Read an Excerpt
C H A P T E R 1
THE GOLDEN AGE OF TALENT CONTESTS
A QUICK OVERVIEW OF TV TALENT SHOWS
American Idol wasn't the first talent show on television, though it has turned out to be the biggest. Competitions like Idol have been around as long as television. Some actually predate it. And credible artists have come out of these contests for decades.
Tony Bennett, Connie Francis, Patsy Cline, Roy Clark, and Don Knotts were just a few stars-to-be who got a boost from appearing on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts. Godfrey, a media personality who brought his show from radio to TV in 1948, made Talent Scouts one of the most popular programs during television's first decade. The show brought rising entertainers from across the country to New York to perform for a national audience, with winners being chosen by an "applause meter."
Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour made its television debut the same year as Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts and lasted even longer. Like Talent Scouts, Amateur Hour began as a radio show. Instead of professionals, though, Ted Mack's show featured amateurs, and viewers voted for their favorite acts by mailing postcards. Gladys Knight, Ann-Margret, Teresa Brewer,
and Pat Boone all got breaks on Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour before the show went off the air in 1970. Frank Sinatra performed as part of a quartet on the radio version of the show,
emceed by Major Edward Bowes, in 1935.
Chuck Barris, the game-show producer who created The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game, came up with The Gong Show in the 1970s. The Gong Show combined the talent competition with laughs, much the way the audition rounds of American Idol do. Celebrity judges drowned out the worst performers by striking a large gong-just as Amateur Hour's original radio emcee Major Bowes had. Singer Cheryl Lynn, who had a disco hit in 1978 with "Got to Be Real," appeared on The Gong Show, as did an early version of the new-wave band Oingo Boingo, whose members included future film composer Danny Elfman.
Star Search, the immediate predecessor to Idol, was initially hosted by Tonight Show sidekick Ed McMahon and ran on syndicated television from 1983 to 1995. It was revived briefly after Idol took off. Though only a handful of Star Search winners, including country group Sawyer Brown, received recording contracts as a direct result of the show, the impressive list of future stars on the show included Alanis Morissette, Aaliyah, Christina Aguilera, Beyoncé Knowles, LeAnn Rimes, Jessica Simpson, Britney Spears, and Justin Timberlake, as well as Diana DeGarmo, Nadia Turner, and Jessica Sierra, who all went on to become Idol finalists.
Idol combined key elements from many of its predecessors and then raised the stakes.
Like Amateur Hour, it put unknown stars in front of viewers from across the country and then let the audience pick the winners. It used comedic relief like The Gong Show, essentially giving Idol two shows: the auditions, where the odd and merely deluded parade before the cameras between the emotion-packed back stories of the potential finalists; and the finals, where the real competition begins. As on Star Search, the best performers return from week to week, though Idol, in a flash of brilliant inspiration, formatted the contest more like an athletic season and less like a game show where a challenger could always send a popular champion home. With Idol, audiences have more time to identify with their favorite singers. The contestants who best cultivate those relationships and give the strongest performances continue to compete from week to week. Only the weakest performers disappear.
If the 1950s were the golden age of televised talent shows, we're now living in the golden age of talent-show judges. American Idol took judging to a whole new level with Simon Cowell. Judging became brutal, almost painful for some people. Before Simon, we had The Gong Show, where the worst humiliation came in the form of a few slapstick jokes and a swipe at a gong-almost a badge of honor.
But Simon has taken rejection to a whole new level. I praise Simon for being honest,
and a lot of the time, I agree with him. Occasionally, he'll miss something good-he's sometimes reluctant to embrace country music, for instance, but he generally knows what he's talking about. He's got great taste in music, obviously-his track record says it all. As a mother, though, I look at some of those children on the receiving end of his verbal jabs, and I feel for them. I worry about their spirits recovering.
I've been called the Simon Cowell of Nashville Star-which I find a little odd since I don't insult contestants or crush dreams every few minutes. I guess it's because I'm always honest, so I naturally evolved into that role. I've tried to be really honest with all my artists over the years. I've had to present information that isn't positive news. Rather than sugarcoat it, I have tried to give my artists all the information.
Now on Nashville Star, when I have to say something in sixty seconds, sometimes I can't put it gingerly. But I've never told someone he or she looked like "one of those creatures that live in the jungle with those massive eyes ." I've never told anyone they were ugly or fat. I might criticize his or her wardrobe, I might question his or her song choices, but I won't go after the person. I've never done that, and I never will do that.
I'm not busting Simon-as he likes to say, "I'm not being rude"-I'm just pointing out differences in philosophies. American Idol has the ratings it does in large part because of Simon and his insults, so more power to him. And he'd be the first to tell you that his comments serve a purpose-and he's right. In the music business, you'll be judged every day, and judged every bit as harshly as you would be by Simon Cowell. Minus the insults, you will encounter people as blunt as Simon in every facet of the music industry, every single day of the week. The higher up the ladder you go, the blunter it gets. There's too much at stake and the executive's time is too valuable to waste it dancing around people's feelings. No matter how nicely you try to phrase it, rejection-and there's way more rejection in this industry than there is acceptance-is a brutal business, and you have to learn to accept it. It's better just to pull the bandage off quickly.
