Friday, September 10, 2010


Flip on your radio and search the stations. What do you hear? I’m willing to bet that, regardless of where you are in this great country, you have just encountered a slew of hideously overproduced pop and/or rap songs, a big dose of rock form the last thirty years, a handful of “country” (the parenthesis are to indicate that, unless you are very lucky, no radio station near you is playing Hank Williams Sr., Waylon Jennings, or George Jones), and one classical station that has a very dedicated following of about 50 or so people (most of which are music professors). Now, venture on over to iTunes and look at the current top selling artists. You see Katy Perry (a Christian-pop star turned bisexual), Enrique Iglesias (who despite his awful music, will always be my hero), and some dude who is, apparently, from Florida (and is also a popular rapper). Considering our country's current trends of musical consumption, I am left to wonder if truly artful music will ever be in the limelight. Although this was initially a rhetorical question that I have recently been asking myself, I just received my answer.

America’s Got Talent, is a popular television show that spends the summer searching for the hottest new act to headline in Vegas and to take home the million-dollar prize. There are magicians, Geek shows, dancers, comedians, and many, many musical acts. As you can imagine, the majority of the musical acts are terrible. And, since three non-musical people serve as judges, it is a wonder that any musician of worth ever makes it through. (Just to clarify for anyone who is too proud to admit they might actually get a kick out of this, the judges pick acts to advance in the early rounds and then their criticism is meant to guide the audience in their voting, which determines admission to the last few rounds. And although I doubt that anyone reading this blog would leave a rude comment correcting me, I will go ahead and acknowledge that Sharon Osborne was Ozzy’s manager and is largely responsible for him having a solo career, although the only times he has ever been tolerable is when Sabbath or Randy Rhodes was there to serve as a distraction).

Last night, the final four acts of the 2010 season were announced: Michael Grimm (whose voice sounds like whatever the lovechild of velour and sandpaper would sound like, and I truly mean this in the best possible way); Jackie Evancho (a wunderkind opera singer, who, despite some breathing issues sounds like an angel); Prince Poppycock (a phenomenal operatic tenor that looks like Mozart, that is, if you were to see Mozart when you had a head full of PCP); and a very cool black-light performance group that goes by the name of Defying Gravity. Yes, despite our nation’s insistence on routinely consuming the worst music possible, we have voted three extremely talented musicians (two of which are classical music) through to the final round. All of this comes on the heels of the 2009 and 2008 seasons, which were also dominated by classical musicians (Barbara Padilla, an opera singer, came in second in 2009 and Neal E. Boyd, yet another opera singer, winning the year before).

What does this say about the way we as Americans consume music? If anything, I think it tells us that despite our pervasive, lowbrow interests, we still treasure the art of music. If this is the case, however optimistic it may seem, then it appears there is still hope. If the masses choose to preserve these sorts of acts over guys with trendy hair cuts that play three chords on a guitar and try to sing like John Mayer, magicians that make trains disappear, adorable dancing children, and dudes who stick foreign objects into their skull, then maybe we are approaching an era when the value of culture will be restored. Or maybe not, what do I know? (I will leave it to John to burst my bubble by delving into the Ardornian philosophy of the devaluation of art through mass production).


  1. What does it say about a man who spent this much time researching "American's Got Talent?" This is why people think ethnomusicology is easier :)

    On a more serious note, I think you answered your question in your post. The reason acts such as these, even if they could be considered "faux-classical," still show more natural talent, serious ability, and hard work than a lot of contemporary popular musics. At some level, be it intuitive or with guidance from "experts" (in this case, the judges), people still respect and value that. It's one of the reasons why you can catch nearly everyone at some point singing, but nearly everyone would be terrified of the idea of singing on stage, or in an opera: they would most likely say they don't have the training, the skill, etc.

    As for Adorno? He'd probably despise everything about it, but it was hard to catch that man in a good mood. Although to be fair, the show does exemplify several of the things he disliked about mass culture: the consumerism, the attachment through "voting" on pre-selected outcomes, the watered-down "classical" music, etc. I don't think, and I don't think Adorno would think, that the show is going to herald an era of replaced cultural value.

    And just because your country music stations play better music than ours doesn't give you the right to pick on us.

  2. First of all, I want to thank you for your comments. I found them to be both intriguing and well thought-out (which is a surprise coming from you) (I jest out of love). I particularly enjoyed your interpretation of Adorno. Without a doubt he was a crotchety old coot, but that is why we love him.

