FEATURE: The Void: What Is the Point of Music Talent Shows?



 The Void:


IN THIS PHOTO: Cat Deeley is to host Sky 1's new talent show, Sing: Ultimate A Cappella

What Is the Point of Music Talent Shows?


I will bring in a selection of other journalists into…


IN THIS PHOTO: The judges (and presenter) from The X Factor

this piece because, when it comes to slating reality shows, you can never have enough criticism! This is not going to be a slagging-off-talent-shows-for-the-hell-of-it sort of article: I want to understand why they are popular and whether they hold relevance in 2017. Cat Deeley – someone I have a lot of time for and feel is extraordinary – is fronting a new talent show called Sing: Ultimate A Cappella. The idea behind it is simple: it is a singing contest without instruments; the performer is key and it brings in groups of all varieties. There are a few issues with this initial premise. Saying this is ‘all-new’ would be like saying singing contests are new: this has been done so many times it is formulaic. There will be judges, as you’d come to expect, and I can sense the demographic and demands you’d have of the judges – the ‘mean one’, that liberal and open-minded option; a couple of yes-men/women. Ever since Simon Cowell helped popularise Pop Idol all those years ago – I shall get to that/him in due time – we have been inundated with lazy rehashes. This new singing show is as old and worn as every other one out there. The premise itself is flawed as there is no demand for this type of performers in modern music. I admire – another aspect I shall get to – shows that concentrate on rare aspects of music and do not go for the mainstream. There are newly-devised concepts, more later, that puts a new spin on the format and has originality and purpose. The Cat Deeley-fronted singing/talent show will shine a light on something quite old-fashioned and anti-commercial.


A capella groups died with the dodo and have not been marketable for many decades. I admire a strong voice but there is not a viable and sustainable market for any a capella artists in this time – we have evolved and music does not proffer this type of sound. The likes of Boyz II Men were an exception but, yeah, it might be nice to see them back in the frame. If, conceivably, a group like that could be discovered – and they chose to refute an army of producers and songwriters – and made music on their own terms; that could spearhead something good. The only trouble is the judges and public will not go for that. What you’ll find, when the show comes to the final episode, the winner will be nothing like that. It will be a young white group that will be instantly – if a record deal is offered – controlled and manipulated by a record label. Even if the singers write their own music: the need to make something commercial and populist will mean they have little say. Also, music talent shows do not put the instruments at the forefront. All of the X Factor/The Voice-type shows focus on the voice – there are backing tracks but you do not have any real instrumentalists or musicians on these shows!


IN THIS PHOTO: Birmingham band Sons of Pitches team up with Deeley on her new venture

If, God forbid, any talent show should recognise a musician or anyone with an iota of personal talent and distinction – the bedrock of British television will crumble and we will find something genuinely worthy. I have endless affection for Cat Deeley but I feel her consummate professionalism, radiant personality and undeniable talents cannot cover the fact Sing: Ultimate A Cappella is nothing more than a re-derivation of every single singing show of the past decade-or-so – the format, composition and look is a carbon copy of all the talent shows you’ll ever see. I think the show is on Sky 1 but, to be honest, I can already predict its outcome and ending. The reviews will be mixed, at best (the tabloids, no doubt, will love it) and we will be subjected to the same faux-drama, tearful bullsh*t and cloying sentimentality we have had to stomach since the lamentable birth of Pop Idol. It is a sorry time when anything other than criticism and approbation meets the announcement of a singing talent show. I know the ‘winner’ of the show will get a record deal; release an album and never be heard from again – it will get a niche appeal and not see a second album demanded or required. If there is a second series – the blood does run cold – then the outcome will be repeated. I would like to say Sing: Ultimate A Cappella is the last straw that breaks the camel’s back – can we see this ridiculous pantomime and patheticness put to bed?! If Cat Deeley’s long-awaited return to our screens is a thing to celebrate: the substandard ship she is expected to sail will sink without trace.


