Which talent show audition is your favourite?
Thousands of wannabes audition for television talent shows, but only a handful are ever remembered.PT2M53S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2qu5f 620 349 July 29, 2013
If you watched The Voice produce its rather predictable conclusion last month: an easy win for the talented but ultimately forgettable Harrison Craig, and thought 'why do I watch these shows?' you weren't alone.
Tonight Australia's second major reality talent juggernaut begins its latest season, The X Factor, which gave us Samantha Jade last year – such a convincing version of The Singing Budgie that she has actually been signed to play Kylie in an upcoming miniseries.
What will make millions tune in again tonight is not so much the anticipation of the brand itself, as curiosity; to see for ourselves if 14-year-old Jai Waetford really is as good as he looks in the show's promos. (Actually, you can see sneak peeks of his audition now on YouTube, and around 180,000 people already have.)
Jai Waetford, 14, auditions on this year's The X Factor, which goes to air tonight. Photo: YouTube
Of course it's not just about Waetford. What we want to see is more unexpectedly good auditions, like Waetford or Bella Ferraro doing Skinny Love last year, or Karise Eden doing It's a Man's World or the holy grail: A Susan Boyle Moment, the now-accepted phrase for anyone who delivers a jaw-dropping audition on reality TV.
There's a reason most people's lasting memory of Boyle is the very first time they saw her, in that awkward but brilliant and moving audition for Britain's Got Talent in 2009, when she sung I Dreamed a Dream. Not her song in the grand final of Britain's Got Talent, or the fact that she has had number one albums across the world since.
Occasionally the unknown factor does produce moments of what appear to be unscripted drama.
Remember Owen Campbell, the cocky busker who told the Australia's Got Talent judges in 2012 he was going to play for the audience and not them? When niggled by an irked Brian McFadden, Campbell barked that "my aim isn't to be in a boy-band, chief". Cue: audience squirm. McFadden – who of course made his name in boy-band Westlife – refused to send the richly-talented Campbell through. Dannii Minogue looked equally appalled by Campbell and also refused him.
If that was a scripted moment, it deserved a Logie: it was like overhearing bosses argue at work, a car-crash moment you can't look away from.
The reality talent show audition has long felt like the most honest part of these hugely entertaining if contrived, scripted and heavily-edited shows. Producers get to meet the talent before we do, so they have a fair idea of the way crowds will react to people like Eden, or Boyle, or the pale redheaded 11-year-old Bianca Ryan, who belted out I am Telling You on America's Got Talent way back in 2006 as if she had Aretha Franklin trapped inside her tiny frame. They know an unexpected blast of raw talent is the holy grail and the best weapon they have in holding onto TV audiences.
"In its purest form, it's a moment of discovery that we all share in at the same time," says Jonathon Summerhayes, executive producer for The X Factor. "I only wish I could produce that sort of stuff daily... but you can't, it just happens."
The X Factor 2012 winner Jade says the drama was very real for her when she stepped on stage for the audition: "I think my first audition was the scariest part for me... I was entering back into something that had become a really dark place for me. As the show goes on you get used to the idea that you could be chucked out at any moment... but at first I was really putting myself out there, there was a risk it wouldn't go well and people I know might see me in a bad light."
Interestingly, Jade also agrees that auditions can show many contestants at their best – before the coaches have attempted to mould them. "My first audition was my own choice of song, so it does show who you are as an artist... the rest of your song choices and made by the show."
Occasionally an audition manages to transcend mere television, when the right combination of a good backstory, an awkward presence, genuine talent and steely nerves meet before a big audience. Who wasn't moved by Iraqi Emmanuel Kelly on The X Factor in 2011? Kelly lost limbs as a child in a landmine explosion "in a war zone", but was brought to Australia by Moria Kelly, and later adopted by her.
Having discovered the secret, who can blame TV producers for trying to clone the magic to win the ratings? Too much of a good thing is seldom enough.
Summerhayes is "wary" of over-promoting and over-dramatising too many emotional back-stories, but he defends stories that deliberately tap into our emotions too.
"Everyone has got a story and that can often relate back to why they've chosen to sing," he says.
"You've got to remember these people have [often] only ever sung in front of five or six family members and for them to stand up in front of [up to] 7000 people and four judges with international careers is one of the most dramatic things they will ever do in their lives.
"Harnessing that is part of the storytelling, and if we don't do that we are not doing our job."
But it becomes a problem when a show tries too often to convince the audience that its melodrama is spontaneous, which by definition doesn't neatly arrive at a pre-arranged time. That can break the spell, the all-important suspension of disbelief, with a thud.
The Voice erred last season by upping the ante in the drama stakes: too many contestants were introduced as people defined by their challenge and failures, then their performances presented as 'Susan Boyle Moments'. The audience was never going to buy it all and by the end of the series, fatigue had set in. The grand finale lacked the sparkle of reality talent deciders.
Whether having cracked the formula for reality talent show success the masters of the genre can apply that knowledge with some subtlety could decide the future of these shows. But for now, it's enough to watch young Jai Waetford weave his magic.
The X Factor screens tonight at 7.30pm