Are Talent Shows Like American Idol and X Factor Producing Less Talented Pop Artists?
I recently came across a forum discussion about the failure of many talent show contestants and winners to find major success in the music business. Now, some American Idol, X Factor and America's Got Talent contestants and finalists have gone onto great success including Carrie Underwood, Susan Boyle and Kelly Clarkson. Some are having modest success like Adam Lambert and Jennifer Hudson. Time will tell how well Canadian Idol contestant Carly Rae Jepsen and British X Factor contestants One Direction do in the long term.
Many others have faded away despite the massive amount of exposure these shows give. A point was made in the discussion that there is more to being a great artist than having a great voice. And these shows mainly put emphasis on vocal ability. Other things we associate with musical talent like stage presence, charisma, songwriting ability, creativity and the ability to play an instrument are ignored. I put stage presence here because there's a big difference between an American Idol performance and putting on a full concert and holding the attention of an audience for a couple of hours.
Now, you may be thinking that surely vocal ability is the most important thing for a singer. But I think most of us will agree that Bob Dylan was a bad singer but a great artist. A person could be an amazing technical singer but not be a great artist. A great pop artist in my view is a package. Talent shows focus on one thing and one thing only. This may make it hard for those who have nothing more than a great voice to find success in pop music.
The problem with talent shows is that you're judged simply by how well you can mimic other people's songs and work. This may not be the best way to judge true talent.
Katy Perry Live
Could Katy Perry Have Done Well in a Talent Show?
Love her or hate her, Katy Perry is a great pop artist. She's now one of the biggest names in music. Sure, she doesn't have the best voice ever. But her MTV Unplugged performance proves that she has a good voice when she stands still and really focuses on her vocals. She really has it all. She has charisma, stage presence, songwriting ability and she plays both guitar and piano. And if you think songs like California Gurls and Teenage Dream are horrible, you might just love other songs she's written like Brick by Brick, Cup of Coffee, The Box, Playing House and Thinking Of You.
Perry is an example of what's wrong with these shows. Someone with the potential to be a successful artist may get overlooked because they don't have the best voice in the world or because their nerves get the better of them when they're under pressure.
I think these shows should emphasize more than vocal ability. They should encourage contestants to sing original songs and play instruments. How about asking them to sustain a 3 or 4 song set or putting them into a noisy environment like a real concert where it's harder to focus on your vocals? In other words, put them into the environments real pop artists have to function in.
Does Struggling to Enter the Music Business Make Better Artists?
Obviously some talent show contestants go through struggles to break into the industry before entering these competitions. For those who don't, can having success handed to them through a talent show set them up for failure later on? Take Ke$ha. She's another example of someone who wouldn't make it on American Idol despite the fact that she's a very good singer, songwriter and stage performer. She's usually amazing in front of her fans at her own concerts. But she lets her nerves get to her. In high profile performances she's more likely to suck than succeed. And if you think all she writes is party anthems, you're completely wrong. They're a fairly small portion of her overall discography.
Ke$ha is an example of someone who almost had a music career handed to her. Her mother Pebe Sebert is a successful country music songwriter who wrote Dolly Parton's number 1 hit Old Flames Can't Hold a Candle to You (a song Ke$ha did a beautiful cover of for her ). Pebe was able to open doors for her daughter. Kesha started recording songs when she was only 15. Some of her songs were on TV shows like Victorious and Degrassi: The Next Generation. She did the song Invisible for the 2006 movie, the Barbie Diaries. And if you've heard the CW network jingle TV to Talk About, that's Kesha Sebert. Deconstructed EP
Despite recording dozens of songs, Kesha couldn't get a recording contract because she was told she was too ugly to ever be successful. So, Kesha left the comfort of her Nashville home at 18 to move to Los Angeles to make it on her own. It was a good thing for her career development that she did. Sure she was broke and sometimes homeless and worked waitressing and telemarketing jobs that she hated for four years. But she wrote and recorded songs with industry figures like Toby Gad, The Nervo Twins, Kara DioGuardi, Ted Bruner, Greg Wells, Three 6 Mafia and Laze and Royal. Unfortunately, these songs are all part of her vast unreleased discography.
The struggles and rejection she went through have influenced many of her songs. Her smash debut Tik Tok was about her experiences as a broke, bored young woman with no real responsibilities who partied a lot. She spent time singing live acoustically as part of a duo with her older brother Lagan building up live performance skills in front of crowds who had no clue who she was. And she developed persistence and the ability to build connections within the industry as she desperately sought out people to work with her. This likely helped her get the likes of The Strokes, Iggy Pop, The Flaming Lips, Patrick Carney and Ben Folds to collaborate with her on her new album Warrior. She had to learn how to market herself and her work. She was able to build up a small fanbase by putting her songs on her Myspace page long before she got a contract.
I think Ke$ha is a better artist today with the potential to have real career longevity because she had to struggle to succeed. I wonder how far Kesha Sebert, the kid who had her career handed to her by her mother, would have gone. Maybe some talent show contestants who failed to build a career would have been better off going through similar struggles that would have given them the connections and skills they needed to succeed. Those struggles may also give young artists the fortitude they need to survive in a very brutal industry. The easy route may not always be the best route to long-term success.