It should come as no surprise that American audiences utterly devour the televised talent competition: It’s one part sadistic guilty pleasure, one part inspiration porn and one part fantasy fulfillment of having the same deciding power as an L.A. talent executive. Yet, at its core, the televised talent competition is emblematic of the “American Dream” ideal we claim our society operates upon.
Just in case you didn’t read “The Great Gatsby” at some point in your schooling, the American Dream is the common mythology that each and every U.S. citizen has equal opportunity to attain the highest of their aspirations. All it takes is hard work (and apparently not the right ancestry, genitalia or religion)! This rose-tinted idealization of the mechanics of our society is integral to the formula of the talent competition. Just as the American Dream blindly posits that the next great entrepreneur could very well be from Section 8, the talent competition promises that the Next Big Thing™ will not be found as a result of nepotistic connections, but could be spotted among the crowd at one of the many cattle-call auditions across the United States.
And while moments of shock generated from a random North Dakotan who can walk and pose like Naomi Campbell or a backwoods woman who can sing like Céline Dion seem to bolster belief in the egalitarian utopia the American Dream advertises, the lack of success for the majority of the winners post-show reveals the true nature of the American Dream that many of us are more familiar with: a scam, unabashedly orchestrated to fool the masses and serve only the elites at the top.
In 2019, it does not take a seasoned cultural critic to predict that the winners of these competition shows will be has-beens by the time the season finale concludes. This is not a new pattern. Originally running from 1983 to 1995, “Star Search” ironically did more for the contestants who did not win than those that did. Through its vague promise of stardom for an unknown and its use of a panel of judges to deliberate the skills of contestants, it is clear that “Star Search” walked so that “American Idol” could fly. And fly it did. For those of us born between 1996 and 2000, we were too young at the time of its 2002 launch to recognize the magnitude of its popularity. The widespread acclaim was in no doubt related to the fresh (at the time) convention of allowing the audience, through SMS text, to have final say over who would ultimately become America’s newest sensation. Thus, it should come as no surprise that one of the show’s most (if not the most) recognizable winners, Kelly Clarkson, was crowned during the season in which the most people were glued to the screens watching her journey.
“American Idol” was so successful that it was only a matter of time before troves of imitators emerged, hoping to capitalize on the current trend of audience determinism. To name a few, there’s “America’s Got Talent,” “So You Think You Can Dance,” “America’s Next Top Model,” “Last Comic Standing,” “American Superstar,” “The Next: Fame Is At Your Doorstep,” and then a second wave led by “The Voice,” “The Four,” “The Face” and “The Rap Game.” Nevertheless, as the seasons of “Idol” and the others waxed on and their audiences diminished, it became evident that, despite the repetitive declarations of the “lucrative” prizes to be awarded to the victors, these shows were not even capable of producing a solid C-list celebrity, let alone the A-list icons they initially promised.
The people running the programs, those already entrenched in the business, have always retained the knowledge that it takes a bit more than a check and a competition prize (a six page spread in Seventeen magazine, a record deal with Sony, a contract with So So Def Records … the list goes on) to conquer an entire industry. As the years progressed and more new shows continued to materialize, it has become clear that executives have exploited and are continuing to exploit the remaining audience’s belief in the American Dream, as well as our ignorance of how show business really works from the inside. After all, what experience does the average mechanic from Tennessee have in show business to know that a contract is not the surefire ticket out of obscurity?
Despite the promise of instant stardom, the talent contestants only have 15 fleeting minutes of fame to show for their participation while network executives continue to profit off of the lies they spin to both participants and loyal viewers. Don’t believe me? Consider the fact that Simon Cowell and Simon Fuller, executive producers on “American Idol” and “X Factor,” each maintain a net worth exceeding 500 million dollars, yet the only thing “Idol” season seven winner Taylor Hicks maintains is a spot on “Where Are They Now” lists. These executives treat the usually organic star-making process as though it is mass production. And in recent years, as winners become more and more inconsequential, it appears as though they realized the futility in investing even the bare minimum of time and money in convincing the public to fall in love with a new “top” model, dancer, rapper or singer every year.
Thus, new strategies are undertaken to ensure that audiences are still engaged and, most importantly, profits remain high. This is evidenced in the shift away from contestant-centric content to content that overwhelmingly centers the already-established celebrity judges; or worse, a celebrity who creates a shameless vehicle for themselves. For “American Idol,” it is no coincidence that the high turnover of judges coincided almost precisely with mainstream audiences’ apathy toward whoever won the show. What’s more memorable in recent “Idol” canon: the Mariah Carey-Nicki Minaj beef or the name of the season 13 winner? Another example of this phenomenon is exhibited in “The Voice,” where media coverage unmistakably touched moreso on the celebrity judges in the chairs and their relationships than the contestants. Even in cases of celebrity vehicles like Tyra Banks’ “America’s Next Top Model” or Jermaine Dupree’s “The Rap Game,” buzz is not generated from winners (in fact, I cannot think of a single mainstream sensation produced in either show’s history). Buzz is derived from the celebrity attempting to revamp their careers.
The contestants — the regular people — in their attempts to live out an idealized fantasy of transcending whichever barriers stand in their way of wealth and fame quite ironically end up becoming instruments perpetuating the system they tried so hard to confront.
So much for the American Dream.