2 years’ work in 2 days: what talent shows hide

I watch rather more talent-reality TV shows than perhaps I should, but it’s one way of turning off the higher faculties and just enjoying myself for however many minutes. I’ve watched them since the days of “Fame Academy” and “Popstars”. Also grouped in with these, via the “reality” part, are shows like Great British Bake-Off, The Apprentice, and so on. Not included are the celebrity-based versions such as Strictly Come Dancing, which I usually enjoy but this year have not started watching yet (I suspect I may just have had my fill for the time being after watching every previous season).

I used to wonder why the music contests are always singing. Why don’t they have other disciplines such as songwriting, guitar, keyboards, bass, drums?

I eventually got my answer not from the music shows but from watching The Apprentice, and researching what actually goes on in business to produce a new product. In particular, a few years ago I wanted to develop an idea for a new card game and a new board game (which was the task last night, as it happens…). It turns out that there are probably dozens released every day and it’s a hugely competitive market. But the important thing I discovered was how much work goes into it. And it turns out that similar amounts of time and work go into any business idea or product.

Back when The Apprentice was still about getting a job rather than an investment, Nick Hewitt (one of Alan Sugar’s “advisors” on the show) gave an interview and pointed out that of course the challenges aren’t anything to do with the real world of work, because nobody wants to see 14 candidates giving in-depth analysis of economic trends, theories and forecasts. It’s designed to appeal to the masses. In the same vein, a Mitchell And Webb sketch has two TV producers looking at footage and debating whether people wanted to see incompetence or expertise in the show.

The thing is, most of the tasks (with the exception of the “Scavenger Hunt” and the “Sell the Products” tasks) require that within the space of two or three days, the candidates should do what would normally take anywhere between 6 months and 2 years to complete: which is, design, test, and bring a product to market. So of course the process, and above all, the end result, is full of flaws and problems. People sit at home and say, “Hey! Even I could do better than that!” I would actually like to see a version of The Apprentice in which the extra candidates (like they had this time) was a third team made up of (long-term) unemployed people and just see how well they did compared to the yuppie pricks they usually have on (the BBC Wardrobe department might have to provide the expensive-looking suits for business presentations, but anyway).

And it’s that, “Hey! I could do (better than) that!” element that I think is the hook that talent shows and talent-reality shows, depend on as their draw. While most people wouldn’t imagine themselves as expert bakers, I am sure a lot of the audience comes from people who like to bake, and fancy themselves as pretty good, who are tempted by the idea that maybe I could do that.

After all, one reason I watch the talent shows is that I have not yet given up my dreams of rock stardom; I drag my guitar up to London each year for The Voice preliminary auditions (haven’t yet tried the X-Factor ones, and from what I hear they are nowhere near as nice to performers). I watch, and believe, “Hey, I could do that!”

And the “6 months in 2 days” aspect is probably why they don’t run talent shows for guitarists, bassists, drummers and keyboard players. The vast majority of people have some kind of singing voice. Too many are told they shouldn’t, and give up singing; many never take singing seriously, and that’s okay, too. But most feel as if they can sing, enjoy singing, and do so to some extent. A small minority actually put serious work into it, and treat it as a genuine vocation as a classical singer would have to, but more practice every day and get some level of vocal training to become better at controlling their voices. However, all of them feel good about their singing. All of them can feel they have a chance. They may very well feel they have a natural gift in their voice (Not always a good thing – links to a blogpost on a similar theme by Chris Brecheen).

Most people do not know how to play guitar. Even those who do, know they aren’t great at it. If you had a dozen talented young folk showing off their best licks, riffs and twiddly solo-y bits every week, you’d know whether you came close or not, and the answer would almost certainly be “not”. Instead of feeling accomplished, you would feel “conscious incompetence”. Even the rhythm section of bass and drums, on the surface look simple but in order to create a talent show out of them, you’re going to be judging it on skills that most people who dream of those instruments don’t imagine they will ever genuinely possess: drum solos, bass licks and fingering techniques, stuff with drums that I don’t even know about! And because I don’t know about them, that’s the point.

I mentioned as a separate genre things like “Strictly Come Dancing”, where celebrities train up at some challenging performance art outside their normal purview (see also the conducting one as a favourite). The draw for these, I think, is pure spectacle: “I wish I could come close to doing something like that!” Wonder, awe, that in just one week these celebrities have learned a whole dance routine. (Not to mention, they get to wear the most gorgeous outfits: I am so jealous of the dresses and the suits… but apparently they don’t get to keep them.) Perhaps the same draw would work for the musicians versions, but I think this would break the illusion of pop music as being “of the people”; The X-Factor presentation, for example, is all about creating the illusion of closeness between performer and audience. When the draw becomes “That’s incredible/unreachable”, it exposes the truth: even for the singers, it is a week of cramming: hours of practice, every day, trying to fine-tune the performance and have it perfected in time for the studio rehearsals. Most people do not imagine putting in the work, but when the skill is external (like playing an instrument) it becomes more obvious what is needed.

There is a certain amount of snobbery towards talent shows, in some circles. An attitude of, it seems, “You don’t get to be a real musician by going on those.” The assumption is that talent show competing is a substitute for doing the work and practising. I think this is an attitude that is produced by the way some contestants treat it, and some of them probably do take that approach. Watching The Voice, and taking part in the opening process, I can see that generally those who do well on talent shows have done as much work as those who are successful through “traditional” means. It’s just that people don’t imagine the work it takes.


About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
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