America Votes: A Modest Proposal Revisited (E)

It is April 2021, and we are slowly making our collective way to a post-pandemic world, and if that sounds overly optimistic . . .well, you’re probably right. There has been a great deal of chatter and print devoted to how people coped during the lockdowns and closures of our favorite distractions. Firstly, it was panic buying and shortages of things like toilet paper, hand wipes, disinfectant cleaners of any kind and yeast! As a former baker, I wonder how many inedible loaves were tossed into the garbage! Secondly, it was masks and testing . . .and the list goes on. Oh, I almost forgot, there was an election – enough said. What I found particularly interesting about all the chatter, was that it almost exclusively centered around how people were filling their days, and very little if anything on how evenings were being spent. Well, fear not as I am going to rectify that by sharing with you what I did to while away the countless evenings, and in doing so make a connection between a current phenomenon in television programming, the music business, and the electoral process. Don’t believe me, read on!

Over the past year I spent many, okay way too many evenings watching YouTube videos of reality music and talent competitions. You know, American Idol, The Voice, The X Factor, The Four, America’s Got Talent, Britain’s Got Talent, Australia’s Got Talent, Ireland’s Got Talent, Spain’s Got Talent, Italy’s Got Talent. I could go on for at least another ten pages, but by now you should get the idea that just about every country has one or more of these shows; they have become ubiquitous! Don’t judge me. I know, everyone else is being judged, but hey I’m not singing for you! This particular distraction started innocently enough. You know, how most these things begin, scanning the apps on my T.V., clicking on YouTube, and there they were. I have to admit that my first reaction was tepid to say the least. Sure, I watched the first season of American Idol (2002), like many people, but I have not tuned into any of these shows since then. Of course, YouTube didn’t start until 2005, so that was really the only way to watch the show. Now, you can just see “highlights,” which is the only way I can handle the content. I have become very adept with the fast forward button.

There are so many of these shows now that it is difficult to keep track. However, the concept is not new. You would have to go way back to 1948 for the first offering of this type of – dare I say it – entertainment and a show called “Original Amateur Hour,” which ran for 22 years until 1970 with the winner of each season receiving a check for $1,500. A far cry from the prize money today, not to mention the dangling carrot of a recording contract on some of the shows. Next up was “Star Search,” running from 1983-1985 with the winner in each category receiving $100,000, but no recording contract, bummer. And now, they are everywhere and about everything. A quick search led me to a website showing 30 sub-categories of reality shows listed alphabetically! Adventure reality television; Auctions; Courtrooms; Dance; (come on, I know some of you are hooked on “Dancing With The Stars,” or, “So You Think You Can Dance”); Fishing, Figure Skating, Food; Hidden Camera (think Candid Camera); Makeover; Paranormal; Sports; Weddings. Weddings? Yes, this last one surprised me too, and now I have something else to watch. . .Not!

As you have no doubt figured out by now, my tepid response to first watching these shows, quickly turned into an obsession (there, I said it), and from there it turned into what I am calling P.R. No, not public relations, although that is not really far off the mark. No, P.R. is my acronym for Pandemic Research (patent pending). Let’s be honest, “research” is merely the $10 word or, if you will, the “academic” word for obsession! As I watched more and more of these clips, I began to see some patterns emerge, which piqued my curiosity. Sure, some of these patterns were a byproduct of the shows themselves (formulas) and what the producers, no doubt, thought would make them enjoyable and successful. However, some of the patterns that revealed themselves to me were intriguing and even a little disturbing. For example, the amazing transformation of a contestant advancing from their initial audition to the “live” shows, if they are that lucky.

One contestant’s journey (this is the exact word they use on YouTube to promote these videos and suck you in: “Watch so-and-so’s journey – who doesn’t love an amazing journey? – on X-Factor, etc., etc.) I watched from audition to the semi-finals (as far as she got) was a fifteen-year-old on the 2013 season of X Factor (Sept.18). When she came out for her audition there was little or no makeup, she was sort of messy looking, very shy, and somewhat socially awkward. Some auditions, depending on the show are done acapella, some play their own instruments, some have backing tracks, and some have the show’s studio musicians providing the musical accompaniment. In this particular audition, the contestant sang “House of the Rising Sun” with a backing track and absolutely blew the judges away with her rendition of the song. I have to admit that it was a pretty good vocal performance. The comments of all three judges (the fourth was not there) were effusive, commenting on her amazing control, power, and poise. By the time the semi finals rolled around (Oct.13), the transformation was obvious. She was wearing fashionable clothing, her hair was coiffed, makeup, and beautiful jewelry. This time she sang “Wrecking Ball” (Miley Cyrus), with an elaborate stage setup and backing dancers. All four judges (the same initial three plus the one that was missing) panned her performance, saying it lacked energy etc., etc. The end of the road.

