The Prime Time Karaoke Fest: For the Musician Who No Longer Toils in Obscurity

During a certain time of the week, if a television viewer sits down in hopes of catching the most recent episode of a favorite quirky sitcom or engaging police procedural, that person may be surprised at the actual lack of quality comic and crime fighting options. What that unsuspecting viewer will find, however, is a reality television phenomenon that’s become a new mainstay of prime time programming.

In case you’re wondering, that certain time of the week is the span between Monday and Friday, and the hypothetical viewer is me. I’m not talking about the spate of weight loss, dating, or dropping-naked-people-out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere programming, either. The ones I’m referring to are singing competitions, the little gems I like to call prime time karaoke. They are also some of the best reasons to own a DVR.

While this trend of early evening warbling didn’t begin with American Idol, that British-inspired series was the one that tapped into America’s fascination with singing competitions. Since then, it’s been the standard for everything else karaoke, series like The Voice, America’s Got Talent, Nashville Star, and the recently cancelled U.S. version of The X Factor. Before you get too happy about that last one going away, you should know that creator, producer, and judge Simon Cowell is even now in talks to bring The X Factor back for new seasons.

Maybe I roll my eyes at these shows because I like my music a little rough around the edges, with less production and more blood, sweat, and tears. Former Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters front guy Dave Grohl, a well-known proponent of rough music, took a swipe at prime time karaoke in a 2013 interview with Sky magazine, where he criticized the idea of instant career gratification and rejection they promote. Grohl is correct. Toiling in obscurity and playing in crappy, frightening bars isn’t part of the game in the new prime time karaoke paradigm, at least not the televised portion.

Another reason these shows irk me is that they’re everywhere, whether you watch them or not. That’s the media-saturated world we live in, where the only way to avoid seeing things like pontificating politicians, people singing the praises of miniature houses, or the inane exploits of the Kardashian family is to move into the spaces under our houses.

If you’re not a fan of these shows, let me fill you in on a few elements they all share. As it so happens, these are also compelling reasons to remain a non-fan. If you are a fan, please accept my sincerest apologies and know there’s help out there.

The Mean Judge

In order for the prime time karaoke machine to work best, it has to have at least one judge who acts as if he’s been constipated since the 1990s. This mean judge doesn’t like his time being wasted. He has better things to do, and he hates everything, most of all having to sit in front of a stage listening to people sing cover songs. He hates himself, and he hates you, too.

Few things play in reality television like a bad-tempered celebrity taking pot shots at aspiring stars, and even if the mean judge isn’t actually mean, he’ll be harsher than what’s called for, serving to unite the audience in favor of a contestant. On the other hand, if he’s cruel to an untalented contestant, it could go one of two ways: the audience may agree or rebel against him. No matter which way it works out, if that mean judge has no obvious talent to speak of, oh, boy, we’re talking ratings gold.

This type of unfriendly judge is such a mainstay of the singing competition, in fact, that Tim Curry and Hugh Grant each played one, Curry in the “American Duos” episode of the television show Psych and Grant in the under-the-radar 2006 movie American Dreamz.

The Saddest Story You’ve Ever Heard

At some point in time during the karaoke competition, the audience makes a shocking discovery about at least one competitor. Most often, this biographical nugget has something to do with a contestant’s tough upbringing or involves a loved one suffering from a terrible disease. Winning the competition becomes less about singing and more about winning the championship for a loved one.

I’m not implying that people’s lives aren’t sad. Try going an hour without seeing or hearing something that makes you want to hide in a closet and bawl for a week. What I am suggesting, though, is perhaps prime time karaoke producers are manipulating viewers. Maybe, in fact, they keep this idea at the top of their checklists when judges eliminate contestants early on in the season. It’s called marketing.

Imagine the brainstorming sessions: Dead relative? Yes, good. To clarify, we’re not glad grandma’s dead, but as long as she is, it would be a shame if we didn’t pay tribute to her. A dying relative? Oh, that’s even better. Two dying relatives? Wait, we don’t want to be greedy, do we?

Thing is, if this kind of emotional onslaught continues, won’t we reach a sort of event horizon, a reality where everyone’s story is inspirational, and as a result, no one’s is?

Okay, that was a trick question. We’re already there.

The Inevitable Switcheroo

Here’s how it begins: Some unassuming someone walks out on the lighted stage, maybe it’s an awkward introvert. (It’s definitely an awkward introvert.) A few people laugh at her, possibly even one of the weirdly tanned panel judges. Who is this woman to come here and take up time with these talented people, with their full schedules and lucrative corporate sponsorships? It seems things aren’t going to go well for the introvert.

If you’ve seen one of these scenarios, or if you have a Facebook account and a friend who isn’t your cat, you know where this episode is headed. The introvert gets up there and sings a song—the kitschier the better—and she blows everyone away, especially the judge who ridiculed her when she first came out. In fact, he’s so flabbergasted he summons a few scripted tears and apologizes to her. This is the guy who apologizes to no one, by the way.

At this point, you may think it’s over, but brace yourself. Here comes the clickbait headline: “Wallflower Walks on Stage to Laughs from Spray Tanned Judge: What Happens Next Will Make You Cheer (and Want to Drink Pepsi).”

People respond to this kind of thing, and even better, they live to tell others about it. How dare that judge give that introvert a hard time? Serves him right. We’ll give him something to cry about, they say, and so it goes. Plus, it pulls in the viewers, which means more sponsorships and better quality spray tans for the talent. Above all, it’s inspiring. It warms the anterooms of the heart.

It’s not a set-up, though. No, that couldn’t be it.

The Awkward Misfit

Anyone who’s breathed American air in the past decade remembers William Hung, the guy who auditioned for American Idol performing a not-so-reasonable facsimile of the Ricky Martin song “She Bangs.” I remember him, and I’ve never watched an episode of the show. This performance earned Hung the righteous scorn of the demanding celebrity panel, especially the mean judge.

While a large part of the response to The Awkward Misfit is ridicule, it doesn’t always happen that way. Some viewers who take their reality television watching seriously are offended at the performers wasting the precious time of the judges, but other people love these poor saps. Yes, these may be the same people who think professional wrestling is real.

In 2004, Hung developed a cult following and became a phenomenon, quitting college to pursue a career in music. That didn’t pan out for him, and he eventually went back to his studies, but he was lucky enough to get a few of his mandated fifteen minutes of fame.

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There it is. The prime time karaoke fest is part of our musical world now, and it isn’t leaving anytime soon. This can seem a bit depressing if you let it, but it doesn’t have to be. As long as there are pawn shops where kids can buy cheap musical instruments, there will still be authentic, risky music being made out there. It’s just hard sometimes to hear it over the processed hype.

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