Why We All Love and Hate Reality Talent Shows

This is something of a true confessional, a commiseration and joined celebration of talent shows. It’s a coming out about a somewhat guilty pleasure and source of pain. I’m talking about my draw to music competitions, mostly the various X Factors (U.S., U.K. & Australia), Voices (same countries) and _’s Got Talent (Britain, Australia & America). From time to time, I even get pulled into shows from Ireland (consistently worst judges ever) and New Zealand, as well as non-English speaking shows. By and large, my favorites are the big stage auditions with surprisingly great talent. Now, by the time they get to the big stage, they’ve already gone through a number of gate-keepng rounds, but the first big stage audition is usually the one that resonates most with us, if postings on youtube are any judge. There are those times of real surprise of fabulous singing such as Carly Rose Sonenclar‘s “Feeling Good”, Ella Henderson’s “Missed” to Susan Boyle‘s “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Mis. For all of those highlights, the judges sit through many poor acts but even for us viewers, there are the many times of seemingly poor choices on the judges, the periodic poor manner in which some contestants are managed and the ones who have talent but not a talent for pressured talent shows.

So why are so many of us drawn into these types of shows? There those times of magic where it felt like an intimately shared moment of joy, triumph and surprise. We are allowed into raw, emotionally-charged moments where the artists put themselves totally on the line and laying it out in front of the world. We also love finding that surprise person where we not only see new talent but talent packaged in a way that totally surprises us. Susan Boyle is a case study of that but my favorite is Carmelo Munzone from X Factor Australia singing Maroon V’s Sunday Morning.” Guy Sebastian says it for all of us: “They think I’m some nutter wearing spotty shorts…” We also love simply discovering new talent even when we’re not shocked. And there’s watching the judges during the surprise or as they simply delight process. Finally, it can be a time where our own musical choices feel validated.

So, we love to “find” that new talent, to cheer on those we love and even have “our” talent win. It is with rare exceptions, however, that the “progression” in the shows is a good thing. I’m still struck with one of the most blatant cases of this misdirection: Vendulka Wichta auditioned on X Factor Australia with a stunning and unique rendition of the Beatles’ Blackbird.” After some unwise guidance, she was let go at the judges house because she didn’t have enough range in her music – everything she did was folk. So she comes back next year, dresses differently and sings pop. Now they fuss at her, despite recognizing she sang well, for it not being genuinely her. You couldn’t win for losing. That’s not to say the guidance of the judges isn’t often good, but they often create over-produced versions of the talent that seem to bury the talent under the production and almost always produce performances less compelling than those initial raw auditions.

As incredibly drawn as we are, we struggle with those really bad calls (we know those places where our tastes differ, that’s not these), those performances with over produced, dolled up talent, choosing songs and pushing talent in directions they shouldn’t go. The whole fake drama and over-selling the pressure of the show becomes a bit old. When the competition leads to judges providing fake comments or guidance is an irritant as well. So, I think for many of us, we have a love/hate relationship with these shows.

Let’s face it, there’s some great talent that isn’t designed to do well in talent shows. Chelsea Redfern took Britain’s Got Talent by storm with her “Purple Rain but didn’t go far. She has an amazing voice but not the personality to do well in this kind of show. (By the way, her rendition of “At Last rivals that of Etta James herself.) We also need to recognize that they’re looking for bookable talent that will sell records and concerts, not necessarily the best singer. Even so, there are ways to manage this better for all. We’ll always disagree with who should win, but it would be great to see the best done for all. So what could make it better? The main way to improve the process is to allow the contestant to shine through. Often it seems that the production hides the singer. While we want to see their range, we also want to see that singer, not some version of them that doesn’t really exist. Let them be more a part of the process of picking songs and the way their presented.

One thing’s for sure, there’s lots of amazing talent and a number of those talented acts are launched on a great career, even those who haven’t won such as Ella Henderson (see here for a review of her album Chapter One and here for a review of the bonus tracks). Here’s hoping for a little more sanity in the process.