Monday, January 9, 2012

GOOD ON TV? "AMERICAN IDOL" vs. "THE X-FACTOR" vs. "THE VOICE"! THREE SINGING COMPETITIONS, YET ONLY ONE IS WORTH WATCHING.



Singing competitions are nothing new for television. Talent competitions have always been on TV, whether it's "Miss America" pageants, or "Star Search". So-called "Reality TV," isn't new either for that matter, but never has it dominated the primetime landscape as it does now. And never has one show, absolutely conquered the Neilsen ratings like "American Idol". Since season 3, the show has been #1 in the ratings, for an unprecedented 8 Straight years, and that's including last year's ratings, falling by almost half, from 16.0, to an 8.8.

I don't watch "American Idol," on a regular basis, but I have watched it occasionally. It's clearly the biggest TV piece of pop culture around today, so for that reason, I occasionally keep track of it. Sometimes, I wasn't given the choice of keeping track of it or not, it was so big, that if something happened on the show, I would know about it, whether I wanted to or not, and for that matter, whether I cared. You see, I'm not a fan, but I've grown to accept most aspects of the show, and to understand it's popularity and just even that was somewhat shocking to me. You have to start at the beginning. When "American Idol," first came on, it was around the time, that I basically, stopped listening to music. At least, new music. I have favorites. I have an extensive CD collection that including everything from Bob Dylan to Nine Inch Nails, and I personally loved the post-grunge singer/songwriter era, that I refer to as the Lilith Fair era, and my collection includes lots of Sheryl Crow, Melissa Etheridge, Alanis Morissette, Tori Amos, Lisa Loeb, Liz Phair, etc. etc. (Ironically, not a big Sarah MacLaughlin fan, but you get the idea). But after that, which was around the time I was in high school, and every emotional undersexed male my age tried his hand at songwriting, music became, this disturbingly-processed teen-oriented pop music. We all, patiently, and some of us, not-so-patiently, waited for this era of Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, Early Christina Aguilera, ugh, and there's was too many wannabes of them to name, to end. (Not-to-mention, the disturbing rap-rock genre that brought us the likes of Limp Bizkit, ugh. Although, that also gave us Rage Against the Machine, so something cool did come out of that) But, this era of music, which when similar trends in the past had lasted, about a year at best, well, it didn't. With the exception of the year Eminem had "The Marshall Mathers LP," this was basically the soundtrack of our generation. Yes, there was good music then, if you had the ability, the computer-savvy, the energy, the money and the time to look for it, it was out there. I still don't have most of those things, and finally it just wore me out. It was too much work to go out of my way to find good new music. My radio, when it's not on sportsradio to check the scores real quick, has been on the classic rock station ever since. If fact, only really recently, like since Lady Gaga broke, have I even bothered to switch over to Top 40 at all. This was the world of music I was looking at when "American Idol," went on the air. A British import show, that was redrawing the Primetime TV landscape. It also, basically embraced all that I considered wrong with the music industry at the time. (And in many ways, I still do). It's contestants were all young, teenagers most of them, and from this blind audition, they were going to turn these young hopefuls into stars. It had some legitimate music-industry professionals as judges, and Simon Cowell, especially, was worth watching, because he was blunt, vicious, especially during the early rounds, but most of the time, he was also right. That honesty was refreshing. It wasn't enough for me to watch, but I certainly respected him. And like all these shows, it did find occasionally, a true musical talent, and even a few starts like Kelly Clarkson, Daughtry, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson, etc. When that era of crappy teen pop finally did end, "American Idol," remained, and to it's credit, it evolved. It didn't just look for the next Top of the Pops. It extended the allowed age to participate, and it even allowed contestants to plays instruments, and the more inventive artists, got to think outside the box to reinvent some songs. And they also found, not just potential, but actual, legitimate talent in some of its performers. In fact, they started finding people who were actual artists.

Now, that's most of the history of the show, and my history with it. I've watched occasionally, partly 'cause half the time, there hasn't been anything else on against it, and occasionally it's actually had some talented artists that interested me. However, now, Cowell has moved on to another show, "The X-Factor," which at its surface seems similar to "American Idol." Singing competition, with judges, and a call-in vote that weekly decides who's going home and who's not. Then, there's NBC's surprise recent entry into this genre, "The Voice." Again, a singing competition, with judges, and a call-in vote. There've been a few other attempts in the past to steal a bit of Idol's audience, but never has it been this interesting, at least from an observer of television and pop culture like myself. Now, frankly, I don't give a damn about the ratings. Never have, never will. But we're taking a closer look at each one of these shows. They all seems to have only minor differences between them, but what differences there are, are startling how they come off. While I won't call any of these shows great, one is very good. That's the "The Voice," and it's also the only one worth watching. One of them, is okay. That's the juggernaut, "American Idol." Under certain circumstances, it's worth noting, occasionally worth going out of your way to watch, but most of the time, it's a decent show, which might kill time if there's nothing else on that night. The third is "The X-Factor," and it's disturbingly bad. In fact, it's complete crap, and not only is Simon Cowell not making it even watchable, since this is his brainchild and production, it's almost as if he's going out of his way to make it worse.

