Competitive singing shows are coming back but it's time to face the music

The big-budget return of American Idol has led to a rush of similar shows in its wake, but the genre is less relevant than ever

The world needs another televised singing competition like it needs a hole in the head. Life is finite and, in the entire history of the universe, nobody’s dying regret has ever been: “You know, I wish I got to see more bratty stage school kids perform Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog in the style of a drowning theremin.”

For a while there, it looked like television understood this. American Idol, the genre’s Night King, stumbled to a listless shrug of a conclusion last April as some anonymous idiot was crowned before an audience barely a quarter the size of the show at its peak.

Others had fallen before it – The Sing-Off, The X Factor, The Winner Is, Duets, Can You Duet, Rock Star, Nashville Star, Rising Star, P Diddy’s Starmaker and a show that was genuinely called Sing Your Face Off had all withered on the vine by that point – but American Idol was the daddy of them all. It was the head of the snake. If that went, surely it meant that the fad was over for good.

And yet here we are. American Idol is about to be reanimated on ABC with Katy Perry onboard and, in its wake, the gold rush has begun anew. Last week Fox announced The Four, a ruthless-sounding winner-stays-on variation of the singing competition. And, in retaliation, CBS is apparently developing its own singing competition with Justin Bieber’s manager, Scooter Braun. This means that, since The Voice is still chugging along on whatever fumes it has left, all four main networks will soon be devoting a slice of their schedules to desperate identikit crooning. And, especially since one of them seems explicitly designed to churn out battered Justin Bieber clones, it’s time to say enough.

We’re tired. We’re tired of seeing four millionaire pop stars pass judgment on sweaty wannabes again and again. It doesn’t matter how these shows are dressed up, or what surface-level gimmick has been flung at them, because they’re all still repetitive and – worse – ineffective.

Here’s a question for you. Who won The Voice in 2015? You can’t remember, can you? It was someone called Sawyer Fredericks. He looked like a beagle cosplaying as Alex from Clockwork Orange, remember? He’s released two albums since winning The Voice, and both have barely scraped into the top 50. And he won the entire show. He sang to millions of people every week, and even that couldn’t make him a star. I picked him at random, but that doesn’t matter. In 12 seasons, The Voice – now America’s dominant singing competition – has failed to produce a single household name.

American Idol has fared better, but even then it hasn’t offered up the sort of fame any normal person would willingly accept. Perhaps the best-known American Idol contestant is still its first winner, Kelly Clarkson. However, her success came at a terrible cost: being contractually obliged to star in From Justin to Kelly, perhaps the most miserable, sunken-eyed excuse for a romcom that has ever been allowed in cinemas. Watching Clarkson gurn and yelp in From Justin to Kelly is like watching a mistreated Russian circus bear forlornly go through its paces before a crowd of disinterested children. It actually makes you sad.

But, look, clearly, television won’t listen. Even though it treats its talent like chaff, there has to be some economic benefit to these shows, or else they wouldn’t be made. They’re being made now, they’ll be made next year and they’ll still be made when we’re all old and dead. There is no talking to these people.

And so I’m going to address you directly, fame-hungry teens of America. Listen to me. You are the only people who can stop this. You don’t need to shove yourself into this awful machine, where you’re made up and hollowed out and belittled on television for a transient moment of cheap entertainment. These shows rely on you, but they don’t care about you. Stop applying to be on them. If you’re talented, you now have the tools to become famous on your own terms. Start a Soundcloud account. Post a video to YouTube. Make some like-minded friends. If you’ve even got a scrap of talent, you’ll get there without American Idol. Or, you know, you could just get a proper job. That would work, too.


Stuart Heritage

The GuardianTramp

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