There’s More to the Music than The Voice: TV Singing Competition and its Insidious Effect on Pop


This morning I was engaging in a favorite pastime, that of diving down a rabbit hole of music recommendations, when I came across a band named Hop Along and their album Painted Shut which, according to the editorial review, consisted mainly of “accounts of more everyday poverty, abuse, greed; and banal, sub-par behavior“. These songs were put across by the vocals of one Frances Quinlan, whose voice is appraised as “a spellbinding entity all it’s own, celebratory and raw“, the resulting music described as “jubilant as well as irreverent“, full of  “joy, in the abandon of Frances’ unforgettable voice, in the exulting choruses…”

idol 2

This inflamed an itch that lies just under my skin most of the time anyway, but had recently been irritated by a chance channel-surfing encounter with British singing competition show The X Factor. What I saw there was what I see every time I happen to look in on American Idol, The Voice and their ilk: purveyors of inoffensive songs with glossy production values, physical appearance ranging from above average to stunning; but most of all, pure and pristine voices.

So much for the judges.

x factor

As for the fodder–contestants, if you insist–they mainly seem fall into two categories. The first group is the clearly non-gifted. We watch the episodes which feature the biggest losers as we would rubberneck a car crash or burning building. How did they fall under the delusion that they had the talent to compete here? Clearly he/she is the victim of too much polite praise from family and friends. Can’t wait to see their shock and disappointment at being ousted, etc. Pretty fun, I’ll admit.

The second type of contestant consists, on the whole, of those who’ve honed a natural gift to fit the talent show ideal; to impress by that narrowest definition of impressive that these shows will allow.

There are exceptions, of course: True child prodigies. Voices of genuine singularity. A style you’ve never quite seen before.

But they are few. If there were a navigation app to point out the surest path to TV singing competition success it would constantly repeat commands such as: Wear shiny things…sing BIG…use lots of hand motions…sing a song people already love…if you’re a male, sing in an unnaturally high register…embellish, embellish, embellish…make the pain face…hit that unexpectedly high note at the very end…you have reached your destination.

If you follow the template, you’ll sound like this guy:

And what’s wrong with that? Nothing at all, if all you want from music is a tribute act.

But what if there’s too rampant a proliferation of mere tribute acts? What will be left to pay tribute to?

The Kelly Clarksons and the Carrie Underwoods of the early days of American Idol and their subsequent successes created an expectation that winners of TV talent shows are to become pop stars. I know–that’s the whole point. That’s the dream American Idol has peddled from the start. And in fact winning the pop charts after winning the talent show is such an expectation that you find quotes like the following (from Yahoo News):

The X Factor withstood another blow at the end of the latest series when its youngest ever winner, Louisa Johnson, reached only number nine in the charts at Christmas with her Bob Dylan cover – the lowest entry for any winner over the show’s 12-series history.

For me that sentence is like one of those How many things are wrong with this picture? puzzlers. “Youngest ever winner” speaks to the novelty-act nature of these shows. We’re looking for precocious, fully-developed talent at a younger and younger age–trying to top the previous youngest-ever. For me at least, it brings unbidden and uncomfortable images to mind…


And “only number nine”? The bar of expectation for the show’s youngest-ever winner wasn’t simply a Top Ten single. It was to go higher into the Top Ten. What a crushing disappointment young Louisa must be to her parents to merely have one of the ten most popular songs in the land. The humiliation will probably mean a move to a new neighborhood.

Finally, the phrase “Bob Dylan cover” reminds us that these shows, while expected to launch new recording stars into the pop firmament, are not in the business of creating new artists–at least, not by the definition of artist as “creator of art”. What emerges from these weekly liturgies of Voice Worship is batch after batch of new interpreters of art.

Imagine, say, a painting equivalent. People would parade onto a stage with a palette and brush instead of a microphone. Rather than interpreting the beloved works of Leonard Cohen or Phil Collins or Freddie Mercury they’d step up to a glittery easel to render their best–or more accurately, their most gaudy and eye-catching–imitation of Norman Rockwell, Georgia O’Keeffe or Vincent Van Gogh. And the work of these imitators would then be sold in art galleries as the valid contemporary equivalent of the greats.

In other words, it’s all a lot of fun until someone loses an ear.

And that someone is us.


Because I suspect many a true artist–Dylan, Neil Young, maybe even a nascent Rolling Stones–would be relegated to those episodes where you’re meant to watch hand-over-mouth in horror, the ones where the judges smirk to themselves and gently (or not so gently) inform the contestants they won’t be moving to the next round.

