I watched some of the New York America’s Got Talent auditions last night, and also some part of the Idols semi-finals. I usually get impatient with these competitive reality shows because I can’t stand the pompous arrogance of the judges and how they enjoy tearing somebody apart. I think it’s a very weird aspect of western culture that audiences crave this kind of persecution.
In Roman times people watched men being thrown to the lions and ripped apart; during the French Revolution and after the crowds gathered to watch heads being chopped off; in the Dark Ages they amassed to watch people being burned at the stake.
So now it’s just emotional brutalization that draws the crowds. The most twisted part of it is that exceptionally talented, brave artists expose themselves to this kind of emotional flaying, believing that it’s a passage to seeing their dreams come true. Last night in America’s Got Talent a young woman I suppose in her late twenties got up on stage. Her story was that she auditioned for Idols ten years ago and didn’t make it. It so destroyed her that she gave up. Or she tried, but some part of her couldn’t. So she began singing again.
And there she was, seeing if she could make her dream come true one more time. You didn’t have a clue looking at her that she was any good at all. She didn’t have any real confidence – in fact she was terrified; she seemed almost mousy, apologetic. You could see a yearning in her, but it didn’t look as if it had any real power. Nevertheless, she’d overcome all that to at least make it to the stage. The amount of courage that takes is awesome.
Then she started singing. She brought the house down. Unbelieveable. It was very moving and the most soulful, musically satisfying performance I’ve seen in a long time. She poured it out, and held nothing back at all. There was a kind of raw but polished vitality to her singing that thrilled. Of course she made it through to the next round, and got great strokes from audience and judges, as she deserved. The woman who walked off stage was a very different person to the one who walked on. She had found her power and exercised it brilliantly.
I sat thinking about her for ages, and what it means to be successful. It’s quite incredible to me that someone of her musical caliber could have given up because she didn’t win Idols ten years ago. She’s a naturally shining star and has a stunning voice, but she pinned all her hopes on one show, and when she didn’t win she thought her career didn’t have a chance. I wonder what’ll happen if she doesn’t win this time round. Will she give up again? It was clear last night that she believed this is her last chance.
Her last chance! With a voice and a soul like that!
These reality shows of emotional bloodlust and spectacle where millions of viewers get to vote who wins and who doesn’t; where those who aren’t “good enough” have their souls and hearts ripped apart; where performers get a night of glory that most of them will probably never experience again, have really distorted what a singing career is about – and what success is if you really have talent.
It’s about letting your heart out through your music, giving expression to your soul. It’s not about money and it’s not about conquering the world. Those things happen in consequence, for better or for worse, but it seems these reality shows have made people forget that if you’ve got it, nothing can stop it, and there’s never just one chance. There are countless chances, they keep being generated, so long as you keep going and allowing yourself to be open to them.
In fact that’s true no matter how talented you are, as it is in any walk of life. We never just have one chance. Wasn’t it Einstein who said he didn’t reckon he was that much smarter than anybody else, he just never gave up? Good on you, Einstein. The wonderful thing with the woman who stole everybody’s hearts was that she did try to give up – I guess she didn’t have anybody to tell her Idols didn’t matter, that nothing could change how brilliant she was. She gave up and everybody around her did, but her soul, her heart and her voice didn’t. They found a way to re-emerge.
These shows are entertaining, thrilling, exciting, inspiring and make great careers for some, but it’s a bit unreal, and quite fleeting, because no sooner has somebody won than the next round is already happening, and the public has forgotten them. And what if you’re brilliant, but that night is your off-night? That’s it?
Worst of all, I think Idols and America’s Got Talent make people think that their ability to make it in the world is in somebody else’s hands. It isn’t. It’s in their hands. Great singers become great because they sing all the time, they exercise their talent, they work, they don’t give up when people reject them. They don’t let somebody else be the authority. It’s the journey that keeps them there, not some illusion of a destination that by definition is fleeting anyway.
The woman, whose name I can’t remember, didn’t look to me as if she was getting her fulfillment out of people saying she could sing, or from three judges. Not really. She was getting it out of something much, much grander than that. She was flying, vocally. What, I wonder, stops her from getting gigs and just singing?
Is there anybody who wouldn’t pay to listen to her? I seriously doubt it. She was unutterably beautiful, and I have no doubt at all that if she let herself take the small steps, she’d make it all the way to the top, she’d have the world at her feet. And whether she did or not wouldn’t matter, because she’d be enjoying her journey. She doesn’t need to win America’s Got Talent or Idols. I so hope she realizes that.