Before I continue, Full Disclosure: I do know a few people that have in the past and may in the future work(ed) on an X number of these shows. (X as in variable) From what I here, they're very good job(s), they pay good money, and I've never heard anything bad about any of the work environments of the show, or for that matter, the people working on these shows. I will not reveal which show(s) and who I know work(s) for/on them, or their position(s) with the show(s). This in no way, influences my opinion(s) on the show(s) themselves.

Let's start with "American Idol". For the most part, the format of the show hasn't changed, although occasionally there's been a few tweaks here or there. The show begins with auditions around the country. Or, what I like to call the "Gong Show," part of the series. Not simply a place where hopeful performers come to show how talented they are, but also where how some untalented delusional performers come to show off how talented they think they are. There's some entertaining moments from this, even some memorable ones, William Hung, and the "Pants on the Ground," guy, most notably. There's a lot more editing in this section than many people realize. It wouldn't be difficult, for instance, to have edited reactions shots of the judges be completely unrelated what was said in real life, and at times, who they might have even auditioned for/with. Also another fact, is that there's multiple rounds of auditions with the show's producer's before the contestants even get to the auditions in front of the judges. Not unusual, but this practice grows tiresome eventually on Idol. (Although strangely, not on "America's Got Talent," but there's also more unpredictability in that contest.) The next round is a Hollywood round, which is another multiple rounds of auditions, until finally there are a select number to compete in competition on the TV show, the semi-finals, and then finally, at the finals, which usually involves one contestant eliminated each week, and performing a song, which usually involves some kind of theme for the music that week, until, finally the voting is down to the one winner, the "American Idol". This is the area that when written down, it should be more intriguing. It's not always. There's a few problems. First of all the editing of the show, is way too manipulative, in particular, the scenes before the performer plays, where there's usually a combination of behind-the-scenes practicing and antics, as well as profiles and interviews of the performer's life, almost all of which point towards a more empathetic and heavy-handed perspective. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing inherently wrong with promoting a life story, especially when that might in fact be legitimately heartfelt, but it's annoying and manipulative. ("Manipulative," in this case means, purposefully trying to garner a specific emotional response from the audience, empathy, being the worse and most overused and overdone) The show is a talent contest, and all this is filler as we wait for the performer to sing. This wouldn't be a particular problem, except for one other detail to the show that all three of these shows use that to me, should be eliminated completely from the series. (Although "The Voice," uses it surprisingly well, and I'll get to that later)

The audience call-in vote. Why do we have it? As I said, I don't agree with ratings, and that's not to say that sometimes an wider nation-wide groups opinion isn't valid. That's how we determine the Presidency. (Although, after 2000, I've strongly considered that to be a questionable decision, but it'll take too long to devise and convince other to adopt a better format for that). The best reality shows, also have judges and/or panels of experts, and they use them because they are experts. As does "...Idol." There's never been an "...Idol" judge who's qualifications have been disputable, and I think arguably, they've got the most indisputable group of judges yet. Let me put it another way. Who would you trust more to tell you that somebody is a really talented singer, a random group of people, or Steven Tyler? I trust Steven Tyler's judgment. I trust Jennifer Lopez's judgment. I trust Randy Jackson's; I trusted Kara DiaGuardi, Ellen DeGenerous, and even Paula Abdul at times. (Although based on her short-run reality show, and her actions, I certainly consider her awareness of events around her to be questionable.) Now, that doesn't necessarily mean that they're going to be right, and it doesn't mean that a home-voting audience is going to be wrong. They've gotten it right a few times in fact. Kelly Clarkson, certainly the most talented of that group, David Cook, unquestionably the most talented of that group as well. But still, if we're just going to listen to what the audience thinks, then what's the point of having such qualified judges, or for that matter, judges at all? Sure the audience can disagree with them. Hell, I'm still pissed off at the judges of "Project Runway," from two season ago for picking Gretchen over Mondo, but I also no nothing about fashion, and will certainly never know as much about it is Michael Kors, Heidi Klum or Nina Garcia. The same way I doubt anybody alive knows more about singing and music and the entertainment business as the three Idol judges. Their choices are far more interesting to me than the audiences, the same way what certain people's favorite films are are more interesting to me than others. Scorsese or Tarantino says a movie's really good, I'm probably gonna watch it at some point. Guy next to me in the bar says something really good..., well, I might still watch it, but reluctantly at best. It's frustrating nonetheless, particularly on a show like "American Idol," where not only does the audience have the ability to not judge based on the most talented, but they can base their decision on literally any standard they so choose. (Which is another reason, I don't appreciate the empathy-ladened montages they put together. I can get story in a book; this is a talent competition.) There's too many factors of winner determination, in the exact places a talent competition like this shouldn't be. Thankfully, one of the things that "American Idol," has also shown is that, talent, if determined enough will find a way to succeed, whether they win or not. That fact is going to be proven true of everyone of these competition shows. No matter what problems it has, it is an outlet to feature some incredible talent, and possibly be a stepping stone for their ultimate success, in whatever arena that might be.