An argument that states another failed singing enterprise would see the cure of a rife T.V. disease is as full of holes as a cheesegrater’s jockstrap. We have seen dozens of the sodding shows around the world and, despite critical attack and a distinct lack of place. Anyone who respects and loves music is driving away spirits that go for manufactured and cheap artists. We are struggling to breed those who have a real voice and anything significant to say. Pouring fuel on the fire of reality/singing T.V. shows is going to scar the music industry beyond recognition. Those who hate these shows rebel against it but it is almost the done thing for singers and artists to appear on these shows. I know artists who have performed/auditioned and always wonder why. It is never, as some claim, a good experience and harmless fun. At the back of the mind is that lure for fame and the sheen of T.V. – wanting their faces out there and getting a quick buck. I suspect the realities and poor living conditions of music are behind the desperation to get on these shows.


Musicians/singers have little chance for long-term success in an industry that is rival-hungry and shoulder-deep. Getting a record deal is near-impossible and forging an enduring career is even harder. Unsigned acts can make money through touring but, with venues closing around us, how much are they really making?! I do worry many realise how fraught and fractured music is and the only way to have any sort of career is through the cheap option. The thing is, when it comes to the contestants, their careers will never be long or inspiring. I have followed these shows since the beginning – the current trend (I know singing shows have been on T.V. for a lot longer) – and always wonder what happens to those who win the shows. Their albums come out and they rarely survive: those who do are never the best you’ll hear. How many of us, on a daily basis, would like to hear Olly Murs, Will Young; Leona Lewis or…hmmm…thought I could name a fourth! That’s the issue, you see: try and rattle-off a list of the winners and one will struggle (I am not actually sure if all of them WON, to be fair). That is another thing: if the runners-up and outsiders get more attention and success than the winners then what is the point of staging it as a competition?! The obituary of the singing contest format is there ready to be stamped. Talk about flogging a dead horse!  Before I conclude; I’ll look at others’ opinions and why I feel those underground/unique shows – that have the same intention as the mainstream shows – need greater oxygenation.

Nadia Khomami, writing for The Guardian, reviewed the recent opening episode of this year’s X Factor:

Saturday night viewing has long been dominated by the battle between X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing, but with ratings for Simon Cowell’s music show at a record low, and an underwhelming line-up for the latest Strictly, the fight may be turning into one simply for survival.

Last Saturday’s launch of the X Factor had the lowest ratings for a debut episode since it first aired in 2004, with an average of 6 million viewers and a peak of 6.9 million for the ITV talent contest judged by Cowell, Nicole Scherzinger, Sharon Osbourne and Louis Walsh.

The numbers were slightly better on Sunday with 6.5 million tuning in. But while both episodes made the X Factor the most-watched programme of the night, it continued the downward trend given the 2011 launch show pulled in 10.8 million viewers. Last year’s final was also the least-watched since the one in 2004.

“Contest formats have had remarkable longevity, and it’s natural that they’re going to tail off,” said Tom Harrington, a TV research analyst at Enders. “I wouldn’t say it’s a tired format, but it is becoming less interesting. Audiences had become overexposed to such shows”.


Is it, as the article suggests, a case of over-exposure and familiarity? Have we become so attuned to the endless cavalcade of T.V. singing shows that the core audiences are the only remaining – and the casual viewer prefers to watch something with a bit more clout? There are those who say the issues is not resigned to singing/music alone. I am one of a few who cannot stomach the likes of Strictly Come Dancing. I will not argue why that format is as flawed as The Voice, let’s say, but, for me, there are too many dance-related shows shooting up – every successful format has imitators and those who want to take it in a new direction. The difference is we are not being forced to buy dancers and what they do. We have to endure these talent show contestants putting their music out and vying for our attention – this is never the case with dance troupes and the Strictly contestants. Many could say there is pointlessness to shows where the winner is not taking further and takes part for the fun of it. The fact Strictly Come Dancing does not have that commercial edge and need to launch a star into the ether makes it a more popular option with viewers – happy to tune in and not find the future exposure of a satanic chart-hogging drone.


IN THIS PHOTO: One of this year's X Factor contestants, Berget Lewis

Another piece, that also investigated the opening episode of 2017’s X Factor, took a different stance:

Cowell’s secret weapon in giving heart to his shows has always been the emotions of ordinary people. Whether it’s the grateful tears of a stardom-bound teen, or the grief of the contestant given more screentime if they’ll talk about their lost loved one. As an audience we need the emotional meat to bite into or it’s just the thin gruel of differently-abled singers.

