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Is Music a Reality (Show)?

 Image Credit: Miguel Arcanjo Saddi

Image Credit: Miguel Arcanjo Saddi

Fame has always been we the people’s social rat race in and of itself. The celebrities we want to see, hear, or, intrinsically, “be” are sums of a lifelong popularity contest – and, whoever takes the leap to live on the edge, right before our very eyes, has something special the rest of us don’t – Status. In that vein, musical performers who’ve reached a pop cultural apex did so by way of their tireless work and adhering to a painstaking path bound for the sweet pleasure of artistic recognition. 

Yet, in this day and age, the over-inflated business of show has become the ultimate spectacle – a total televised journey of societal ascension. One thing’s for certain, as time marches on, the “reality” of all art forms will be more of a competitive sport than a long, hard road to the top.

The Pursuit of Talent

The history of talent shows involving music goes back to the days of old. The granddaddy of them being ‘The Original Amateur Hour,’ which first aired on television in 1948. Prior to that, it was a radio program which actually featured a budding blue-eyed Frank Sinatra. The TV format allowed viewers at home to either write or telephone in their votes for winners of a variety of acts – if only they could’ve foreseen the tweeting progress to come nigh on 7 decades later. 

It goes without saying, that this relic’s avant-garde setup spawned many later fashionable derivatives, like ‘American Idol,’ ‘America’s Got Talent’ and the laundry list of other national and global spinoffs. 

By far, the most prolific churner of legendary young musicians was ‘Star Search,’ which mainly ran from 1983-1995. The shortlist of stars begot from this staple was everyone from Alanis Morrissette (rocking a very ‘80s hairdo), preteens Brittany Spears and Justin Timberlake (billed as Justin Randall; a cowpoke singing bad country music while he dos-a-dos), a pint-sized Christina Aguilera (who won in 1990), and even queen Beyonce herself, circa 1993 with Destiny’s Child, (then called Girl’s Tyme).

Likewise, of course, ‘Idol’ had it’s Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and Jennifer Hudson, ‘X-Factor’ had their dreamy One Direction – still breaking the hearts of tweens and soccer moms everywhere – so on and so forth. Oddly, no contestants hailing from “The Voice” have gone the eminent distance yet, which, ironically, is now the most popular of these broadcasts.

Onus of Proof

Sure enough, for posterity’s sake, these shows have been the foreground of many breakout singers who’ve made their mark on the status quo. But, the aforementioned 20th-century discoveries weren’t instantly gratified with a celebrity because of their measly “15 minutes of fame.” They, in part, used their nationwide uncovering as a career stepping stone – simply doing what they could within the limits of their newfound audience adulation. Thus, a TV spot was a good start. Then, whatever came next.

Contrary-wise, the new millennium programming that ensued became more mired in the performer’s backstory, often using sympathy pleas and sad peeks into their hard-knock lives as leverage to win over people’s votes. Where it was once wholeheartedly about the individual talent possessed, expectations of contestants had shifted from carrying a tune to being plain-old likable; or, one better, sentimentally adorned with their sorrows. We had to fall in love with them – and they would be damned if they were anything but interesting. This approach became the basis for reality TV’s own versions of ‘Star Search,’ and has since passed the superficial point of no return.

Gambit to Win

Reality shows are always scheming for ratings. In order to achieve highly rapacious numbers, they curate carefully casted lineups. Producers of these rosters are already planning for next year’s crop before the current season’s even over. They scour the earth for particular classifications of flair for which they have a vested interest in. This can blindly include really bad singers, too – some of whom are good for laughs and help level out the chosen contenders. More often than not, they seek categorical, cookie cutter forms – for instance, the teeny bopper, the longhair rocker, the punker, the crooner, the diva, the elder, the bluesy, the folky, the churchy, the countrified white (they can’t have enough of those), etcetera.

Nevertheless, most of the legit vetting process is done via big city tryouts, otherwise known as “cattle calls,” but the show scouts tend to probe much deeper than that. On social media – wherein musicians are able to build their own established followings – they cherry-pick some who are actually allowed to skip auditions and go right to personal interviews. But, the coveted “unicorns” are revealed when they can land a pseudo-famous person; e.g., unnoticed background singers of megastars, smalltime child actors turned vocalists or people immediately related to major celebs.

So, what does it mean to be crowned the victor of a TV music rivalry? Well, it “doesn’t” mean you dropped a record, or went certified platinum, or got anointed into a dynasty of luminaries. It “does” mean, you went boob tube viral, you’re a better interpretive singer than most, and that you just played the largest, lengthiest gig of your musical profession. It suffices to say, there is no shortage of primo exposure throughout the ride, although, it won’t liken to a bonafide hallmark in music – at most a dent. The upshot:  you’ll give good face and get to sign those autographs as long as you linger on. 

Paying Your Dues    

There’s no shame in doing whatever it takes, wherever it takes, to turn fanciful dreams into your truth. Be that as it may, when it comes to live competitions, there’s inevitably going to be another one next year (or biannually), and someone else to decidedly rob you of your coveted songbird throne. Besides the well-deserved title, “winner,” the longevity of your intoned efforts will presumably be minimum, unless, you’re willing to kick it old school – writing, recording, touring, rinsing, repeating – championing your gift and continuing to climb up to the precipice of success the old-fashioned way. 

Worldly wise, it’s imperative not to get caught up in the pageantry of the onscreen quest for greatness. Music isn’t a contest – it’s a way of being, it’s a calling, it’s a livelihood, and it’s an art. The sanctity of this can easily be forgotten when and if stardom becomes more important than the satisfaction of entertaining. Over and above that, in order for fans to do more than merely sit up and listen – have a blatant voice that echoes with resounding honesty.  

The late great David Bowie once begged the question “Is it any wonder I reject you first?” in his oeuvre  ‘Fame.’ It’s obvious he was touching on the pitfalls of being too celebrated; and yet, such sagely lyrics have never stopped anyone from chasing that “pie in the sky” idea. To that end, wannabe icons beware: Your famed story should be told through your music; not through a camera, with someone you don’t know behind it, asking you about how you got there.