It's not talent it's marketing – deadly to music and damaging to people

(September 16, 2014)

From time to time I’ve been known to rant about televised talent shows, specifically those to do with music. Well here’s another outing, number three in fact. Millions of sane, normal, presumably well-adjusted people sit down to watch such ‘talent’ shows and have a jolly time doing so I’m sure. For my money I would rather eat my shoes. However, putting aside my personal preference and my enduring loathing of marketing hype, such shows either turn out a vast number of ‘same as’ artists or leave wreckage in their wake. Originality is not only lacking, it’s not what these programmes are looking for. They want ‘same as’ artists that fit a formula that works. They also want ‘sacrificial’ victims they can lay on the altar of fame – either through the initial judges-only auditions, in front of the voracious appetite of a baying mob or the crushing comedown of ‘boot camp’.

What do I mean by ‘same as’? The answer is simple, there’s little discernible difference between the singers. Of course, they look different but do they really sound different? Outside of a few categories divided by age – they’re all alike. The hard-up 30-something mum working 60 hours a week to make ends meet. The nice but dim fat guy who you know will dissolve into tears at the drop of a hat but has a voice hiding in there. The anxious punk, the dedicated Goth, the ageing hippy (take your pick), or the eternally hopeful person-with-guitar who wants to circumnavigate the hard-grind of making a name on a club circuit. There are those that sing their own questionable songs and those that murder the work of well-known artists. Naturally, there’s the group of skinny-jeaned, spray-tanned, plastic youths with gel in their hair that want to be a ‘boy-band’. (Which incidentally, is a term I abhor. Bands play instruments.A ‘boy band’ is a bunch of nubile male singers that do not play musical instruments, either in recordings or on stage. By the way, they also indulge in choreographed performances of dubious merit.) These programmes look for and find, marketable stereotypes, not much talent.

Raising hopes to ludicrous levels

Such programmes also thrive on misery, while some individuals and groups are better singers than others, some cannot sing at all, some have no personality, while others exhibit all the social graces of a cornered puff adder. Those unfortunate souls are often told they ‘have something’ (when they should be shown the door) only to fall all the harder when they find they don’t. The tears of joy, family hugs and universal rejoicing that greet the required number of ‘yes’ votes in the first stages, along with the great expectations fired up by the judging team, all come to nothing. And there isn’t one person watching that couldn’t have told these poor souls that in the first place.

The essence of these shows is to raise hopes to ludicrous levels and then bring them crashing down. It makes good television and it sells advertising space. What it doesn’t do is take into consideration the damage done to the participants. Psychological stress aside, many potential employers, friends and colleagues that cringe as they watch them go through the wringer may not forget what they’ve witnessed, especially when the victims turn up for an interview.

A place of ridicule and delusion

Amusing though this process may be for some, watching the ‘auditions’ simply to laugh at deluded individuals smacks of a certain voyeuristic pleasure – possibly ‘schadenfreude’ (pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others) at its worst. Also, bear in mind the true motivator for many of these people is not to become a singer. To most of them ‘singer’ is secondary, most of them just want to be famous and how they get there is largely unimportant. If you offered most of them a chance at fame to ponce around painted blue with their heads on fire they would leap at the chance.

The concept of these talent competitions is based on ridicule and delusion, driven by marketing and greed, directly damaging to music and feeding off the completely false premise that fame brings fulfilment. As each segment of the fresh lunacy continues the ‘no-hope’ hopefuls eventually return to life’s ‘I want to be famous bin’ and the required number of ‘some-hope’ hopefuls are on their way to the next round

Aside from providing amusement and weeding out the absolute dross, these early auditions always throw up the required number of ‘successfuls’ to perpetuate the programme. Those that despite doe-eyed congratulations from the judges, are clearly there as make-weights’ certain to be ditched as the torture continues. Don’t forget, these poor sods are only selected to ensure the show runs for its allotted number of weeks, the network is happy with the viewing figures and the advertisers pay vast sums to have their products slotted into the breaks, parting with their cash because they know it’s ‘prime time’ television.

As a by-product, although a carefully planned by-product, the suave impresario plus the gibbering and transparently insincere sidekick hope to find another ‘star’ to manage, taking their massive cut along the way. Also, more television-time is assured for other so-called ‘celebrity judges’ as they pocket another wedge for behaving like petulant school kids when they argue with each other. Hands up anyone that believes these ‘arguments’ are spontaneous and not carefully scripted – no, I thought not. Also, hands up anyone that believes the faintly dopey sidekick chooses the weirdest contestants because he thinks they’re good. Of course not, he does that because it increases his media profile.

Nothing more than ‘human confection’

I would also ask just how many boy bands or talent-free adolescents can the world stand? The allure of these individuals is either aimed at pre-pubescent children or kiss-smothering grannies - surely both have had enough by now? And just how painfully patronising can the disingenuous, over-exuberant host be to weeping youngsters as they survey the public destruction of their fragile dreams? Or is it that these 'confection children' are simply that and that alone. Sweet to taste but not everlasting. They are nothing more than ‘human confection’ that some find ‘nice to look at’ but without any lasting impression. Unfortunately, in the way of these competitions, it also happens that the occasional one or two people that do offer something different are overlooked in the early stages as ‘not commercial’. Worse yet, those that make it through the first trial then somehow become the property of their ‘mentor’. This so-called guide then makes them sing some pointless drivel that’s totally out of their vocal range or style just to prolong the final agony – sorry – just to rake in more cash.

Nowhere in this extended torture is there a true exploration of talent. There’s exploitation. There’s façade without structure, form without substance. There’s a veneer applied to a carcass. All that television talent shows look for is image, which will inevitably fade or be swept away by the next syrupy marketing hype waiting to come down the line. And my friends that’s what marketing always needs – something new, always, and forever. Nothing persists. Longevity is bad. In that world everything is replaceable and transient, otherwise how would its acolytes keep their jobs?

Jaded, ancient and cynical I may be but I cannot accept that television talent shows have anything to do with music or song, never mind how many times some urbane promoter repeats the phrase: “This is a singing completion.” No it’s not. It’s marketing. It’s insidious marketing, which if we are not careful potentially sounds a death-knell for struggling musicians and in the end damages both music and people.

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