Sunday, 18 May 2014

Talent, genius or vanity?

"Use what talents you possess: the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best." Henry Van Dyke.

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New Faces judges
'Talent shows' is the term we used to apply to shows that offered aspiring stars to appear on TV. In the days of New Faces or Opportunity Knocks, the appearance on TV often gave the performers the boost they hoped for, even if they didn't win: taglines such as "As Seen On TV" or "Star of New Faces" were useful selling points. Generally the standards weren't very high, and people often watched just for a laugh, although I do remember a three-piece band with the awful name Candy Rock doing a surprisingly good version of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody. But appearing on TV was your reward and, although occasionally some stars did come through, it wasn't the show that steered whatever career you might subsequently have. Not so now. Being chosen as a winner on one of Simon Cowell's shows leads to a recording contract, a tour and - the aspiring stars hope - a lifetime of living the dream. Three years later, most of them are desperately performing at village fetes and holiday camps or switching on Christmas lights (I can think of actual examples). The luckier ones may get seasonal work in pantomime. Then, presumably, back to the day job with photos, cuttings and a couple of discs to show for it all.

I have occasionally watched these shows, as I believe that if you're going to express a view about something, you should at least have an idea what you're talking about, but I have always found them uncomfortable viewing. They seem to have developed some rituals of their own: singing is all they ever wanted to do, apparently, although until the chance to appear on TV arose, they hadn't actually done much to achieve their heart's desire. Clearly the dream was conditional upon the chance of fame and fortune. Sometimes there is the dedication to "Me Nan" who apparently spent her life yearning to see her grandchild on TV - this guarantees a sentimental round of applause. Many of the female contestants have spent their time honing their Whitney or Mariah soundalike skills, and the lads usually seem to take their inspiration (if such it be) from boy bands.

The judging panel always includes someone rude to be booed by the studio audience: Mickey Most used to fulfil this function on New Faces, and Simon Cowell currently wears that mantle. This can be self-defeating because if someone crumbles into tears as a result, they usually get a sympathy vote, leading to rolling eyes and tutting by Mr Cowell. However, if you intend to put yourself in the public eye, you have to accept that not everyone will think you're wonderful, and that the audience owes you nothing. When I was in a regularly-gigging local rock & roll band, we would go down a storm one night, but the next perhaps face utter indifference or worse; criticism was rarely constructive, but you have to take it. Even the most sensitive of singer-songwriters have a certain hard edge and a drive to perform; you won't get many gigs crying into your pillow at home.

My main objection to modern talent shows is that they give the impression that only a tiny minority can sing: the show has selected half a dozen finalists from thousands of applicants, implying that these are the cream of the cream. Complete nonsense, of course: there are many local artistes in many genres of music who perform as amateurs or semi-professionals: they drive themselves to a gig, set up their own drum kits and sound systems, do their gig, and then the reverse process of taking down and going home. A two-hour gig in a pub can easily take six hours of your time, and if there's a fee, it may just cover costs. For every glory-seeking TV contestant claiming to have a dream, there are tens of thousands of people (at least!) who perform various styles such as rock, jazz, soul, folk, country, choral or classics for the love of it with no need of the lure of TV glory. I find the implication that singing is an elite activity quite objectionable because most people can sing. Tone deafness is quite rare, and people often believe they can't sing simply because they rarely do it. That doesn't mean everyone can be a brilliant singer, but then people often enjoy a kick around in the local park even though they will never be in a premiership team.

It's worth remembering that by the time the Beatles recorded their first hit single, Love Me Do, although they were still very young (between 19 and 22), they'd already performed more gigs than most modern performers will do in their lifetime. Nowadays, the music business doesn't want artists who have spent years honing their skills, and talent show contestants want an instant route to the top, not realising that, with the occasional exception, what goes up quickly usually comes down even more quickly. Still, I suppose it gives them something to tell the grandchildren.

"Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful." John Wooden.


  1. Nothing wrong with singing in village fetes....I sang in a choir at one this afternoon!

  2. I've just come in from a folk singaround, where I heard some of the best singing I have ever heard in my life. Of course, you won't have heard of the singers. (Unless you've knocked around the festivals a bit, in which case you probably will. But that's by the way.)

    Even the most sensitive of singer-songwriters have a certain hard edge and a drive to perform

    I remember saying to my girlfriend, years ago, that I'd realised singers weren't the shy put-upon kids like us - they were the outgoing confident kids. There was one obvious exception - Morrissey - but we only had his word for it.

  3. Jo: pity I missed you on X-Factor!

    Phil: Morrissey may well have started out shy and unconfident - quite a few performers do - but the desire to perform has to override the desire to hide away, otherwise the performance never leaves the bedroom.


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