When I went to negotiate a new record deal for John Berry after he had his chart-topping country hit with "Your Love Amazes Me," I took a couple of his new songs to Tony Brown. (This was before he and I ever started dating.)
Tony was an executive at MCA and one of the biggest producers in town, and he had a simple answer for me-no. He didn't add flowery words to lessen the sting. Fortunately, we secured a deal with Lyric Street Records, and John got multiple endorsements, a few more singles on the charts, and a few more years of recording for a major label.
No one beats around the bush. No one sugarcoats a "no" because they don't have time for that. It's just "No, and this is why"-and the explanation might not be something you want to hear. Or it might be "no" with no explanation at all.
Like the old saying goes, "It ain't show friends; it's show business." Very rarely will you get someone to say, "Well, do this and do that, and if you work a little harder here-"
They're just going to give you a yes or a no.
This is a big, expensive, high-stakes industry, and you've got to expect a business interaction about your art. It's not about emotions and feelings-when you create the music, that's your job. But you have to put yourself in the executives' shoes and understand what they're looking for. They're looking for a natural. They're looking for someone who is seasoned and has been slugging it out in bars, honky-tonks, or recording studios since they were in high school. They're looking for someone who is gifted at songwriting, like Taylor Swift. They're looking for someone who can wow an audience just by walking into a room, like Garth Brooks or Bruce Springsteen. That's the kind of people who make them want to invest millions of dollars. It's a business, so expect nothing less.
Talent contests can be great places to develop your talent. Not only can contests help an artist gain exposure, but the auditioning process can help a fledgling performer gain experience.
Entering as many competitions as possible will not hurt you if you have talent. It will hurt you if you don't.
Some people-usually jealous ones-call shows like Nashville Star and American Idol"short cuts" to stardom. People behind the scenes are more likely to call them "boot camp."
If you're lucky enough-scratch that, if you're good enough-to make the final round on one of these shows, you'll likely be paired with vocal coaches, choreographers, performance coaches, stylists, and music directors. They'll work with you to teach you how to maintain your voice, how to pick songs, how to present yourself on stage, and how to conduct yourself in an interview.
All the lessons that most artists have to learn by trial and error over the course of several years, talentshow contestants-at least the ones that are going to last-have to learn in a matter of weeks.
There's a story in Nashville about Carrie Underwood and another artist doing a day of media and radio interviews in Nashville's RCA offices at the same time, shortly after Carrie had won American Idol.
The other artist-one of country music's biggest stars-wanted to make the new singer in town feel welcome and made a small-talk comment about how hard these types of days were.
Carrie, who'd already been through the grinder of Idol press, basically replied that this was nothing compared to what she did for Idol."
Shows like American Idol and Nashville Star are ideal for people in small towns. Few storylines are more deeply ingrained in America's collective consciousness than that of the small-town boy or girl who suddenly rises to fame and fortune. Just ask Carrie Underwood,
a native of Checotah, Oklahoma, which has a population of about 3,500.
The contests are also great vehicles for singers who have absolutely no connections within the industry. They may have the dream, they may have the talent, but they have zero relationships. Developing those relationships can be one of the hardest parts of starting a singing career. You'd be amazed how much easier it gets after a few weeks on national TV.
While the contests might seem to favor small-town singers who might not otherwise be"discovered," people in big cities can make use of them, too. Competition for exposure and record deals is really stiff right now, and any performer who isn't exploring every possible avenue isn't doing his or her job. So don't write off the talent shows just because you live in New York, Los Angeles, or Nashville.
It's true that television shows and big record companies alike favor a certain type of look-a gorgeous size two or four in a woman, a V-shaped man with six-pack abs. And that's understandable, to a degree: after all, if you're about to sink a few million dollars into a product, you want every advantage you can possibly have. So if you're not relatively young-in your mid-twenties or younger-and you don't have a classically good-looking appearance, it's hard to go the record-company route. You're just not going to get much attention. Television's a little different, though. While TV certainly favors people who are easy on the eye, it also likes the occasional exception, like Taylor Hicks and Nashville Star's first-season winner, Buddy Jewell.
Hicks turned twenty-eight during American Idol's fifth season, making him the show's oldest winner at the time, and he wasn't a good-looking guy in the classic sense. He didn't have a traditional way of dancing. His music didn't fit the current trends. All in all, he's a pretty odd entertainer. But middle America liked him. They identify with the underdog.
They want to root for someone with soul who is not a typical all-American hottie. When I was an A&R executive with Ark 21 Records, I would never have invested a million dollars in Taylor Hicks. And I still wouldn't. But by the time he'd made it through Idol, he'd had millions of dollars' worth of marketing and promotion and had created a ready-made fan base.