HOUSTON, April 27, 2012 - Many reality TV viewers are experiencing déjà vu. In 2009, the cocky and cute, but definitely-not-sexy Susan Boyle astonished millions with her beautiful voice. Now, just a few years later, Jonathan Antoine is inciting the same brand of shock and awe. The 280 lb. teenager may not look like Michael Bublé, but he’s got a voice that would make the ghost of Le Fantôme de l’Opéra get goosebumps.
Supposedly, even the judges of Britain’s Got Talent were shocked by Antoine’s pitch perfect performance and veritable vibrato. But is that really possible? Are the judges completely unaware of the pending programming on their own show? It’s hard to imagine that’s the case, particularly in Cowell’s position as the creator of the series, and since he’s credited a script “writer” on IMDB.
Even in the case that the judges are genuinely shocked when a true talent graces their stage, surely they are not unaware that just because someone isn’t hot and sexy, doesn’t mean they don’t have skills that would inspire a Vulcan to tear up. To make an avian analogy, the very plainest of the songbirds, the nightingale, is mythical for also having the most melodic voice.
In August, 2011, American Idol hopefuls descended upon Reliant Park in Houston, Texas. The heat was unbearable, water was four dollars a bottle, and the portable toilets smelled and looked like they hadn’t been cleaned since the Texans went up against the Saints the previous Saturday. At least one person passed out from heat stroke and was carted away by on-site medics. Nevertheless, the intrepid singing wannabes sat in the Texas sun for hours upon hours before being herded like cattle indoors.
Once inside, vocalists were processed, sorted into groups, and told to sit in the stands and wait some more. In the middle of the field below were a line of tables, at which sat two judges each.
No. Simon Cowell was not there. These were preliminary rounds. The judges were your average Joes and Janes, and they look bored to tears, if not downright crabby. Small groups of competitors were led out onto the field to their assigned judging tables, where they sang for the judges, who either nodded ascent or - more commonly - gave them the proverbial boot.
Every so often, a roar went up from the crowd as some ecstatic tryout did cartwheels, danced a jig, or threw their shoes in the air to celebrate their making it past the first round. Curiously, most of these elated selectees were very oddly dressed. One gentleman in particular, wore a brightly colored unitard. Rumors began to circulate among the hundreds of competitors still waiting to sing, that American Idol had already picked the “good” singers, possibly before the tour event got to Houston, and now they were only looking for “freaks.”
The point is, that whether you’re talking about American Idol, Britain’s Got Talent, The X Factor, or any other reality rendition Cowell may dream up next, contestants have already gone through multiple judging rounds before gaining an audience with the notoriously snarky Englishman.
Each singer, whether talented or completely tone deaf, is carefully scrutinized, analyzed, and categorized by a team of highly trained television producers who know exactly how to make a reality TV show sensational, funny, and entertaining. There are no surprises, nothing is left to chance, and there are no wild cards. Everything is carefully orchestrated and fine-tuned to maximize television ratings and mass appeal.
When singers like Jonathan Antoine make their live on-stage debuts, the audience (both onscreen and at home), often thinks it’s his debut audition. Not so. Sure, it’s the first time the public has caught a glimpse of the competitor. But show producers have already heard him audition numerous times, filmed interviews with him, booked him a hotel room, and asked what brand of bottled water he prefers. In fact, they’ve probably even told him what song to sing, or suggested a selection for him to pick from.
In all likelihood, the expression of surprise on Simon Cowell’s smirking face is merely a pretense. Even if Cowell is in the dark regarding who is about to audition on his live filmed television show, he is certainly not ignorant of the fact that many of the greatest vocalist of all time are also the least attractive. Many opera greats look more like Jason Alexander from Seinfeld than Beyonce, and they’re arguably the most talented vocalists in existence.
Susan Boyle was commonly compared to The Ugly Duckling, the main character of a same-titled novelette by Hans Christian Anderson. In the story, an awkward little chick who is mistaken for a baby duck, grows up to be a beautiful swan. But The Ugly Duckling started out ugly and later became beautiful. Boyle, on the other hand, was beautiful long before she showcased for reality TV. In fact, she was probably singing her heart out long before Simon Cowell made it big. She may not be the kind of hot babe you look twice at when you pass her in the street, but Boyle has an inner beauty that is substantial and highly cultivated.
Until we as a culture learn what true beauty really is, people like Susan Boyle and Jonathan Antoine will be undervalued, except of course by wily TV producers looking for a ratings boost. Sadly, it is the mainstream assumption that sexually attractive people are gifted and multifaceted, while those with less gaudy physiques are inept and boring. This ignorant and bigoted misconception is the bread and butter of reality TV, because it opens the door wide for cliche publicity stunts.
How sublimely simple it must be to unearth a gawky vocal talent - an awkward teen or middle aged misfit desperate for long overdue recognition - and use them as a trick pony to launch ratings into the stratosphere.
Perhaps this is why the entertainment industry leaves a bad taste in the mouth of many disillusioned artists and professionals. True talent is often skipped over while mediocrity is celebrated, unless of course the true talent is somehow packaged (or packageable) in such a way that money grubbers can take advantage of it.
Is this unethical? Maybe. Is it unfair? Certainly. Is it real? Yep. That’s why it’s called “reality television.”
About Jennifer Grassman:
Singer, songwriter and pianist, Jennifer Grassman is an award-winning recording artist and founder of SeeTalkGrow, a 100% online music, film, technology, and communications conference. Subscribe by RSS feed and read more at www.JenniferGrassman.com or www.SeeTalkGrow.com. Follow Jennifer in this column and at her music column, The Business of Being Diva here inWashington Times Communities. Also keep in touch via @JGrassman, @SeeTalkGrow, and like Facebook.com/JenniferGrassmanMusic and Facebook.com/SeeTalkGrow
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