Monday, June 22, 2009

Being a Reality Show Talent Contestant

Just a little while back Susan Boyle was all the rage and people had cried and identified with this affable Scot with a lovely voice. I neither identified with her, nor cried, but wished her the best and thought that she indeed had a lovely voice. There are so many talented people that I have known in my years of performing, really great artists, who should be recognized, but probably will never be. Susan Boyle is not one of these. The most talented among us we rarely come to know. I have met such on the streets of New York City, in night clubs in Europe, and little known spots in Detroit. But I did not, nor do I now, disparage Ms. Boyle. I wished her all the best then as I do right now.

When at the height of the Susan Boyle mania, I wrote a dissenting opinion on another blog, seeking to distinguish between greatness, heartstrings, media hype, self-identification, and the irresponsibility of such shows, more than a few people disagreed with my stance. No problem. "Ms. Boyle," I wrote, "is not and shall never be a great talent." (As I read many of your blogs, I know some of you posted something on Susan Boyle and probably disagree with me now. I assume many do. This is totally OK. I'd like to hear your opinion.)

My strong reaction probably had less to do with Ms. Boyle than all the hype engendered to produce ratings for Mr. Cow...Oops, I meant Cowell. :-) I detested such remarks that called her an "ugly duckling," referred to her never being kissed before, and made a mockery of her age. This was all produced not for her benefit but to play into the stereotypes of beauty, sex, and youth. I wrote that I disliked such shows and thought that they could be harmful. She is not a great talent by any stretch of the imagination and was being used. Many of us fell into the media trap I'm afraid. But this is not to say that supporters of Ms. Boyle did not feel what they felt. My question then and now is, why did you feel so?

Ms. Boyle was Simon Cowell's modus operandi for ratings. If she was young, thin, and beautiful according to the Western acceptable standard of beauty, which never meant much to me, we probably would not have even been talking about her. It paid off big for him and miserably for her. Ms. Boyle has been in and out of several psychiatric hospitals and was having a mental breakdown during the final taping of the show.

Today Simon Cowell offered an apology and said that he was "wrong" in his handling of Susan Boyle and that some of the guidelines of the show would be changed. (Read the article here.) I was happy to hear this, as these shows are making money hand over fist while the lives of many contestants spiral out of control and lie in the balance. While it is very difficult to know the psychological state of anyone, it is pretty safe to say that many contestants have put their entire life into winning, perhaps after many years of trying to make it in the business. It's grueling out there. Trust me. I know this first hand.

So, I'm happy that Simon Cowell made a public apology and I'm hopeful that the guidelines for his shows will sincerely change. As for Ms. Boyle, I wish her much success and Godspeed.


Marion said...

I'm glad Simon made a public apology, too, and I just cringe when I see a small child on those shows, which I seldom watch. They shouldn't even be exposed to all that nasty back-biting and adult type behavior at such tender ages.

I wasn't ga-ga over Ms. Boyle like everyone else was, but I did think she had a nice singing voice.

Being a woman of a certain age (as the inimitible writer, Colette, used to say so diplomatically), I can relate to her breakdowns from all this hoop-la. She went from living a predictible, slow-paced life in a small town to this whirlwind of craziness. Hell, I'd need more than a few psychiatric visits myself!

Another thoughtful post, Judith, that made me stop and think. Blessings.

Linda S. Socha said...

Well said Judith and points taken. A very thoughful and on target post

Judith Ellis said...

I have never seen any of these shows for more than a few minutes, I must confess. But I have seen the performance of some of the contestant. But it doesn't take a whole show to realize that it's pure hype. I'm not hating though, to each his/her own.

I love Colette and this description. I assume, many can relate to Susan Boyle's emotional state, having come from virtual obscurity to such world-wide fame in a matter of days. I felt for her then and now.

Many blessing to you, Marion.

Judith Ellis said...

Thanks, Linda. I always like it when you pass through.

Heather Durham said...

I really enjoyed your post, very well expressed, very thoughtful. You're a wonderful writer.

I just have to mention one thing. Susan Boyle's voice is untrained. You wrote (I'm not quoting, I can't remember your words verbatim) something to the effect that Susan Boyle is not a great talent and never will be. I understand what you're saying and you are probably right.


Maria Callas was not a great natural talent. From the time she was a child, she wanted to be an opera star. People were surprised because no one believed she had the voice. She was adamant, however. She trained and trained and when people told her she still didn't have the voice, she trained some more. Today, she is considered one of the greatest opera singers of all time. Perhaps if you'd heard Maria Callas, untrained, on one of today's reality shows, you would say that she not a great talent and never will be.

I guess I would just say, don't be too quick to make such assumptions.

Thank you for the very nice post.

Judith Ellis said...