One possible take away from all this, and there are a myriad of ways of interpreting this turnaround from brilliant to meh, is that she had changed from the person they initially liked, to someone created to be the judges’/producers’ perceptive image of what a successful “pop” star should look and act like, except now they didn’t like her. A contestant’s journey is dependent on the judges “voting” them through to the next round, and there are several of these before they make it to the “live” shows, which means not just a live audience but also televised. Once they make it to these performances, the judges are still commenting and giving support, encouragement, or as often as not, the opposite, but now the voting is being done by the audience, the public.

What really started the obsession moving into high gear, sorry, research, was the 2019 season of American Idol (A.I.), and the two contestants that made it all the way to the Grand Finale, with one of them walking away the winner. By the 2019 season of A.I., prize money and perks were a far cry from what they were in its heyday (1 million dollars, contract etc., etc.), but not insubstantial, even if you factor in the “catches,” and there are many, just like any standard recording contract these days, so I’m told. $250,000 for turning in a completed album (my last check found that there has not been one yet, but these things do take time), $1,000 per week while recording (so why not drag it out!), and $1,000 for every master delivered. After that there is 15% royalties on sales – whether that is of gross or net is not revealed, oddly enough. There are some other perks like budgets for videos and the like, but those expenses all come out of the artists’ bottom line. Still, this is better than nothing, right? Maybe.

I watched both contestants’ performances from audition to Grand Finale, and although I thought both were strong, I was definitely favoring one of them, and gauging by the judges’ comments after each and every performance by this young man, so were they. After his audition, all three judges were left speechless, but when they recovered, they said things like: “I’m so inspired, you are so talented;” “I think you’re the next American Idol;” “There is nothing like you;” “You’re an absolute genius;” “I feel like I’m in the presence of greatness.” This excessive fawning is not necessarily uncommon, especially at the audition stage, but these comments went above and beyond. He was destined to win it all. He didn’t. Perhaps if this happened in any other year, I wouldn’t have thought twice about this particular outcome, but it was 2019 and the country was getting ready for The Election. In other words, America was gearing up to vote. And this is when obsession segues to research.

When Obama won his second term in office in 2012, there were more votes cast for the A.I. winner that year than in the election. While it is true that this is not an entirely fair comparison, it did get me thinking. The fallout on social media and various publications about the 2019 A.I. results were very telling. The eventual winner was a young, white man from Louisiana, who sang only covers of popular songs that most people know. All of his performances were very solid, and he played guitar on some of them. The runner up was a young Hispanic man from California, and while he did perform some covers, most of his material was original compositions. His command of both the guitar and piano in his performances was absolutely mesmerizing, culminating in one judge saying: “I am not worthy of judging you, from now on I am your biggest fan!” Another judge felt that the show had lapsed into Karaoke (more about this shortly), and that his original material was a “breath of fresh air.” One article I read about the upset (it was routinely called this in the media), suggested that he lost because of the one judges’ comment about Karaoke.

There is nothing inherently wrong with Karaoke, although I can think of 1,000 things I’d rather be doing. Artists have been “covering” other artists’ songs forever. But an artist taking another artists’ song and putting their own spin on it, is very different from amateur hour at the bar! Just think about “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” (1967 Gladys Knight and the Pips; 1968 Marvin Gaye; Ike and Tina Turner 1969, none of whom wrote the song!). There is a certain negative connotation to the word Karaoke, probably because it conjures up images of a dimly lit bar, a challenge from friends to someone who has had one-too-many to get up on a stage and belt out a song from scrolling lyrics on a screen, accompanied by the cheers and jeers of the rest of the patrons who have all probably had one-too-many. We’ve all been there, and if you haven’t, consider yourself lucky! In all honesty, this is what it has been like for me binge watching all these performances. Except, I’m in my home and no one is around. And, If I hear another cover of “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston, I may do something drastic.

