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American reality television shows have captivated audiences for more than a decade. Particularly, this is true for reality music shows. For example, Moss (1) says the American Idol attracts about 30 million people, weekly. Such numbers highlight the power that such shows have in attracting huge audiences. However, based on the purpose of such shows, there are debates about whether they meet their intended goals.
Moreover, since these shows are part of popular culture, there is even a greater concern about how televised music contests fit within the model of the “American dream.” This paper explores these issues by investigating how such talent shows affect the lives of the contestants. It also explores how they fit within the wider model of the “American dream” and why they attract many viewers.
Definition of the “American Dream”
The “American dream” has inspired different facets of the American society. Hobby (52) says it embodies different virtues, ethos, and values that characterize the US society. To explain this view, he says, “The historical dream is the promise of a land of freedom with opportunity and equality for all” (Hobby 52). This definition outlines my understanding of the “American dream” because I also believe that, in America, hard work can make people become what they want.
Particularly, this is true for the music industry and the entertainment world where people believe that everybody’s dream to “make it” is valid. This principle exists in music talent shows, such as the American Idol and The Voice, because they give “ordinary” people an opportunity to become successful musicians.
What is the Appeal of Talent Search Shows like American Idol?
Talent search shows have captivated peoples’ attention for a long time. Many people have often wondered the formula for the success of such shows because every season attracts more audiences. Moss (4) believes the turnover of prospective artists who characterize the show explains this success. Comparatively, television shows that quickly lose their ratings often depend on a set of characters that continuously dominate the show. However, music talent shows thrive on the changing sets of talents.
Relative to this assertion, Moss (4) explains the design of talent search shows by saying, “It is several people entering a talent competition and whittling them down. You cannot get tired of this format. You can get tired of it if we continually have the same people” (Moss 4). Therefore, so long as talent shows have new and interesting contestants, they are bound to attract more viewers.
Transformation is another reason that explains the huge liking of music talent search shows (Moss 4). Stated differently, such shows give audiences an opportunity to see an artist’s transition. Therefore, they can relate to a musician’s success. Coupled with the opportunity to involve audiences in the shows (through voting), talent search shows are even more popular today than they were in the past.
Why do People Criticize Talent Search Shows?
Talent search shows, like American Idol and The Voice, have suffered a lot of criticism for different reasons. Stanley (9) says the main reason for this cynicism is the failure of such shows to focus on music. He advances this argument because he believes some of these shows focus more on theatrics as opposed to talent (Stanley 7). For example, some observers criticize the American Idol because it focuses more on judges’ theatrics, as opposed to the contestants’ talents (Stanley 7).
Particularly, these people highlight the theatrics of the British Judge, Simon Cowell, and his unforgiving criticisms of “weak” contestants. Based on his character, Stanley (10) says the show’s producers include the performances of these “weak” artists in the shows to allow audiences to hear the harsh criticisms of the British Judge.
Similarly, the show’s producers focus on the theatrics of the contestants by giving viewers a backstage view of their experiences. For example, Tomasino (175) says, “Backstage cameras allow viewers to empathize with rejected contestants, some of whom call their parents by cell phones, or weep in one another’s arms.” To expose this issue, Stanley (1) explains this criticism by exposing the over-commercialization of such shows. For example, he said,
“One contestant, after making it to the next round, raced out of his audition because his wife was about to deliver their first child in a hospital, two hours away. A camera followed and recorded him as he cradled the newborn baby in his disposable hospital gown, a touching scene packaged, somewhat incongruously, as a Coca Cola moment. Surely, one thing that does not augur well with Coke is an epidural” (Tomasino 175).
Many critics share the same view because talent shows drift from the music focus by giving audiences a backstage view of the contestants’ personal experiences. Television networks know that they can captivate their audiences by giving them this backstage view. Therefore, they exploit it to improve their ratings. This way, talent shows depart from their focus (music talent search). Therefore, while such shows may seem to attract a huge audience, they command a huge following because audiences want to see the judges and their theatrics, as opposed to the merit, or talents, of the contestants.
How effective are Talent Shows at Helping Artists find Careers?
Many people have varied opinions that explain the failure of talent show winners to succeed in their music careers. However, Stanley (10) identifies the dwindling fortunes of the music industry as a strong reason for the failure of these shows to help artists develop their music careers. He argues that the music industry is facing serious challenges that stem from its failure to increase sales (Stanley 9). In fact, Tomasino (175) says many music labels, like Sony Music Entertainment, are having trouble advancing the careers of their promising artists.
When upcoming musicians venture into the industry, they face the same challenge. Therefore, talent search shows fail to advance the careers of their winning contestants because the main problem is not the lack of artists, but unfavorable industry conditions. Therefore, the careers of budding musicians fail to “take off” because talent search shows fail to solve the external problems facing the music industry. This way, they do not help their contestants to advance their music careers, effectively.
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Do Show Contestants have Long Careers on Average?
Talent search shows, like Idol Camp, The Next Great American Band, and the American Idol, have created overnight successes by turning ordinary people into “stars.” However, most winners have had short-term career successes. For example, Candice Glover (winner of American Idol, season 12) did not develop an illustrious career after her win. In fact, her debut song failed to captivate the market.
The same is true for her album. Although some American Idol winners, such as Reuben Studdard and Jordan Sparks, have had relatively successful careers, after winning seasons two and six, respectively, their careers have been relatively short-lived. For example, Studdard’s last successful musical hit was Sorry 2004. Similarly, Jordin Sparks’ most successful hit was Tattoo.
Both musicians have been unable to surpass their debut successes. In fact, their fame is dwindling. The situation is worse for contestants who have had second-placed finishes in the same television show. For example, Justin Guarini, Diana DeGarmo, and Crystal Bowersox are some second-placed artists who have struggled to make a mark in the music industry. Overall, although some artists, such as Adam Lambert and Kelly Clarkson, have created successful careers from such talent shows, few contestants have had long and successful careers.
This paper shows that talent search shows have gained popularity by “feeding” their contestants into a popular culture of mainstream show business. Indeed, such shows have created popular musicians, such as Clarkson and Lambert. However, evidence from this paper shows that many contestants have had trouble sustaining their fame (for those that have found relative success), or succeeding in the mainstream music industry in the first place. This paper agrees with the arguments of Stanley (174), which say that talent shows “feed” their contestants into a shaky music business because the industry does not lack new talent.
Instead, external factors, such as market limitations and dwindling industry fortunes are the greatest problems for budding musicians. However, such shows have overcome these challenges and become increasingly popular because they appeal to the “American dream,” which implies that everybody has an equal opportunity to become successful. This perception arouses my interest in talent search shows because it is fascinating to see “ordinary” people grow and become successful musicians through such shows.
Hobby, Blake. The American Dream, New York, NY: Infobase Publishing, 2009. Print.
Moss, Corey. Why Is ‘Idol’ So Successful? Ciara, Simon, Others Sound Off. May. 2005.
Stanley, Alessandra. Here’s Reality: ‘Idol’ Feeds Hopefuls to a Shaky Music Business. 2003.
Tomasino, Anna. Music and Culture, Boston, MA: Addison-Wesley, Longman, Incorporated, 2005. Print.