That's also true of "The X-Factor"; so why is it completely unwatchable, even compared to "American Idol"? Well, apparently "The X-Factor," is bigger in the rest of the World than any version of "Idol," is. The format of the show, is similar to "American Idol," beginning with auditions, although it's been extended to include a younger minimum age, as well as no maximum age, and it also allows for singing groups to also perform. On the surface, this seems a plus for "The X-Factor". However, after the rounds of auditions, the surviving contestant go into a final audition round called "bootcamp," where instead of the top X number of performers advance to a later round, a certain amount of each group of performers, which are now separated into BOYS, GIRLS, OVER 30's and GROUPS, the latter consisting of a few hurriedly-made groups from rejected auditioners. Then, each group is then awarded to a single judge, randomly. (Although, since Simon Cowell is the creator and producer of "The X-Factor," and that he's a current judge, well... are we surprised that the got "Girls" [LAWYER'S NOTE: That was speculation and has no barring in fact and has no basis. The Blogger doesn't claim that the show, "The X-Factor," has in any way, a pre-determined result of any kind"]) After, each judge then picks a Top however-many-number out of the group they're paired with. So in sense, each judge is competing with each other. The judges also compete with each other on "The Voice," but, it doesn't work here. First of all, it's confusing overall. They're all brought to each person's house, because, I don't know, "Cribs," is off-the-air now I guess, and they want to show off, and it's not like it particularly matters once they get into the Final rounds, since the voting basically remains the same format as Idol. Person with the least amount of votes that week is eliminated. (Granted, early in the process, judges do make elimination votes for some of their choices.) That's not even the biggest problem with the show. For all of "American Idol"'s sins of empathy-ladened uses of the contestant montages and storylines, "The X-Factor," upped it at least five times that. It was unbearable to even skip over to the channel and watch for a few seconds. The song choices mostly made by the judges were consistently questionable. In fact judging just seemed overall strange. During one vote, Nicole Scherzinger, decided to vote for a tie between judges, which required them to go to the audience polls. Yes, I'm in favor of this, hypothetically, but anybody who saw the incident would've determing that Scherzinger lacked the suitable ability to judge the contestants in such a manner. (And I think Scherzinger, who was a last-second replacement after "The X-Factor UK" judge Cheryl Cole backed out after a couple auditions, is a judge who's credentials are of a questionable nature, especially compared to L.A. Reid, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell) However, now comes an interesting question, why now, are they going to the judges first? The judges have biases at this point. They all hopefully and should, want one of their own group to win, and if they aren't, that's even worse. At this point, it would be more beneficial to go straight to an audience vote. At least on "American Idol," they're simply giving actual opinions, and judging without bias presumbably. This makes, no sense. It was confusing, and it was simply too much, and most of the time, despite the talent that was showcased, it was entertaining. Even the host, Steve Jones, was boring. I don't think Ryan Seacrest is a number one choice for me to host anything, but he was far better than Jones was. (Carson Daly, has a benefit of familiarity with the American audience, so it's not an issue with him) "The X-Factor," is a complete crash-and-burn, and it certainly didn't help that Cowell got one extra participant in his group, and wouldn't you know it, she happened to win? Why, probably 'cause it was the best story as much as anything else. The show just came out as a confusing mess, that wasn't watchable. It was barely understandable.