But it was Cowell’s own anguish that provided the emotional full stop to Sunday’s episode. While filming the auditions in July, it was reported that his mother had died. He said she would want him to continue with the show and was back at auditions shortly afterwards. Although it wasn’t verbalised, the curious end to Sunday’s episode showed Cowell, just after an expressive audition from a young man whose best friend had died, breaking away from his fellow judges, apparently crying. Fernandez-Versini looked concerned and audibly dithered about whether to go after him. She didn’t and he disappeared off, a secret anguish lurking behind his aviators as the camera lingered on him.

The decision to wordlessly include his personal loss in the show is an odd one. But it does explain why he has had no compunction about using the sadness of others in this way. It’s all showbiz.

the voice.jpg

IN THIS PHOTO: The current judging panel of The Voice

There is, I am well aware, a good way of making all these shows go away: turn the T.V. off! That is all well and good but my objection is not to their mere presence. My issue surrounds what they are doing to music and what they are telling young artists. Shows like The X Factor and The Voice are using their platform to embarrass and exploit young artists. I guess they know what it is all about but (the shows) are pulpits for harsh scrutiny, ritual tension and false ideals. Even if a show takes a ‘nice’ approach and goes easy on a contestant, one has to wonder whether this is being truthful and honest. The flip of the coin is the likes of Simon Cowell; someone who revels in his role as T.V.’s pantomime dame. He gets off on coruscating and chiding singers and reeling off his tired and copy-and-paste barbs. We can block the shows from our T.V. but that does not expunge them from the world. I am getting depressed by the artists I come across who have appeared on talent shows and highlight it as a career-high. That is worrying to hear and something that is making me sceptical about the future-potential of music. If artists who, I feel, could go far are saying they willingly go on to shows like The Voice then that makes me question my own values. Back in 2012, when there was a lot of criticism levied at T.V. talent shows, NME ran a piece:

“…However, the negatives that are levelled at The X Factor are misguided. The stress, bullying and vapidity that comes with it is not unique to Simon Cowell’s theatre of pop – all the X Factor is doing is televising what the music industry is like behind closed doors. If you’re in a supposedly credible indie band, you’ll be jumping through the same hoops as someone like JLS. It’s a grim, shit-flecked world behind the veneer of the records you like and, somehow, Simon Cowell has turned the ogre-ish world of music into a successful entertainment programme that, basically, is to music what wrestling is to professional sport.

However, the negatives that are levelled at The X Factor are misguided. The stress, bullying and vapidity that comes with it is not unique to Simon Cowell’s theatre of pop – all the X Factor is doing is televising what the music industry is like behind closed doors. If you’re in a supposedly credible indie band, you’ll be jumping through the same hoops as someone like JLS. It’s a grim, shit-flecked world behind the veneer of the records you like and, somehow, Simon Cowell has turned the ogre-ish world of music into a successful entertainment programme that, basically, is to music what wrestling is to professional sport.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying WWE, just like there’s nothing wrong with The X Factor. Yet, time and time again, the same half-baked criticisms are levelled at it. Cher Lloyd, this weekend, was bottled off stage at V Festival. Of course, bottling anyone off stage is an act of supreme cowardice because there’s always a better option (that option being that you can walk away and do something else, especially at a festival and, if your best option is to stand and watch someone you hate, then you’ve been an idiot for buying tickets to a festival with an awful line-up).


IN THIS PHOTO: The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin

So what if these acts don’t write their own music? Neither did Aretha Franklin. The Supremes didn’t write any of their greatest songs, yet, Chris De Burgh wrote every single foetid note of his. The assumption that ‘the best’ write their own material is bunkum. Just ask Elvis Presley.

Maybe the problem is that the process of graduating from a talent show is galling? The ‘best’ bands cut their teeth without them and rise to the top by sheer talent alone, right? Well, there are a huge number of acts that have graduated from talent shows. The Zombies won a record deal through a rigged talent show way back when. Ella Fitzgerald, Gladys Knight, James Brown and Michael Jackson all graduated from talent spots in Harlem. Are they lesser artists because they didn’t play the toilet bowl circuit for years?