    The overly-idealized remarks that elevate the show to the level of a herald for a new Classical age were meant to be provocative. However, I do honestly think there is some degree of truth to the notion that the show serves as a sort of cultural barometer for current times. No, I do not think, regardless of the outcome, that any of these classical (or "faux-classical, as you so rightly put it) performers will have Number 1 albums, although I do find it refreshing that the masses are at least willing to increase their cultural capital, even if there is a certain amount of manipulation involved. Though this stuff is watered-down and hockey to musicologists, it is closer to "acceptable art" than then alternative. I will take that as a partial win.

    Now that we have managed to generate some back and forth, I would love to hear the thoughts of people who don't regularly share them in this medium. And please feel free to disagree. This entire experiment of this blog, at least from my understanding of it, is to foster dialogue.

  3. This is an interesting idea. As John (and quite possibly you, as well, Tyler) can attest to, I do love debating. So for the sake of friendly debate, here we go.
    Not to be the Debbie Downer of the group, but it seems that this argument is based on several (perhaps misguided) assumptions. The name "America's Got Talent") is supposed to lead us to think this is a show promoting talent by laypersons ("laypersons" being one who has not signed a professional contract yet/found national fame). However, it would be naive to think that this is the one, true motive of the show. Perhaps, "America's got people who make a lot of money via some personal resource" would be a better title, but somehow just doesn't seem to have the same flair. A show is not going accept people into its competition (especially a competition which relies on voter participation to determine outcome) off of whom they do not believe a profit can be made. As much music demonstrates, one does not have to have talent in order to make a lot of money. So right off the bat, I would dare say much of the competition is set up not as talent, but as potential for mass pop culture consumption.
    The next stage of the competition, being audience voting, is supposed to allow for the populace to decide whom they think is the most talented. Here we have more assumptions: 1) That the populace is educated and well-informed enough to accurately pick someone with the most talent (And personally, if the competition involved visual artists, I would have an extremely difficult time determining who was the best, and would probably be incorrect, if compared to a real artist's opinion, much of the time). So here we have (largely) the aesthetically uneducated making aesthetic value judgements. 2) That the populace would judge solely on talent. If we see a 9 year old girl with cancer sing well, still flawed, but well, and also see a 55 year old, classically-trained operatic woman singing Queen of the Night flawlessly, I would dare guess the girl would still get more votes. Does this make the populace bad? Of course not. But it does make them not objective. (And as a note, I saw this girl about whom you reference sing Ave Maria- !!! Incredible!!) But then again, I would not be nearly so excited had she been 40.

    So I guess my downtrodden argument is this: These shows are not a reflection of pure American talent (though I am certainly not arguing that many of the contestants are truly talented). Nor are they a reflection of the country's aesthetic tastes, preferences, or values (or any changes in them- After all, this show's premise is certainly not new to entertainment). They are, at the most basic and true level, another way to make money- to make money for the show (after all, you do need interesting people), to make money for the casino in Vegas (an institution that successful is not going to agree to sign an undetermined winner if they are not fairly certain that any of the show's contestants would make them a profit), and lastly to make money for the winner (which is more a by-product of the elevated economic state of the previous two). And the voting audience is (most likely) voting not just for the candidate whom they think is purely most talented (after all, they are being told that all of the contestants are talented, simply by being on the show), but whom they like the most- who's story do they like- who inspires them- who touches them most deeply- who they can relate to the most.

    So to me (again, in this vastly negative interpretation), the answer to your "Hope?" segment title would be a resounding "Nope." (note there how the two rhyme) : )

  4. Holly, thank you very much for the comment. It is always rewarding to be presented with a well formed, opposing interpretation. As new things are posted, please continue to be generous with your reactions.

    I do not deny that this show has little to do with talent. As we witnessed from the final episode, it is more about which act tugs the hardest on the old heart strings or who is the most attractive (The Prince was the most talented as well as the first eliminated).

    I also admit that it is far too naive to think America actually decides who wins--the TV executives and the casino big wigs have full control. It would be bad business to give someone a spot headlining simply because a bunch of people who may never go to Vegas say to do so. This show, and all others like it, exist to make a profit. This is America (talented or not).

    However, I still hold firm that the show can function, on some level, as a cultural barometer. It does not matter that the audience is ill-qualified to recognize (much less judge) talent, but it is the fact that they manage to do so despite themselves. Even if the voting is fixed, the audience's most uproarious applause are saved specifically for the classically trained musicians. Yes, the mass marketing and distillation of the music presented on the show does diminish the music's cultural capital (the most offensive example being the savage mutilation of the already cliched "Flight of the Bumblebee"), but I think it is still more culturally viable than a guy doing stunts on a bicycle or a dog jumping through hoops.

    I will, however, take your advice and save my hope for when the Met's performance of "Lulu" out preforms the WWE's "Wrestle-Mania" in Pay-Per-View sales.