All of this got me wondering about who actually watches these shows on a regular basis and takes the time to vote for their favorite? Is there a concentration of people in certain states? Are they voting for the familiar? Are they voting for what they like? Are they voting based on Color? Race? Gender? Did they vote for the eventual 2019 winner because he was white? Or did they vote for him because he was singing songs that they knew and could sing along with? Perhaps it’s both. Perhaps it’s neither. There have been many winners over the years on these shows representing many races, colors, genders, so this is not an attempt to chastise the shows or the voting public, but it was 2019 and I’ve been around long enough to know that I don’t believe in coincidences!

In some ways there is a connection between all of these shows, the music business today, and our electoral process. The music industry has always been complex and many faceted (as is our way of electing public officials), and I am not trying to wax nostalgically about the good old days, because they weren’t all that good. That being said, the music industry today is very different, and from what I can tell is being primarily driven by two major forces: Streaming services/social media and talent competitions, like the ones discussed above. Although on the surface they appear to be very different, they are more closely linked than one might think. Add to this the available technology that allows anyone with some cash and technical knowhow to create musical art. To “make it” as an artist today, it is all about putting yourself out there and waiting until you get the appropriate amount of “likes,” “thumbs up,” “heart emojis.” How is this any different from getting judges votes and then the publics? Or, for that matter, a presidential candidate getting “likes” in the primaries before going to a public vote. It’s not. Today, the music business is structured so that you have to become small “f” famous before you become capital “F” Famous! “Yeah, we really like what you’re doing, come back when that song has a million likes and then we’ll talk!” (Or win a few more state primaries, then we’ll talk). One of the major differences between the two is that on talent shows it is not enough to be good, or even really, really, good, you need to have a good, or really, really good back story. Let’s face it, having a great voice is not as compelling television as having a great voice, an absent parent growing up, being homeless, suffering from depression, having gone through a terrible breakup, recovering drug addict, the list is endless. For presidential candidates the back story (read past behavior) needs to be free of. . .Well, we all know how that plays out! Anything that makes the audience think they know you. Yes, it’s formulaic and it works far better than most people are willing to admit!

What if we took a page from both reality television and the music business playbooks, and instead of electing our politicians in what have become bitterly contested and angst inducing elections, we create a reality election show (my version of “A Modest Proposal,” Jonathan Swift’s 1712 satirical essay about the poor in Ireland)! Think about it. This is how it would work. All candidates would have to first create a “playlist” of their accomplishments, what they stand for, and how they propose to govern the country. These lists get posted to all streaming and social media platforms for one month. Then, the ten candidates with the most “likes,” get to move on to the next phase. With a tip of the hat to America’s Got Talent (A.G.T.), I propose a similar type of show called A.G.C., or America’s Got Candidates! The ten candidates now get to audition to showcase their platforms, then they go head-to-head with other candidates informing the public what they stand for, their qualifications for the job, and how they plan on executing their respective visions for the country. Perhaps, for added entertainment value the producer(s) can put together heart-warming collages of the candidates’ backgrounds and hurdles they’ve had to face. I’m sure the voting public would love this added feature, or they could simply ignore the backgrounds as they seem to have done in recent memory. Even better, why not have all candidates perform a pre-selected song just to get them in the groove so-to-speak. My choice would be “What Kind of Fool Am I?” from the 1961 musical “Stop the World I Want to Get Off.” Seems appropriate, don’t you think? Once the field has been whittled down to let’s say six candidates, the “live” broadcasts begin, and the public gets to vote until there are two left standing for the Grand Finale. Just think about how much fun this would be, and how much more convenient. No primaries, no debates, no polling stations, no voting machines, no fraud, no parties (yes you read that right!) just six weeks of competition and then the final vote. You could even have the “golden buzzer” if a candidate really stands out. Just a thought. The next election (2024) is not that far away!

By the way If you are wondering why, I haven’t mentioned the names of any of the performers I have been writing about, it is so that you can look them up (I’ve given you dates and years) and start your own obsession – I mean research. You’re welcome.

Los Angeles: April 14, 2021

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