American Idol, Pop Idol, America’s Got Talent, Britain’s Got Talent, The X Factor. There’s slight variation, sure, but I don’t think many people outside of those who create them would belabor the distinctions. In the 13 years since Pop Idol debuted on British television in 2001, the familiar trope of a long-suffering panel methodically wringing “stars” from the fabric of the wider society has taken over, and it’s more popular than ever– earlier this year Guinness World Records declared the Got Talent format to be the most successful “reality” format of all, having surpassed lesser shows built around people eating bugs, racing to get somewhere, or living in a house.
Since I rarely watch television myself this article will contain no petulant moanings about the type’s pervasiveness within my programming, and since I don’t care much for casting shame on a medium with obviously dubious cultural standards, I won’t be criticizing whether these programs are any good. Instead, I’ll be turning my attention toward what everyone agrees is terrible about these shows, and what some would say are their only redeeming merit: the bad auditions.
All of these shows begin each season with a series of open calls, and the first several episodes are dedicated to the symbolic separation of the wheat from the chaff. People line up by the thousands at hotels or arenas in a handful of cities, and wait for hours on end to take the camel’s run at the needle eye of fame.
And it is absurd how many try out. According to an article from The Daily Beast in 2010, between 6,000 and 8,000 people auditioned at most American Idol events, which numbered about 7 per season at various cities across the country. That’s about 650,000 auditions total over the show’s 13 seasons, only 2,643 of which moved on to the even the second round of judging, a proportion of just .4%.
But that’s not all. All of those people were, per the show’s rules, between the ages of 15 and 28. The X Factor opened the competition to performers 12 and up, as well as to small- and medium-sized groups, and to date, more than 1,000,000 people have auditioned for the version in the UK (over its 11 seasons), plus another several ten thousand thousand over three seasons in the US. These days, the Got Talent franchise draws out even bigger crowds of hopefuls, at more cities, for a running 19 seasons between the US and UK, and producing further shows in at least 56 other countries that span the globe (Idols was featured in 49 countries or regions). Good numbers for auditions are harder to come by there, but as an estimate it’s safe to assume that somewhere in the area of 4 or 5 million people have tried out for these shows around the world.
And that ladies and gentlemen, leads to a lot of interesting footage. Footage that gets beamed out over the airwaves and that trickles down through the hundreds of millions of viewers to the internet, on to the servers at YouTube, where it sits there waiting patiently for a day when one might, say, be laid up in bed with a stomach ache for the better part of an afternoon, for example. There are now hours and hours, days’ worth in fact, of these videos (at an average of 5 or 6 minutes per act), and they are, in their own way, truly mesmerizing.
When you watch enough of them there are a few patterns that begin to emerge from the torrential chaos of the disgraced and the delusional, but before we examine the generalizations we should begin with the specifics, which can be grouped into about a dozen or so archetypes that arise with considerable frequency from the modern talent show reject reel.
Taking a relatively conservative sample, we have:
There are always the garden-variety “fame whores”, so let’s just get them out of the way immediately. Case-in-point, Jenna Adora Somar:
For these there isn’t a great deal to be said. They’re shallow and simple-minded enough that everything is right there on the surface. In my head I refer to people like this as “Slash-ers” because they always refer to themselves as singer/actor/dancer/model/whatevers. Needless to say, they rarely have enough talent to be one of those things, let alone the octuple-threats they claim they are.
But all of those things are just words to these people, and a form misdirection. In substance, they have no respect at all for these professions/talents/identities; they are themselves the slash between them. What they do is whatever has the best chance of making them famous, and we all know that two chances are better than one. Their talent is their ability to be completely disloyal to themselves and to anything they claim to be passionate about, and it’s getting people to look in their direction.
Honorable mention – Lorna Bliss
Some of the more surprising videos come from acts and individuals who, apart from being completely untalented, are so unbelievably rude and poorly behaved that it defies the imagination. Just watching these people for a few minutes is so astonishing that, if you can hear your own thoughts over the rage of your internal monologue, you may well be thinking of what complete failures these people must have had for parents, or wondering perhaps how they possibly could have gotten so far in life without having at some point been pushed off a cliff.
[“Ablisa” (above) is probably the most extreme example for a number of reasons, and it’s certainly the most viewed clip of its kind at ~71 million hits.]