Oh, Heather, thank you for your thoughtful comment. Maria Callas is one of my very favorite opera singers and I probably have everything that she has ever recorded. I have also written of her here. By the way, I was an opera singer from the age twelve up until thirteen years ago, having a rather natural operatic singing voice and having been "discovered" by a renowned music educator and composer who was married to an opera impresario and internationally recognized composer.

What Callas had above all else was DRAMA! No one argues that she has the best voice. In fact, her great rival, Renata Tebaldi, had a FAR superior singing voice, but was not as dramatic as Callas, hence, she is less memorable to many. Also, Tebaldi did not date a Greek shipping tycoon whom she loved dearly but obviously did not love her, that later married the high priestesses of the American government and not of the Druids in the finest Bel Canto operatic tradition.

There is no doubt that Boyle has a lovely voice. But lovely doesn't quite cut it in one very important regard. Greatness does not simply encompass one element. It encompasses many. Tebaldi had a GREAT voice, passion, and presence. Maria Callas had a good voice, passion and presence. Both were great!

Perhaps if Boyle had training as you said she would have become a better singer. A great artist? Probably not. There is absolutely nothing about her energy that would indicate this; she lacks pathos in a big way. Some things can't be taught. What she has is a natural lovely color. But I have heard kids without any training use their voice passionately with pathos phrase by phrase. Great singing is not just about the color or size of the voice. Why Boyle does not do more with her voice naturally is probably because she does not naturally feel so. Some elements of greatness can't be taught.

Your "assumptions" comment was thoughtful indeed. I just wish that it was merely assumption and not specific years of training with the very best and watching great artists up close (including singers, actors, and dancers) my entire life. At a young age I sat up close and listened to Dame Sutherland, for example. Before her I listened to the recordings of the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson at home. Had Boyle not listened to any great Scottish artists back in Scotland of any tradition? Let me also say that if I am proven wrong, I will gladly say so publicly. But at that point there would be no reason, would it? :-) It will be obvious. I will do so nonetheless.

Sutherland is another one who sang the same Bel Canto repertoire as Callas and it can be easily asserted that Sutherland had a far superior singing voice. But then again many would choose Callas over Sutherland for her dramatic impetuses. As for me, I DON'T chose either of these three over the other. They are all GREAT singers and artists.

Thanks, Heather, for your kind and encouraging words with regards to my writing. They are appreciated. I do hope that you will pass through again.

John O'Leary said...

Judith, I made the choice to not watch the show (after seeing a few seconds of the judges' behavior when I was flipping channels) - and given your commentary I think I've made the right choice. I could fill a book with the reasons why.

Judith Ellis said...

John - When American Idol first came out I watched a bit of the first show. I soon realized that it was not going to be a show that I would enjoy. I most certainly did not whatch Britian's Got Talent. But I did watch via Youtube, as millions of others, Boyle's performance after the event. Listening and reading how the producers built the show around her "ugliness," age, and matron qualities, nightly on news outlets everywhere angered me. The two finanlists were like apple and oranges. How can they be fairly judged--a young dance hip hop group and a never been out before singer who has be holed up in her home singing to herself for many years. Yes, John, you did not miss much I'm sure.

Anonymous said...

Read Simon's apology again. He didn't really apologize at all.
He said he doesn't know what he'd do differently next time.
He also said he didn't realize how bad Susan's situation was until that last night, and she didn't deal with losing very well.
She was in such bad shape before the final that they sent her to a "safe house" rather then let her leave when she packed her bags.
I'm amazed at how many people fell for his line of crap.
He was doing damage control for the show.
Money was, and always will be, the bottom line.

Judith Ellis said...

Yes, I did read that bit about not knowing what he would do different. Perhaps we can help him by simply not watching any of his shows. Any admission I thought was better than none coming from him. But I do appreciate your points. Thanks.

Heather Durham said...

Dear Judith,

Your reply to my post below is fantastic. I just love Maria Callas and as many times as I listen to the CDs I have of Aida, it still makes me cry and gives me back-shivering chills. What you said about her drama just nails it. The way she used her voice, maybe to overcome some of her shortcomings, was thrilling. Her control and expression move me to tears.

Anyway, why am I talking about Maria Callas when your post is about Susan Boyle? I agree with what you said in your reply to my comment. Very well expressed, indeed.

I am not a vocalist, not even close, so I bow to your knowledge and experience.

All the best.

Judith Ellis said...

Dear Heather,

Please continue to stand erect and speak as you see fit. I very much appreciated your assumption comment, as it is always very important not to take ourselves too seriously, always knowing that we can miss the mark with regards to a host of things at any time. So, please continue to challenge my assumptions. I'm totally OK with this. In fact, I appreciate it.

"I just love Maria Callas and as many times as I listen to the CDs I have of Aida, it still makes me cry and gives me back-shivering chills...The way she used her voice, maybe to overcome some of her shortcomings, was thrilling. Her control and expression move me to tears."

I've done the same with regards to many of her CD's and agree wholeheartedly with your words here.