26 June 2007

Thoughts on "America's Got Talent"

So did you watch The Glamazons? Oh, don't try to be all "Glama-who?" I'm talking about The Glamazons! The plus-sized divas who just tore it up on "America's Got Talent." They combined their vocal skills with their ebullient personalities, clear marketing savvy, and brilliantly arranged music to become the hit of the night.

At the very least, they were positioned to be an act we care about, since they were the final thing we saw before the show transitions to its seminfinal rounds. (I think those rounds are next week, but maybe they're in two weeks. Whatever. Eventually, there will be a top twenty, and we're supposed to vote.)

But here's the thing: Even though "America's Got Talent" has been the nation's top-ranked television show for two weeks running--scoring ratings so high that NBC decided to expand this week's episode from one hour to two--it just isn't very cool.

On the contrary, it revels in being a great big backyard talent show where Grandpa and Cousin Doakie can get up and holler.

Despite being produced by Simon Cowell and his "American Idol" cronies--and despite blatantly ripping that show off, right down to the supposedly acidic British judge--"America's Got Talent" is aggressively nice. It's the kind of program that insists anyone from anywhere can do something worth clapping about, even if that something is stuffing himself inside a steamer trunk or training a cat to do gymnastics. (Those have both been acts, by the way.)

Where "American Idol" positions itself as the arbiter of the year's single greatest undiscovered superstar, "AGT" is making the argument that there are lots and lots of people out there who can do cool stuff. That will never make it hip, but it will make it endlessly pleasant in ways that "The Colbert Report" can never be.

After three weeks of watching this parade of abilities, I am ambivalent about the up-with-catrobats spirit.

On the one hand, the show gives us acts like The Glamazons. I'm biased, of course, but there really is value in seeing women who don't fit the media's traditional notion of desirability storming the stage. More importantly? These women are talented singers and dancers; they have great attitudes; and they are hot, dammit. So good for them.

And good for all the non-white people, non-straight people, and non-adolescent people who got passed through to the next round. It's nice to see the show try to live up to its assertion that it is showing us "America." Bonus points for hiring two British judges--sweet Sharon Osbourne and pussycat-in-leopard's clothing Piers Morgan--yet still Yanking out with manic enthusiasm.

On the other hand, does "America's Got Talent" have to be so tacky? I mean, I guess that's American, too. In this country, why celebrate talent with polite applause when you can shriek while wearing naughty t-shirts? Why spin a plate on a stick when you can set a hoop on fire, jump through it, and then hurl the plate into the mouth of a semi-literate tiger?

But week after week, the absolute lack of restraint on "America's Got Talent" becomes embarrassing. It's like how I feel when I walk through Gatlinburg, Tennessee, with all its chain stores and Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museums and fake villages built to resemble small hamlets in Bavaria. Everything in the area is so obviously fake that it mocks the people it attracts. It's like the entire town is laughing at visitors who embrace cheap theatricality, gaudy merchandise, and grotesque recreations of concepts like "nostalgia," "hospitality," and "Europe." If the people behind this sham can make us pay for it, they win. Meanwhile, we lose our discernment, so we just keep coming back for more.

In spite of its good features, I fear this is "AGT's" primary function: It's crassly manufacturing inclusiveness. What's more, because there's no American Idol-style chaser for its often robotic sweetness--the saracasm of your Cowells and Seacrests, say, or the bizarre antics of Paula Abdul--you can gag on it.

Despite his off-screen drinking scandals, for instance, judge David Hasslehoff just loves to coo and weep over acts he likes, and the other two judges (plus host Jerry Springer) are right there with him.

So that leaves us with segments like tonight's performance by "Lazy Legs." He's a young man with a disability that leaves him on crutches, and he leads a dance troupe. He's pretty good, but the show didn't let us forget for a moment that he is "overcoming." His interviews were tastelessly underscored with the song "I'll Stand By You." All the judges kept saying he was an "inspiration." I'm pretty sure they tear-gassed the crowd so everyone would cry. It was so syrupy, you could mix it with bubbles and make Coke.

That mawkishness pervades the show, so it allows so-so talent to get an inordinate amount of praise. Everyone agrees to feel good about something, so they stop thinking critically it. It's like when "Crash" won the Oscar for Best Picture.

So there's my ambivalence. While I like the fact that a wide variety of people are being celebrated on "America's Got Talent," I wish the show didn't feel so flashy, cheap, and empty. I wish the truly interesting acts--like The Glamazons--could be elebrated in a context that seems as clever as they are. I'd wish America's biggest talent show could have a little elegance.

But who am I kidding, right? The remaining episodes are being filmed in Las Vegas, for God's sake. Elegance pales beneath a fake pyramid shooting a column of light into the sky.

Originally posted on PopPolitics

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