Honorable mention – Rachel, Zoe, Jennifer Chapton
Then there are the imitators and the obsessives, the ones who think that the perfect model for fame is someone who is already famous. Some are out and out tribute acts, but there are others who must imagine at some level that the judges and audience might manage to forget that they’ve seen a much better version of this before. To wit, Michael Lewis:
You’d think a self-proclaimed fan would have some idea of how impossible it is for anyone else but Michael Jackson to be Michael Jackson, but there we are.
Again, these people (however much they may truly appreciate the music) are fans of the fame that their icons have, and who think of the whole larger-than life package as being the talent. Unfortunately, they tend to have overlooked the fact that Michael Jackson or Lady Gaga or any of the others that are ripe for a rip-off built their personas around a nucleus of ability that takes years to develop, though I suppose the clothing is often somewhat easier to replicate.
Honorable mention – Lorna Bliss (2), Zoe Alexander, Michael Sandecki
By contrast, there are also the ones who quite rightly (at least in terms of denotation rather than connotation) describe themselves as “unique”, and who rely heavily upon this for their “edge” within the competition.
These people, in their own self-assured words, “bring something different to the table”; whether passively or with deeply misguided intention, they have their own ideas about what singing or performance in general is supposed to be and, despite the fact that national talent shows on major networks are deeply mainstream by definition, they think they can ride that difference to stardom.
Honorable mention – James Lewis, J Star, Trista Giese, Jaqueline Roman
There are always a few who are better than the competition when they walk in, and remain so on the way out, after having been roundly and completely rejected. Meet their queen, Ariel Burdett:
These are the ones that became flooded with self-congratulation the first time their mouths emitted a sustained sound, and they’ve conflated that over the years with being much better than anyone else can possibly understand. The Snobs take the mere existence of these shows as a kind of challenge, and then they turn around and act as if, actually, despite all appearances, the entire multi-million dollar production was their show to begin with, and it’s they who challenge the judges and producers to recognize their apparent greatness. For them it’s about vindication, and they get it one way or the other.
Honorable mention – Ashwin, Debbie Stevens, Rhonetta Johnson
These are often so similar to the Snobs that it’s easy to get them confused, but there’s one critical difference: impervious and hostile to criticism, the snobs will lash back against their rejection, whereas with the ebullient Bubbles, the hammer of “terrible” falls on both shock and surprise.
“Shek” (above), is a truly perfect example. Strutting, posing, and talking a big game, brimming with confidence and having absolutely nothing to show for it. A living paradox, they are the rare convergence of a get-a-load-of-me attitude and a didn’t-expect-you-to-ask level of talent.
Honorable mention – Dexter Ward
The Regular Dudes
The Regular Dudes, in contrast to the Snobs and the Bubbles, are almost entirely devoid of pretense. Even though they overestimate their ability (like all the types on this list), they don’t often act self-satisfied or entitled. Instead they come to the competition with a “Why not?” sort of attitude, and they take a chance almost solely on the basis that a spot in line is just as much theirs as it is anyone’s. In a way it’s admirable, because this group displays the least affect; they are the least beguiled by the competition’s conditional promises. Unfortunately, though, it’s not a being-down-to-earth competition, and within a few minutes they invariably hit the massive wall that separates “something ventured” from “something gained” in the performing arts.
It’s the other side of their nonchalance; they have genuinely just rolled the dice and showed up, which means they haven’t been doing a lot of hard work and training in their spare time. They really think that it’s about raw talent and luck. Surprise, surprise, though, it really, actually isn’t.
Honorable mention – Ant and Seb, Dylan, Jack Odanovich, Steven, Joseph Land
The Shared Delusions
This category, to me, is probably at once the most baffling and the most fascinating. It’s one thing for a single person to delude themselves on their own, that much is easy enough to get a grip on. But these are groups of two, three, five people, sometimes more, that have all reinforced each others’ individual delusions throughout (presumably) rehearsals, they’ve shepherded each other through the valleys of doubt, and they all arrive talking like a Disney Channel movie about what strong bonds they’ve developed on their amazing journey to this point [Every once in a while, you’ll get a sweet, heavy dose of irony when one member (usually the one that says all the lovely things about how close they are with the other members) attempts to abandon the rest of the group upon finding that they’ve been rejected (see Magenta)].
Most of them use a gimmick where each member says their name individually, one says, “…and together we are…”, and then they all announce their (unfailingly) uninspired collective name. This is generally a bad sign.
