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Analysis

Apr 15, 2013

The emperor’s new clothes: Smash, The Voice and the rise of the Imaginary Talent

There was a time when nobody looked a terrible singer in the eye and told them they were going to be a star. When nobody clapped mid-song. And when we let an audience figure out for themselves how worthy someone was of admiration.

Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty in Smash

Television doesn’t trust us anymore. It used to be that if someone was good, we noticed. If somebody was awful, we noticed too. And if someone stood up and proclaimed that Jennifer Love Hewitt was television’s Meryl Streep or Nicole Kidman had the greatest soul voice of our time, we’d call bullshit. Rejoice, fellow citizens, for you no longer need to rely on your own judgement. Not only does television no longer trust us, it thinks we’re about as intelligent as a ziploc bag of cat hair.

Most weeknights, for anyone too lazy to trundle on down to their local RSL karaoke night, Channel Nine’s The Voice throws up nine or 10 singers, all of them fresh from some segment producer’s office with a good story, and very few with any real charisma. Somebody wails at the very top of their vocal range, holding notes for applause and/or as long as they can, the judges hit their buttons, and those giant Doctor Claw chairs whirl around dramatically.

These (mostly) amateur singers get pointless platitudes sprayed all over them like silly string; they’re “bad-ass”, or they “just really owned it”, or maybe Seal admired their “sense of fight”. Praise is also a mayonnaise, which is helpful to remember when enduring the sheer volume of it heaped on these uneven, uncharismatic, off-key performances. Delta Goodrem, Joel Madden, Seal and Ricky Martin preside over what amounts to little more than a shopping centre talent quest with very good lighting, an inexplicably Scottish host, and plenty of motorised furniture.

But this isn’t an affliction confined to reality television. Dramas are just as sick with Imaginary Talent Fever. Epidemiologist or not, you only need look as far as Glee or Smash to find ITF is a rapidly advancing pandemic.

ka·ren cart·wright

noun
1 : a character in the NBC drama Smash, played by Katharine McPhee
2 : a person who, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, is lauded as exceptionally talented

transitive verb
: to emphatically insist somebody is talented despite obvious and undeniable evidence to the contrary

The basic premise of Smash is this: there’s a musical about Marilyn Monroe being written and produced. Karen Cartwright, a small-town girl with big dreams, and Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty), a seasoned Broadway ensemble performer, vie for the title role. The show falls over itself trying to tell us how incredibly talented Karen is, but there’s one tiny problem: she’s terrible.

Not only is Katharine McPhee a sub-par triple-threat, lining her up next to the subtly brilliant, anvil-voiced Hilty is a little like bringing a Pez dispenser to a knife fight.

Still, the show baldly and boldly insists Karen’s some kind of honey-voiced, unparalleled ingenue. Jaded Broadway veterans are floored by her performances, the (in-universe) New York Times proclaims her Broadway’s next big thing, and even the notoriously prickly Michael Riedel — real-life critic for the New York Post, playing a fictional version of himself — adores her.

By mid-season two, Karen has left Bombshell (the Marilyn musical) and joined the cast of Hit List, a show that’s allegedly the next Rent, but is really just a giant case of Imaginary Talent Fever in show form. Bombshell‘s score, by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman — the team behind critical and commercial Broadway success Hairspray — is as good as anything that’s ever won a Tony. The score for Hit List, for which Smash‘s producers have enlisted no less than 11 different composers and lyricists, is a turd. All its songs sound like Bruno Mars took a running leap at Billy Joel and they both fell into a giant vat of bronzer. Hit List itself, while having no real discernible plot, is about fame. Its lead character Amanda (played by McPhee as Karen) just wants to be famous. And this, right here, is patient zero: the desire for fame above all else.

It used to be that chasing fame was a decent story (see: Fame, Coyote Ugly, Sunset Boulevard, ChicagoSoapdish), but that was when talent was a prerequisite. There was the Paris Hilton-purgatory between then and now, where doing nothing and being nobody was no barrier to renown. But now, people are being Karen Cartwrighted all over the place. Now you’re as talented as anyone says you are, regardless of your abilities. It happens on The Voice, on The X Factor, on Australia’s Got Talent. It happens about forty-six times in every episode of Glee: average-to-okay singers lip-sync to double-tracked, auto-tuned-up-the-wazoo studio cuts of whatever song’s big on the iTunes store that week, Glee’s producers confident that their version will be just as big next week.

The Voice judges Ricky Martin, Delta Goodrem, Joel Madden and Seal

It’s time to treat the epidemic. A great performance is a thing to behold — at turns both surprising and satisfying; and they are happening on television occasionally — see the incomparable Sutton Foster on the fantastic ABC Family series Bunheads, or Connie Britton as country star Rayna James on Nashville. But a mediocre performance dressed up as a brilliant one is a little like late-night Hungry Jack’s — no matter how hungry you were, it never sits quite right (and nobody wants to know what it looked like before it was cooked). Next time somebody on a television screen tells someone else they’re going to be star, take a mental inventory: did they have their eyes closed for the whole song? Did they sing flat? Did they have all the natural charisma and charm of Christopher Pyne? Just say no to Imaginary Talent Fever.

Still, there are small mercies: on Smash, Ivy’s now playing Marilyn, and it’s perfectly possible to fast-forward any scene involving Karen or Hit List without missing anything. And last year’s winner of The Voice, Karise Eden, who Karen Cartwrighted her way to the top with a big voice, zero stage presence and a near-complete inability to sing with her eyes open, hasn’t really sold any records.

The Voice airs constantly on Channel Nine. Smash airs Wednesday nights at 7.30pm on Foxtel’s SoHO, later this year on Channel Seven, or by whatever legal means you may otherwise have to watch it.

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8 comments

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8 thoughts on “The emperor’s new clothes: Smash, The Voice and the rise of the Imaginary Talent

  1. Jane

    That’s a bit harsh (in regards to Smash – I don’t watch the Voice) I think Katharine McPhee has a great voice – but what would I know!!

    1. Byron Bache

      Katharine McPhee can sing, sure. She’s got a tolerable pop voice. But watch the clips—there’s really no comparison between her and Megan Hilty at all. You don’t hire a cook to do a chef’s job.

  2. sebster

    Calling Katharine McPhee “terrible” basically loses the writer all credibility as a critic, or vocal connoisseur. She’s got a superb pop voice. What exactly was the writer after? I still read to the bitter end, and really, the Glee comparison is fatuous. At least this piece is well-written, which is a plus.

    1. Byron Bache

      Sebster: Like I’ve already pointed out to another commenter, Katharine McPhee can sing pop, but she’s a terrible musical theatre performer, and you need only look at the rest of the Smash cast for comparative proof. Which was, in essence, the point.

  3. zut alors

    An acid-tongued commentary – and oh so true.

    I watch snippets of The Voice as a reminder just how phoney showbiz is. The enthusing, the gushing, will it ever end…

  4. Doug

    what does ‘inexplicably Scottish’ mean? Would it be ‘inexplicably English’ or ‘inexplicably US’?

    ??

    1. Byron Bache

      Doug: Darren McMullen, who presents the show, is… Scottish.

  5. Ebony Bennett

    Nailed it Byron.