and the public instantly know what their style is.

425.winner.idol.lr052009

For Adam, putting himself through AI worked – his natural talent and solid vocal technique mean that he has a truly “elastic” voice that can get round nearly anything. Also, he’s said in interview that he was not sure whether he was the right fit for AI and was of the view that he could use the experience to get more work elsewhere, so it was a win-win situation for him.  I’m firmly of the opinion that the single biggest favour Simon Cowell did for Adam was organising the appearance with Queen in the final, as that was the trigger for the whole QAL adventure.  As I said in another post, being the runner up made him the winner.

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8 thoughts on “The Talent Show Circus

  1. I’m really enjoying this blog – thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. What were your favourite Adam Lambert performances from American Idol?

    I’m similar to you in the sense that I first discovered Adam’s voice (though it was a few years ago) and only afterwards saw his journey through the Idol show. It makes for an interesting perspective, because most of his fans, I think, discovered him on American Idol. I only watched those performances on youtube (there’s a compilation video) so I was never in that position of comparing him with the other contestants or rooting for him, etc. I don’t watch these singing competitions, because it’s so subjective – how can you really compare artists on a truly objective level? But, of course, when I discovered Adam a few years ago and fell in love with his incredible voice, I listened to everything I could find, including his American Idol experience.

    I remember at first I didn’t want to watch it, because I thought I wouldn’t like it – I thought the format of the show, the fact it was a competition and they were singing covers, would ruin it for me somehow – I don’t know, I was just content at first to listen to Adam’s own music. But then I found earlier recordings of his voice – from musical theatre and cabaret, where he did covers as well – and I thought, of course, he can sing anything and stay true to himself at the same time. With that in mind, I watched the American Idol compilation video – which really tracks his journey from the audition level to the final – and I was simply blown away, even though I was expecting him to be great, even though I already knew the outcome, he still made it thrilling and so watchable. A true talent, in every sense of that word – his natural gifts, his expert technique, and all his hard work and dedication just made any song he sang incredible.

    But, just because I liked Adam on Idol, it doesn’t mean I’m suddenly a convert when it comes to singing competitions. Most of these kids (I feel) are just at the beginning of finding out who they are as people and artists. Sure, they may have raw talent, but I don’t think that’s enough. For me, it isn’t. I like trained voices, I want to see/hear proper technique, I enjoy hearing in somebody’s voice that they’ve dedicated their entire lives to their art. As they say, success is 10% talent and 90% hard work, but these talent competitions (most of the time) can only show you somebody’s talent — that’s why they can’t predict who is going to be successful afterwards, because they leave out so much from the equation.

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  2. Pingback: Adam Lambert Week – March 1-7, 2015 |

  3. Great post, thanks! You have a lot of good info and insights. I’ve never understood why people hold it against Adam that he participated in American Idol. So what’s wrong with that? What’s an acceptable way then for new talent to be noticed/discovered? Must some record producer discover them singing in an obscure club somewhere? Happen upon them doing an impromptu in an airport? Find them when they send a tape to a studio? What? Just makes no sense that “American Idol Runner Up” would be used as a pejorative. And the ‘runner up’ is seldom forgotten either, though the real reason why he didn’t win is usually overlooked. Hint: it wasn’t for lack of talent. I agree, though, that in the end it was to his benefit, as it freed him to follow his heart, which led him straight to Queen! I am still and likely always will be in awe at Adam’s talent. His voice is truly one in a billion. Hope you keep writing. You’re awfully good at it and have something to say!

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    • For me, the real issue with the talent show setup is that although the audience do the voting, it’s so easy to engineer or manipulate them to what the producers want out of the show. The thing that makes me most sad about the talent show setup is that so few people go on to have a decent career; it’s almost as though the format makes them expendable as there will be someone else along next year.

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  4. What a shame, as it seems like it could easily be a viable way for hitherto unknown talent to be noticed. But I’m astute enough to realize that you’re probably right. Even so, I’m grateful to AI because without it, I’m not sure the world would now have Adam …

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  5. Thank you SO much for writing this blog ! I was meant to be asleep hours ago but can’t stop reading it ! I have been a huge Adam fan since AI and went to the Newcastle and Sheffield QAL shows. I love your musical insight. Admittedly I do tend to have a dislike for the way contestants can be “treat” on these TV shows … however I will always be grateful to SImon Cowell & Fuller , as had it not been for AI we would not have had the absolute gift that is Adam & his voice … and everything else in his glorious package !!!!

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