Honorable mention – Jahm, Triple Trouble, The Singing Souls
…Yup, they still suck.
“Repeat offenders”, “gluttons for punishment”, whatever you call them, there are some people who just want the world to know that however terrible they’ve shown themselves to be in the past, there’s still plenty of them to go around.
Honorable mention – Michael Lewis (2), Julie Kevelighan
The Somewhat Unstable
These are the people who, without being funny, ought to be getting some professional help. I don’t know what else there is to say, except perhaps that this group illustrates the thin margin of irresponsibility that silhouettes the producers’ rampant cynicism, especially being that there’s so much other dreck to go around. Nonetheless, there they are, and it’s part and parcel of this kind of show.
Honorable mention – Kimberly Bishop, Vanessa Johnston
The Really Just Incredibly Awful
Steven “Red” Thoen
These, too, speak almost entirely for themselves. The most surprising thing here is the simple fact that these people thought they had a chance in a national competition. Frankly, it would be surprising if they thought they had a chance in a small town competition. The Really Just Incredibly Awful are probably the most purely deluded of all the people who come to the auditions. I mean think of it from their perspectives– they’ve heard good singers, they’ve heard their own voices, and in their heads there was a little moment where they went, “Yeah. ‘Bout the same.” Simply extraordinary.
Honorable mention – “Isadora” Furman, Emily
And finally of course, without any further ado, the legends, the Originals…
Aaron Aaron Martin Jeremy
I know. Aren’t they amazing?
These, to me, are the lifetime achievement award-winners of the 15-minute fame game. It’s not just that they’re so bad they’re good, it’s that they’re so far removed from the culture and influence of the show you wonder how they even found their way to the building. If anyone, regardless of having no shot at winning, legitimately didn’t need the competition in any way, it’s these folks. They’re bigger and weirder and wilder than TV can handle, and it feels safe to assert that their effect on the show was a lot bigger than the show’s was on them.
Honorable mention – Mitchell Wahl, Jeffrey “J.C.” Gray
Whew. Boy there’s a lot to work with there. So what, in the end, does it all mean? What can we glean from this fertile valley of ineptitude and self-deception? What, from it all, can we learn?
For me, the first thing that rises to the top is that confidence is overrated. Often, the judges will ask the would-be contestant who in the music world they think they’re as good as, or who they aspire to be as big as, and they consistently produce names like Michael Jackson, Freddy Mercury, Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, Madonna, Prince… They’re asked if they think they can win the contest, and without fail they claim they “know” they can. They say they’ve “got it.”
To psychologists, this is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect– a person who is not very good at something tends to overestimate their ability, and a person who is proficient tends to discount the same. It’s a reasonable observation, and it makes a good deal of sense; if you’re good at something you recognize the work that it takes, as well as your own objective lackings, and the better you are the more aware you’re likely to be of people who are much better at it than you. Therefore it stands to reason that being unencumbered by this knowledge frees one to estimate oneself more generously. But why should this be? What, apart from the simple sociobiological advantage (the idea that one might just get lucky and sneak through to fame and fortune without having to waste time and energy on developing a real ability), can be said to be at play in the workings of this so-called “effect”?
To begin with, it’s fair to estimate that (regardless of they say when they’re asked), when they decide for themselves whether they’re good enough to compete, the comparison they make isn’t between themselves and the top stars in the business. Their comparison is between themselves and themselves, the one that wants to sing a song and the one that has managed to get a song sung. It’s between themselves and the other singing people in their empty car or apartment. It’s between themselves and the radio, and when that comparison comes, their own voice is the one they can hear best. Within these little contests, they possess a long and gleaming record of success. You might get a different result if you asked them whether they were better than another contestant, rather than their own abstract ideas of megastars.
It also shows that this brand of confidence “lives” in another system of the brain than does honest self-assessment, and that when you’re in front of judges for whom personality and charisma are elements of the competition, delusion wins out. The processes that are supposed to produce a performance (elaborate schemes that control focusing on breath, tonal control, staying within a key) aren’t working very hard. Talent and ability and training are supposed to do the work, and in lieu of that, it’s the attitude that picks up the slack.
