When’s the last time a winner of a television talent show left a lasting mark on artistic culture?
If you’ve ever seen prime time television, you’ll know that for the past decade+, shows like The Voice, American Idol, and America’s Got Talent have fixated viewers. They’ve also jump-started the recording careers of countless singers and musicians.
But with few exceptions (Kelly Clarkson being notable), these shows have not produced artists who grip the listening public’s imagination. When’s the last time a Scotty McCreery song made you stop in your tracks?
It’s not because the people going on these shows are unskilled. It’s because they lack context.
Talent shows offer a shortcut to fame and success. This is appealing to musicians. It takes a long time to build a following. It takes a lot of work to get a recording deal. Why not win on skill alone and build from a better position in the music industry?
Makes sense. But I don’t think these young musicians fully realize what they give up when they take the short way.
They sacrifice their own personal background stories.
Think about all the legendary musicians who still impact our culture: Ray Charles, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, John Coltrane, Aretha Franklin, etc.
All of these artists had a richer connection to their own music and to their audiences because they had real, compelling stories with music. They struggled, they worked, and they had the kind of rough edges which would not be acceptable on primetime television. Their audiences (mostly) knew as much (if not, the artists’ personal life was private and mysterious enough to hold interest). And their audiences appreciated that and valued that and heard that in the music.
By removing and sanitizing the element of background story, talent shows can mass-produce artists. They can give us what seems to be a more intimate look at an artists’ formation, even. But the reality is that we all have bullshit detectors. And as much as we might enjoy the drama of the talent show stageplay, we all know it’s not quite real.
Without a background story, our American Idol and The Voice artists lack solid identities. Lacking that, they’re really hard to relate to.
What’s the lesson here? I think it stretches beyond musicians and talent shows. There are no shortcuts to powerful art, and fame is only a starter fuel. If you burn it up before you’ve laid a bed of slow-burning wood, you won’t be able to light a large fire, or one that burns for long. Your story is a big part of what people will value about your work. Don’t neglect to develop it, to own it, and to guard it jealously. Don’t let people sanitize it or remove its mystery.