Ending Teardown Culture


By Molly Freeman

Photo courtesy of The U.S. Army.

When it first launched in the summer of 2002, Fox’s American Idol quickly became a phenomenon. The show put hundreds, if not thousands, of singing wannabes in front of a panel of judges as well as the audience at home until a winner was chosen from the bunch.

Music producer/talent scout Simon Cowell led the band of original judges, often tearing apart contestants that didn’t have much in the way of musical talent. In fact, given the equal amount of time spent on those contestants with talent as well as those without, it seemed viewers–or at least producers assumed viewers–enjoyed watching Cowell and the other judges rip into these aspiring singers.

The teardown portion of American Idol’s early audition episodes became as integral to the show as Ryan Seacrest’s hosting abilities. In fact, in 2004, one contestant performed a rendition of Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs” that was so terrible it became a viral sensation–and earned the singer, William Hung, a record deal.

Following the success of American Idol, many other reality talent shows have sprung up–some as general as America’s Got Talent, while others focused on specific skills like So You Think You Can Dance? However, as was announced earlier this year, American Idol will be ending after season 15 concludes this summer.

Cowell even started up a second singing competition in the UK called The X Factor, which he then brought over to the States. This reality show’s claim to fame is, primarily, that it launched the career of boy band One Direction. However, the show also features a teardown portion within its audition episodes in which Cowell, and whichever other celebrity judges on the panel, could insult and degrade those would-be singers willing to perform on the show.

However, in recent years, a different reality singing competition has given both American Idol and The X Factor a run for their money: NBC’s The Voice. Rather than allow anyone to audition on the show–guaranteeing exceptional singers next to tone-deaf applicants–The Voice only features people with undeniable talent.

Additionally, instead of fostering an antagonistic mentality toward those that don’t make the cut, the celebrity panel assures everyone of their ability. Even the language used on The Voice, wherein the music celebrities are called coaches rather than judges, allows for a more positive atmosphere.

Now, it may seem as though The Voice arose from a need to diversify the landscape of reality singing competitions, but it goes deeper than that. While The Voice continues to thrive and will be entering its ninth season this year, both American Idol and the US version of The X Factor have been cancelled.

American Idol will end its run this summer with a 15th season, while The X Factor was axed last year after only three seasons. The reason for both these cancellations is that their ratings plummeted. Although that could be a result of viewer interest waning for both series, it may be caused by a greater shift towards optimism in the current cultural climate.

Photo courtesy of JasonParis.

In addition to American Idol, this spring also saw the near-end of another reality show staple: E!’s Fashion Police. The show hadn’t had the same cache since the passing of Joan Rivers last fall, but it was holding its own until co-host Giuliana Rancic made an offensive comment about singer Zendaya’s hairstyle at the Academy Awards ceremony in February.

Rancic apologized, but co-hosts Kathy Griffin and Kelly Osbourne both exited the show as a result, leaving Fashion Police’s future on shaky ground. Now, Rivers’ daughter Melissa Rivers will step in to host Fashion Police for a new season this August.

Earlier this year many argued that Fashion Police overstayed its welcome. The premise of the show is based entirely on judging the appearances of men and women–although, mostly women–on their fashion choices when attending red carpet events.

However, a culture of body shaming is inherent in Fashion Police–and Griffin has since explained that was part of the reason she left. But, with the rise of internet users who are protesting body shaming and promoting body positivity, Rancic’s comment illustrates how Fashion Police seems to be stuck in the past.

In his article, “The Demise of Fashion Police Signals the Long-Awaited Demise of ‘Tear-Down’ Culture”, Mic’s Kevin O’Keeffe stated, “Fashion Police is a relic in a media world now more about affirmation than tearing people down.”

Although Fashion Police hasn’t completely bit the dust quite yet, the whole controversy certainly shows that both celebrities and fans won’t stand for offensive teardowns. Similarly, the rise of The Voice and the downfall of American Idol represents the public’s shift to enjoying talented individuals perform rather than watching powerful figures insult an average person with a dream.

Of course, teardown culture hasn’t quite met its demise as O’Keeffe suggests, but all these factors have definitely indicated a certain shift toward a more optimistic and positive media landscape. Perhaps, within the coming years, reality television can eliminate teardown culture. But, with many of the shows built on elevating certain people while degrading others, it will be a difficult feat to pull off.

Still, if Ryan Seacrest can make a career out his hosting stint on American Idol–even when Cowell was attempting to launch the career of the other host–then anything is possible.