Maybe the “celebratory and raw” voice of Frances Quinlan and her songs about “everyday poverty, abuse, greed; and banal, sub-par behavior” don’t deserve an audience, but then neither would a ragged-voiced troubadour poet and critics’ darling such as Lucinda Williams or a chronicler of the downtrodden with the voice of Beelzebub himself, Tom Waits. Hank Williams Sr. and Elvis Costello would, I expect, be met with the familiar smirking derision. Would rough-voiced and rough-looking Bonnie Raitt or prickly Chrissie Hynde stand a chance?


The next Bob Dylan may not see a way into the popular music scene, may just decide to pawn the acoustic and get his CDL.

TV sing-offs are a triumph of style over content. All the ragged glory of true folk music, all the irreverent impact of real rock n’ roll, all the visceral thrill of authentic rhythm and blues is lost in the sheen of star-making hype. Even when they sing with exaggerated histrionics and make the Face of Pain and try to convey the agony or ecstasy of the true artist, it’s just an antiseptic version of the truth, only an imitation of art. What a supreme irony that these are called ‘reality shows’.

Young singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett may one day write a song–may have already written a song–that a young singer will make her mark interpreting under those dazzling lights before a young, easily-impressed audience who’ll act like the moment is the high-water mark of Western Culture so far.

But not only would Barnett herself be relegated to also-ran status as a competitive-singing TV contestant, but her music itself is in danger of being marginalized in a marketplace where each season’s crop of fabricated stars are expected to vie for a place beside, and eventually supplant, the true artists.

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. michele grace Hottel
    Feb 06, 2016 @ 16:37:48

    Just the type of blog I like to read! I don’t watch those shows but I like what you have said about the whole business in general, and we must remember tone happy with ourselves evenif nobody else ever knows who the heck we are 🙂


  2. mvcoogan
    Feb 07, 2016 @ 16:48:34

    Ed, I think you are making one of the mistakes those shows make. You are taking them too seriously. Its just throw-away pop “culture.” As worthwhile as yesterday’s tabloids. Maybe less than that – throw away TV “entertainment”: here today, gone after the next commercial.
    They build up a big audience with the self-important approach, but everybody quickly tosses it for the next bowl of “entertainment.” It is meant to last about as long as “who won the Super Bowl 3 years ago?” A few may remember, but not the majority who want TODAY’S newest flash in the pan.
    Let it go.
    (They may CLAIM to be discovering new creative artistic talent, blah, blah, but (I think) they know they are not. It is literal idol worship.)


  3. Ed Cyphers
    Feb 08, 2016 @ 18:02:52

    In one sense we’re in agreement. The product of these shows is artless art, throwaway pap.
    But the winners, and even some of the runner-ups, are hardly here today, gone tomorrow pop phenomena.
    To name a few examples: the band Daughtry, a season 5 American Idol finalist, has won multiple American Music Awards (Best New Artist, Best Pop/Rock Album) and a host of Billboard Music Awards. They have two #1 albums under their belt, one of which is certified quadruple platinum.
    Season 7 finalist David Cook’s first single sold one million copies and his debut album spawned a total of 5 hit singles.
    Season 11 winner Phillip Phillips’ American Idol-winning song “Home” sold 4x platinum in the U.S. and his two albums have both hit the top ten.
    Season 6 winner Jordin Sparks’ debut album sold 2 million copies and included 2 top 10 singles. Her first 5 singles have reached the top 20.
    Season 4 winner Carrie Underwood has become one of the biggest names in the music industry. She has four platinum-selling albums, and her first album sold 7 million copies in the U.S. alone. She has won seven Grammy awards.
    Kelly Clarkson is a global superstar. Her first album debuted at #1 and sold double platinum, and she was only warming up. Her second album has sold over 15 million copies to date worldwide. She has six U.S. platinum-selling albums and three Grammys.

    Some of these artists have been selling well enough long enough to have released legitimate Greatest Hits compilations, and they are outselling almost any contemporary rock act you can name. As commercial entities, and as shapers of the pop scene, they can hardly be considered ephemeral.

    Weak-flavored? Yes. Flavor of the week? No.


  4. Ed Cyphers
    Feb 10, 2016 @ 10:40:53

    Forgot to mention: Adam Lambert was the highest-earning AI contestant of all in 2015. He’s won a Best Male Pop Performance Grammy and he’s now Freddie Mercury’s replacement in Queen.
    And Clay Aiken first of seven successful albums went multi-platinum. He’s remained popular enough to tour eleven times so far.


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