By Courtney Garcia
With the music industry in financial upheaval and fewer artists receiving record deals, it almost seems like the best way to break into the business these days is via talent search series like American Idol, The Voice, or the latest competition show, Duets. Not only does an artist obtain instant national exposure, many of them — win or lose — walk away with substantial contracts and a range of open doors, including roles on Broadway and the big screen. In many instances, television has unearthed time-tested successful acts, from Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood to Daughtry and Jordin Sparks.
Jordin Sparks, the new school idol.
Photo courtesy of minds-eye.
On the other hand, a lot of them fail – a majority perhaps.
Considering the amount of contestants that have graced the televised stage over the past ten years, only a handful have really become big names (though devotees of such programs would argue otherwise). Whether it be their route to the top or lack of experience, many of these musicians leap to the sky only to plummet quickly back to Earth. Thus, the question remains: Are they bona fide?
For artists that came up the old-fashioned way, the quick answer is not so much.
“I don’t like the American Idol stuff because I feel like they haven’t had to do that personal growth thing,” singer Liz Phair tells BreakThruRadio at a press junket in Los Angeles, where she is promoting her musical work on the new film, People Like Us. “There’s something heroic about getting up on stage and singing. There’s something — I don’t know what it is.”
Phair earned her stripes in the ‘90s, moving around the country to perform, and releasing demo tapes on cassettes before getting signed to independent label, Matador Records. She was later brought onto Capitol, and has released six studio albums to date. More recently, she began doing work in film music composition and is featured alongside Slum Dog Millionaire composer A. R. Rahman in this latest release that hit theaters this past Friday.
Liz Phair, the old school idol.Photo by Incase.
For the female rocker, the journey has been challenging yet positive, and has made her the musician she is today. The American Idols of the world, however, don’t have the same insight.
“I like my rock stars home grown,” comments Phair. “I like them to have to walk the walk, and go through the life. I don’t like (claps) ‘Oh you win!’ I don’t like that. I’m old school.”
Not everyone would agree, of course, particularly in the contemporary era. On ABC’s new venture, Duets, mainstream artists offer their legitimacy to the routine, performing with amateur talents in a mission to uncover a star. Kelly Clarkson might be biased, but the other singers featured on the program — Robin Thicke, John Legend, and Jennifer Nettles — have all made it up the ladder rung-by-rung, and still feel the show is a good gauge of talent. In an interview for Zap2It in May, Legend told me even he had tried out for a talent search when he was little.
“I sang at this local Star Search competition at this mall that was opening in my home area,” he explained. “I won the local competition and winning meant you got a $500 shopping spree at the mall, and you got to submit your tape to Ed McMahon. So, I got that far, but after that I didn’t make it any further. And you know, like 12 years later, I got a record deal.”
Asked if he believed such a quick rise to stardom made for a well-rounded entertainer, Legend adds, “I came up kind of in a different era. The singing talent competition shows didn’t have the same great reputation that they have now.”
Nettles concurred, though she admitted to initially feeling more like Phair when it came to paying dues.
“I ran up the roads in a 15-passenger van with five smelly guys, and schlepped my own gear, and played smoky bars before smoking bans and laws were around,” said the Sugarland star in another Zap2It interview. “And I was really able to cut my teeth on the stage in that way, and considered it the best way… But, what I have seen over the years is, there is wonderful talent like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, and like any in-route into the industry, the cream will rise to the top. Those who have what it takes will make it, and those who don’t, won’t.”
Plus, a lot of acts on these shows have been singing awhile — think of Susan Boyle, the now 51-year-old Scottish singer who wowed the world on Britain’s Got Talent. Because it’s anyone’s game and the only requirement is a good voice, the right look, and a strong hustle to make it through the selection process, in many ways, competition shows have become a valid barometer for talent. They demand the same skills, and simply provide a different vessel for an artist to get their voice heard.
Maybe, then, it’s the YouTube success stories that people should be more skeptical about, as a click certainly doesn’t equate to a radio spin.