When that fails, ambition steps up to serve; there’s a pleading and bargaining that happens with some people when it’s found that their swagger and their skill are insufficient to see them through, and it all revolves around the purity and the intensity of their desire. This is a thing that didn’t used to be prized for its own sake, but somewhere in my lifetime it’s become taken for granted that that craving, and that simple sense of “want[ing] it so bad” is some kind of a skill.
And why do they want it so badly? What, ultimately, is so great about winning one of these competitions? For a start there’s a million dollars (or several in recent years), which on its own is enough to attract a lot of interest, and there’s chance to cut a few albums and do a pop tour and so on. But how many winners of these competitions can you really name? How many have gone on to real success, or to be known for anything other than winning that show? How many have really gone on to influence music or culture in their time? How many have gone on to become legitimate stars?
And that, it still begs to be said, is the name of the game. These shows are about getting people famous, and they attract people by the millions who, for whatever reason, seem to feel that they deserve the treatment. They want it for its own sake, to be sure, and they want to live a famous life, the new invention that Fox and MTV have convinced them is up for grabs.
But even among the Kardashians and the denizens of Jersey Shore, and the Duck Dynasty people and the pet psychics, on the 24-hour horrorshow carnival that is modern cable and satellite television, the only place these people can find is a brief window of time in which it’s made clear that they are only on television in the first place so that it can be made even clearer they’ll never be on it again (except, on a truly new level of hopeless cynicism, for in recent series of the X Factor UK where they’ve brought back the worst acts that auditioned to do a medley together during the finale, which of course reliably amounts to an utter torrent of abject, cacophonous garbage).
In a rather strenuous effort to avoid cliché here, I will not be invoking Andy Warhol’s famous line about what fame might one day (and arguably, today) be like. Instead, I’ll simply pass it over to Fran Lebowitz, a former writer for his Interview magazine:
Fran Lebowitz, the one and only
“Within the last 25, 30 years, fame itself became an extremely valuable thing to people, divorced from anything else. And that is basically the fault of Andy Warhol. …[H]e made fame more famous, because Andy kept, like, using the word ‘fame’ all the time. It was a joke. Let me assure you, this was a joke. You take these drag queens… they want to be a movie star… and then Andy says, “You’re not just a movie star like Marilyn Monroe, you’re a superstar.” He makes it up. It’s a joke. It’s a joke. This is what ruined the world. This is what happens when an inside joke gets into the water supply.“
But it’s not just that this idea of fame has become embedded in our culture. It’s that it’s taken root so firmly that several million people, not just those who audition but the several hundred million more who tune in around the globe have managed to agree that for most of us out here in Nobody Land, it’s the only thing worth being. It’s not that these people are more particularly awful than most people would be under the same circumstances, it’s that not everyone’s meant to be a singer, and by all rights they probably shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
And, of course, none of this comes out of a vacuum. It’s no accident that the bad ones make it through to have their hopes dashed on national television. Contrary to the impression these shows like to convey, these people don’t just wander in front of the cameras from off of the street. The ones that even make it in front of the judges have been through at least two rounds of producers, and it just couldn’t possibly be that those producers are genuinely unsure whether the likes of these will be serious competitors. The Snobs, the Slash-ers, and all the rest get through because they make for damned good television.
When you make a big show out of throwing open the gates to whomever will sign a release form, with the clear knowledge that only 1 in every 246 will be taken seriously, “failures” of this kind are not a surprise. They’re a statistical inevitability.
And sure, you might well be thinking to yourself that everyone knows this already. Everyone knows that the first couple episodes are there for a laugh, and then they get on with the real performers. Everyone knows that being an American Idol or whatever it is isn’t all that great, and that it isn’t the point. Everyone knows that almost nobody gets to the top, and that most of the show is about watching the failure and inadequacy of the teeming masses who have no hope of being anything but a punchline to the viewers. Everyone knows, it seems, except a surprisingly large portion of the people involved.
As I was getting ready to wrap up this article, I overheard an ad that was playing on the TV in the other room, which was for the upcoming (14th) season of American Idol. Apparently this year they’ve adopted a new slogan: “Superstars Made Here,” and this year, I’m sure, like every year, there will be plenty of people who believe them.
If you enjoyed this article, I highly recommend the amazing and hilarious anti-talent show Do You Have What It Takes? (courtesy of Jimmy Kimmel Live!) which, for my money, is the best lampoon of this genre that’s ever been done.
And, if you want, you can see all the videos from this article in one playlist here.