I don’t like TV singing competitions much. This is partly because these shows act as if almost everyone who appears on them is stupid. We all know that a producer meticulously decides which people are most likely to humiliate themselves and intentionally puts them centre screen. But the show doesn’t want to admit this; they want to make it seem like random chance that all these wacky characters are showing up. In doing so, they shift the blame onto the people themselves. The message they send is “well you went on TV, it’s your fault if you embarrassed yourself,” and not “We put you on TV because we wanted you to embarrass yourself”. I would almost prefer it if halfway through there were big red letters saying ‘Idiot section’ before they displayed all of the failed auditions.
The show want to make it seem like random chance that all these wacky characters are showing up
And ok, perhaps these competitions are entitled to poke a little fun at people doing something so obviously “shallow” as entering a television talent competition, and their lack of self-awareness should be ridiculed. But in many years the winners have also been people lacking in self-awareness- the only difference being that instead of not knowing how bad they are, winners have no idea how good they are. Shows like The X Factor and The Voice love contestants who seem nervous and unassuming – perhaps the most famous of all being Britain’s Got Talent’s Susan Boyle. Here, things are framed differently. These contestants aren’t morons, they are “humble.” Therefore, rather than being something mostly genetic and partly trained, being a good singer becomes a symbol of moral virtue. Not only are these people talented, the show seems to say, they are good. This is of course reinforced with the “sob story” portion.
Contestants are not just incredible singers, but people who have experienced incredible hardship. Or at least, overuse of editing and background music might convince you that sad but quite normal things like being bullied at school constitute “incredible hardship.” The joke contestants aren’t given much backstory, and so we are left assuming that they came to the show just for their fifteen minutes of fame. This is partly for obvious reasons – if a contestant is singing at the request of their dying grandfather, even if they produce sounds similar to a fox in a blender, it becomes an act of extreme cruelty to laugh at them.
Contestants are not just incredible singers, but people who have experienced incredible hardship
These shows present themselves not just as singing competitions, but as a search for “authenticity.” But… it’s authentic to want fame. Lots and lots of people want to be famous. Most ironic of all, the ones who are judging this competition of “authenticity” are celebrities. People who wanted to be famous so badly that they are now sitting in front of large red buttons in uncomfortable outfits just to get their faces on TV. Admitting that you’re in it for the money is taboo in these competitions, even saying that you think you can win usually ensures you won’t. The overly arrogant come in second place, and then generally go on to have better careers because in the corporate world, confidence is actually quite important.
It’s also blatantly clear that despite the fact that these talent shows claim that they are open to anyone, this is not really true. They still favour the young and the beautiful, people who might have been able to get a record contract without the help of a camera crew. The average age of an X Factor winner is 24.1. The average winner of The Voice, a show that sells itself on the “blind” process, does even worse with an average winner being 23.8. In nine seasons of The Voice, only one winner has been over thirty, and the last three have been teenagers. Quantifying beauty is impossible, and it would be rude of me to try, but the shocked reactions of judges when someone not traditionally attractive has the voice of an angel speaks for itself.
There’s some truth to the idea that we instinctively find attractive people more intelligent and trustworthy, but it seems like something TV shows could do more to challenge instead of reinforcing
Although they have people outside of beauty norms on the show, at some point usually some kind of “transformation” happens. The singing voice isn’t enough, for a person to actually succeed in the music business, they also need a makeover. Besides, any person designated “ugly” by the show, must also be exceptional, while pretty but mediocre singers seem to make it through auditions, and even onto live shows, with relative ease (just watch a few of the original One Direction auditions.) Rather than “attractive”, pretty contestants are usually described as “likeable.” There’s some truth to the idea that we instinctively find attractive people more intelligent and trustworthy, but it seems like something TV shows could do more to challenge instead of reinforcing.
However, I can’t deem singing shows valueless just because they have similar biases to all other forms of media. The idea that regardless of experience, or age, or even talent, a person can sing in front of millions of people is a beautiful one. Contrary to the message that some of these shows send, I don’t think that wanting fifteen minutes of fame is a bad thing: I think that it’s a natural human impulse to seek validation. TV might not be the best way to find it, but I don’t think we should ridicule people for trying.