In the beginning there was Popstars. Then there was Pop Idol. Then there was an Idol series in multiple countries. Then there was X-Factor. Then there was [insert name of country here]’s Got Talent (which ironically was meant to be a showcase for all kinds of talents, but a lot of the finalists and ultimate winners were singers). By now these talent shows are incredibly popular and millions of people tune in and vote during each series.
But is the premise of the show exactly what it appears to be? The answer is no. Most people believe that American Idol (all of the various predecessors and spins offs and successors that were all the brain children of Simon Cowell) is a talent show. It’s not. It’s a reality TV show. It has very little to do with talent and everything to do with entertainment.
I believe that American Idol and its kin all have gag orders on their auditionees so they don’t discuss any part of their auditions and probably the show itself. But now several sources have shown some light on exactly what goes on during the audition process. Ironically, the most scathing exposé on the entire reality TV/talent show came in the form of a novel.
Ben Elton’s Chart Throb follows the lives of multiple hopefuls who all hunger for fame and the three judges who just want to come out on top. Because it is fiction is can easily be dismissed as simply that; make believe. But the people who have come forward to talk about their experiences sound almost exactly the same as the experiences shared by all of Elton’s characters. In a sense, the fiction is more fact than the televised “reality”.
First of all, the auditions. The auditions are the biggest part of the show and by far the most entertaining. The show is edited to look like all of the hundreds of thousands of eager auditionees hang out in the waiting room chatting with Ryan Seacrest, bonding, singing songs together and shining with the hope that only a TV talent show audition can bring.
But let’s do the math. The American Idol website brags that 20,000 people came to auditions in Philadelphia. This city was the last of the 7 cities that they were auditioning in. If all 7 cities drew crowds of 20,000 then a total of 140,000 people auditioned in total (and I’m and English major and I did that without a calculator! Ha!). If these 140,000 people were all given 1 minute to sing in front of the judges (the televised auditions are much longer than that, but let’s go with a very conservative estimate). 1 minute for 140,000 people is 140,000 minutes (still no calculator).
That means that the total audition time for all contestants would be 23,333 hours. It equals out to 97 days straight of auditions. If the judges only work 8 hour days, 7 days a week, then it equals out to 778 days. That is a little less than TWO YEARS (and yes, I used a calculator for the last figures).
Obviously, there are other rounds of auditions. Several in fact. X-Factor auditionees are required to send in an application, which helps the researchers decide who will be good TV, who will be great TV, and who doesn’t even get a chance. American Idol wannabes audition in front of a panel of judges and are given a grand total of 15 seconds in which to sing before they are elected to go to the next round of competition or go home.
So, these aren’t people off the streets who were bored and decided to show up and sing. These aren’t just karaoke performers who think it would be hilarious to get onto TV and give a shout out to all of their friends. The people who appear on the televised show have passed through multiple rounds of auditions and have been chosen to appear in front of the judges.
If this was truly a talent show, then the horrifically indescribable auditions would never even happen. There would be no William Hung to “bang” his way through his audition. There would be no wannabes who are so delusional that they probably warrant a psychological evaluation. There would also be no Emma Chawner.
Emma Chawner is an 18 year old girl who auditioned for the UK’s X-Factor. You can simply tell by her appearance that she didn’t make it through to bootcamp (the same as Hollywood in the AI series). But as frumpy as she looks in the homemade dress that her dad sewed for her, she also couldn’t sing.
After her audition Simon remarked that she sounded “like a baby”. When Emma’s mother, father and older sister burst into the room to tell the judges (Simon, Dannii Minogue, and Sharon Osbourne) exactly what they thought of them, Simon blamed them, the girl’s family, for giving her false hope that she could ever be a popstar.
But was it her parents giving her false hope? Emma apparently went through four rounds of auditions. FOUR. Wouldn’t going through all of these rounds make you think that you were a good singer? At American Idol contestants have also claimed that the researchers encouraged them to do things like put on more make-up, argue with the judges if they reject you, and multiple other things that the judges are supposed to “like”.
In Elton’s novel, Chart Throb, the researchers would do more than just make suggestions. They would encourage the auditionees. Let them think that they had IT. That they would blow the judges away. That they would own their songs. That they had a shot as the ultimate prize. When researcher for a show tells you that you’re unique and amazing and a brilliant singer, then the singer isn’t delusional. They’re being misled.
There are plenty of staggeringly deluded people in the world. But at the rate horrific auditions are churned out on these shows, it would seem like the researchers were looking for people who couldn’t sing, instead of those who could. There are plenty of stage parents as well. But it’s natural for someone to want their child to do well and when people involved in the show are telling their progeny that they’re going to be a nationally famous, rich, powerful, beautiful popstar, they can only get pulled into the same heady bubble that the auditionees themselves are living in.
When the show first came out, the bad auditions were hilarious. It felt like the deluded people of the world were getting the wake up call that they so desperately needed. But then you realize that these people, most of whom are still teenagers and even more fragile, are being exploited and humiliated just for entertainment. It used to be a guilty pleasure, but it has become a testament to how cruel society and entertainment has become.
When the final contestants are “picked” it’s strange how similar they all are. All of the girls are young and pretty. All of the boys are young and handsome and rugged (with the exception of Ruben who was so cute and cuddly that you just wanted to give him a hug). Are people who are not what society deems attractive unable to sing? There’s no coincidence that these lucky singers are ready to pose for magazine covers.
Even when Jordin Sparks won, there was some backlash against her, claiming that because she was slightly overweight that she would encourage young women to start shoving donuts in their mouths. MeMe Roth, the president and founder of National Action Against Obesity stated “-Jordin Sparks should not be named the American Idol because she’s overweight and, thus, a poor role model for children in America”.
Singing talent has little to do with it. Charisma, performance, appearance, and likeability are the must haves (a sob story is optional, but it will help get you through the audition phase). If everyone who took part in American Idol sang behind a black screen, from the auditions to the live shows, the results would be very, very different.
Finally, after the live shows are over. After the tears and drama and tension of performing in front of national television. After the makeovers and the coaching and preening. The winner is announced. Said winner gets the prestige of being the champion of the entire show, the satisfaction that they lived their dream and came out on top. They also get a recording contract which basically signs their lives over to the people who were behind the show the entire time.
One girl on Pop Idol refused to sign the contract because it basically meant that the record company owned their very souls. There was no creative freedom involved, there was no character or individuality. They were a created product that had to be carefully monitored, coached and contained. These “talent” shows don’t find popstars, they make them.
But the sad thing is that millions of people, every year are desperately hungry for fame, recognition, and sometimes, just attention. They willingly go on these shows hoping against hope that someone will reward them, that someone will like them, that their lives will go from rags to riches and their plebian problems will vanish. One or two people per series get these dreams. The rest are either humiliated before the nation or let down and forced to return to their everyday lives as normal people. Only every so often someone will recognize them and say “hey, weren’t you kicked off that singing show?”