“The person in the executive chair may not be the final arbiter of taste for the entire population”, said Frank Zappa during an interview in 1987, announcing the decline of the recording industry. However, the contemporary music situation goes far beyond what Zappa could ever imagine.
Nowadays, talent shows are really popular. For example, America’s Got Talent, a TV show where many talents are presented (singing, dancing and many other kinds of performances), has been attracting more than 10 million viewers every year since it started in 2006. X Factor has spread throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, America and Oceania. American Idol is one of the most popular programs in the United States: in its final season (2008), there were about 97 million votes for the two finalists, while in the 2009 there were around 100 million votes.
Why are talent shows so popular? The answer is simple: what they are really offering is pleasing and mediocre fun, a kind of amusement where you can shut down your brain and just enjoy the show. Many people seem to enjoy this musical decadence, where most singers remain famous for a really short time.
But first let’s analyse how these talent shows work. I would argue that they are the main expression of a system where the real sense of art and experimentation take second place. In a talent show like X Factor, for example, covers of great classicals are performed, without giving any new contribution to music: recently, new songs have been performed, but few have been successful. In this way, most participants are just doing karaoke. Nevertheless, their performance is considered as very moving by many, especially in cases where singers have difficulties in their lives (illness, disability, obstacles). Two examples are British contestant Susan Boyle, who was bullied as a child for her learning disability and her Asperger syndrome, and the stuttering Italian singer Stefano Filipponi.
The millennial Whoop: a glorious obsession with the melodic alternation between the fifth and the third is the title of an article by Patrick Metzger (2016). He was the first to noticed this melodic alternation trend in Western pop music, calling it “the millenial whoop”. The pattern is used in many tunes, especially in commercial US pop, as Metzger explains, also in this talk for ted.com. The “millenial whoop” makes new songs seem familiar, because the listeners feel that they have basically heard them before. In his research, Metzger wrote about popular songs such as Everything Is Possible by US girlband Fifth Harmony (placed third in The X Factor in 2012), and Heart Attack and Live While We’re Young by One Direction, a boyband from The X Factor 2010.
So it seems that great idols of the past like Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison have now been replaced by new idols, often inexperienced singers who have little to say about music – nothing that could make an important contribution to the genre. But the question is: will these singers, who become famous because of their participation in talent shows, pass the test of time, or will they become the new one-hit wonders as in case of Alex Parks who won the BBC’s Fame Academy in 2003 and then vanished without trace?