Yet, when some of these reworking of the role of the judge on the singing-competition show, and done on "The Voice," they not only work, they add fascinating dynamics to the genre, that are unbelievably compelling. Yes, there's an audition process. Yes, there's behind-the-scenes pre-performance footage, and yes, there's even montage of the contestant that may at times, play an empathy card. So how did all this get constructed in a TV show that is miles better than both of it's counterparts? Unlike the aforementioned two series, "The Voice," originated in Holland, and this version, produced by Mark Burnett of "Survivor," fame, begins first of all, with a far longer list of unaired auditions. However, the judges, sit in very wide rotating chairs, and they only listen to the performer voice, and do not see the performer at all, unless they choose him/her/them for their team. None of them are a producer on the show, although all of them are incredibly qualified to be judges, and all of them also happen to have different distinct musical styles they are experts at. However, this makes any of those montage pieces, essentially moot. The judges aren't going to be blown over by a good story. Also, a factor, is that, while the judges are listening to auditions, this essentially eliminates anybody who isn't particularly talented. The pre-audition process is so extensive, that there's almost no possibility of a particularly bad performer delusionally auditioning to make an ass of his/herself on national TV. So, the show, starts off, with every eligible contestant having a decent voice. (Or voices. Duos, and possibly groups, are eligible to compete) So it doesn't just become, who's got a great voice. Now, it becomes, which voices are going to appeal to which judges. Suddenly, it's a lot more intriguing. We're watching the mindset of the judges at work here. Christina Aguilera, for instance, selected mostly females for her group, and then mostly ones with big voices. Aguilera, has one of the best voices in music, so she's picking to her strength. Some judges might pick a contestant against their strength a bit. Judge Adam Levine, the frontman of Maroon 5, even admitted at one point that, he doesn't think his voice is even talented enough to win the competition if he ever entered. (This gets particularly interesting when multiple judges want a contestant, and then, it becomes contestant's choice.) After that, when each judge's team has a certain number in their group, they now have a very difficult task of pairing up their team against one another for battle rounds. They each sing against each other, using a song of the judge's choosing, and then, that groups's judge must pick a winner to continue in the competition. This can lead to some strong combinations and performances, or perhaps some with questionable results. And how do you even do this? Do you pair up with a 1-8 ranking like a playoff? Do you pair similar singers against each other? What if you pair two of your strongest singers together, you could knock out somebody, who might just win the whole thing? And what song do you give them? There's so many dynamics at work here, but the key here is that, unlike the judging dynamics of "The X-Factor," they're of a conflicting nature within each judge, while, if they're of a conflicting nature at all on "The X-Factor," it's that they're usually conflicting with the rest of the show, and at worse, they're for simple manipulation of the audience, through the usual editing tricks of reality shows. Even in later battle rounds, which are somewhat based on an audience vote, even the voting process is more intriguing. First off, each judge has a vote has an equal vote as the audience, and that vote gets a number. The two who are battling each other, get a possible 100 points from their judge. That judge can give that 100 points, any way he/she wants though. It could be 50/50, in that case, the audience vote is the determining factor, or they could give a higher number to one contestant or another. The audience percentage they recieve is also transferred into points out of 100. The most points moving on. So, even the audience, is now voting based on one performer against another. They may still be voting bias towards somebody they like, but this different dynamic, makes the voting results more intriguing. What if the audience vote trumps a judge's preference, or vice-versa? These different factors and possibilities are at work here, and still, what if the judges paired two people together that maybe they shouldn't have? Only in the final round, where each judge now only has one contestant remaining, do we finally get to a straight audience vote. A, it's a final four, which I find better, because if they get it wrong, it's not as annoying as a final two vote being incorrect, and (Granted, I'm not an expert, again, but I do have an opinion. Are you really gonna tell me that Kris Allen was a better performer and/or singer than Adam Lambert? You can't.) B. At this point, since so much of this, has been judge-based decisions, this is really a decision between four very talented people, with very little indication based on previous audience votes who will win, or who could upset. By the time the audience gets this final vote on the winner, it's not based on a  requirement of the show that the audience be participating, as much as it is, they've done everything possible to narrow down great four performers out of an already-loaded field of performers and talent, and they can't decide anymore alone. It's the audience's decision to essentially break a four-way tie. This is one of the few shows with the audience call-in vote that gets it right. I'm not exactly a fan of the call-in vote, but if you're going to use it, in addition to having judges, this is how it's done.

Honestly, this isn't even close. "The Voice," is clearly the best of this genre. It's the best format, it's the best talent, it's got the most tension and conflict, not just which the contestant stories, but with the judges as well, all of whom are highly-qualified, and all of whom have a stake and an uncomfortably high amount of control over who stays in the competition, and the even the audience vote is basically a tiebreaker, and not the be-all-and-end-all for a performer. I don't think it's the Best Reality Show, but in a suddenly crowded field of this highly-rated and desired singing-competition reality subgenre, it shines over the rest. "Idol," might be the popular standard, "X-Factor," the upstart with big names backing it, and "The Voice," is the good one. It's pretty damn close to great, in fact, thoroughly worth going out-of-your-way for, everytime. "Idol," and "The Voice," will be having their season premieres within the next month or so. I'll be watching "The Voice."
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