I agree that shows like The X Factor are simply opening eyes to what happens behind these closed doors but that is not a good thing. One can write an article about bad practices and exploitation. These shows are not ironically doing the same and making practical and important changes. Their ethos is to popularise and promulgate something seedy, commercial and cruel. It is not impressive and progressive creating shows that elevate the worst facets of music: it is contemptuous, pointless and offensive. Again, when the journalist talked about certain artists getting their break through these talent shows; I am full aware some great artists appeared on talent shows and went to music school. They are rare exceptions and, to be fair, the fact they have endured has nothing to do with those appearances – they did that with huge talent and originality.

Let It Shine.jpg

IN THIS PHOTO: Let It Shine was not renewed for a second series/PHOTO CREDIT: Guy Levy/BBC

If there was a singing/music show that proffered artists and then let them get on with things then I’d be all for it. Artists like The Zombies did not succeed because of their talent show appearances nor did they take great pride from those times. These are rare exceptions and the vast majority of great artists did not go on talent/singing shows – how many legendary and reputable acts do you know who did?! I argue against the point that challenges the songwriting chops of the talent (on reality shows). Michael Jackson and Aretha Franklin did not go on T.V. talent shows and put themselves in front of millions. There is a huge gulf between local talent ‘spots’ and televised circuses. Tonnes of great musicians go to battle-of-the-bands gigs and local talent contests. That is a different thing and has little in common with The Voice, for instance. Again; these acts used this as a platform and managed to ensure they were successful because of their own minds, direction and talent. If they had been given record deals off the back of their talent contest times then they would have been controlled and extinguished within a short space of time. Getting back to my point and one cannot say there is any parallel between Michael Jackson and Aretha Franklin – who often use co-writers and sing rather than write. I know Eva Cassidy did not write her own songs and loads of top-notch artists had other writers. I am not debating that but I am not saying those who write their own material is best.


IN THIS PHOTO: Singer Fleur East has performed on The X Factor a number of times - and not translated that exposure to a popular and notable career

The fact Elvis Presley, Gladys Knight and Aretha Franklin did not write their music does not hide the fact they became iconic because of their personalities, voices and potency. I do not object to T.V. show contestants not penning their own stuff. If the material they are singing is great then that is the main thing; if they have a driving and inspiring façade then that sticks; if they can inspire others and stand out from the crowd then that wins me – none of this is true; nobody who ever appears on singing shows will ever have anything like as much talent as Presley or Knight. These artists would not be seen dead on these shows so making any comparisons is pointless and misjudged. I accept there are a few good points to T.V. singing shows. For one, it does appeal to a certain audience who likes their music less potent and a bit more manufactured. They are entitled to their views and tastes so we cannot deny them. It is the sheer number of these shows that galls me. Two is bad enough – The Voice and The X Factor – but we have Sing: Ultimate A Cappella, Pitch Battle and God knows how many filtering through every channel you can imagine. I have heard there’s a few underground options that have the talent show aspect at heart but strip away all the cruelty, commercial and crass.


I am not sure if they have seen the light of day but the idea is to focus on bands/musicians who play their own stuff – whether self-penned or not; it focuses on authentic players – and gives them a record deal at the end. The voting is done by those who watch the acts in each show (a live audience) and the winner gets to make music on their own terms. Maybe I dreamt it but I know there are shows not that dissimilar that have been trialled. The way things are is not good as it is maddening to see T.V. singing shows survive and mutate. I am not against all talent shows but think, if you want credible music-lovers and the jaded masses to come in; offer something that takes the histrionics and emotion away and features musicians. They do not have to perform instruments necessarily but showcase artists that at least write their own material. Open it up in terms of genres – the T.V. options are too Pop-driven – and take away the farcical judging element. Have judges but staff the panel with proper music professional or fellow performers that know what music needs right now. If we had a couple of these variations – and stopped it there before too many said the same thing – that could replace the current order and make the T.V. singing talent show a watchable, worthy and wonderful thing. What we have now is so tired, horrid and pointless it is highlighting what fatigue there is in music. There is not a popular demand for the here-today-gone-tomorrow merchants and these brief careers. Eliminate the format and, if we are to have any singing/music talent shows on T.V., make sure they are formats that show up the…



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