TV contests give wannabes vital reality check
'The dream is back' ... or has reality television taken it away?
American Idol, that high-stakes karaoke competition, returned to our flatscreens this week for season numero 12, complete with voice-over booming: "The dream is back."
In the weeks ahead, thousands of contestants and their hopeful stories will be whittled down, power ballad by power ballad, until one is crowned "Idol" and scores a record deal. As judge Randy Jackson told one young woman, who warbled George Gershwin's Summertime at the New York audition: "Believe, please believe."
And even after 11 seasons of the stuff, people still do. They still queue up to compete. And despite declining ratings, millions still tune in to watch.
One of the allegedly great things about reality contests is that not only have they revolutionised the kind of television we watch, they have also "democratised" the processes of fame and glory.
As the story goes, no longer does one have to journey to Hollywood, wait tables and slog it out until you get discovered. Or flog demos to the local radio station. You might find quick and very public success on any number of TV ventures. Take your pick.
If modelling's your thing, try a Next Top Model franchise. If it's singing, there's The X Factor and The Voice, as well as Idol. If it's dancing, there's that show Natalie Bassingthwaighte used to host.
You don't even have to stay in the performing arts. Think your steak Diane rocks out? Voila MasterChef or My Kitchen Rules. Think you know wallpaper? Then there's The Block. There was even a show on the ABC for a while for public speakers.
Indeed, there is barely an area of human existence that has not been turned into a televised competition. The granddaddy of all reality shows - Big Brother - simply judges people on how interesting and un-annoying they are.
Running through all the shows is the notion that natural, amateur ability will dazzle and stand out. And maybe, next time, you will be the one showered with confetti in the final episode.
But as compelling as the reality journeys are, they can also create a dull, wistful sort of pain.
While I never realistically considered - or tried to achieve - a career as a recording artist, I used to feel that I could sing. And that perhaps, in an alternative universe (i.e. the car, the shower or after midnight at the pub) I could be a singer. One that was known for the "unique quality" of their voice, as opposed to their range or actual skill.
Similarly, while I am no trained dancer, I considered that my sense of timing was above average.
I was certainly not afraid of making up my own moves. And if life ever called upon me, I would cope as a back-up dancer in a J. Lo film clip.
And when it came to cooking, I was quietly proud of the fact that I didn't need a recipe to whip up something tasty. I could also do a herb garnish like nobody's business. So, if I ever had to, say, write my own cookbook in collaboration with a food stylist, it wouldn't look out of place in the front window of an independent bookshop.
Yet, a good decade of watching reality competition shows has slowly killed the dreams I dreamed. Silly, reality-suspending fancies that they were.
Watching contestant after contestant front up to the TV judges has shown me that a) a lot of people out there can carry a tune/wave their arms about/chop parsley; b) it takes a lot more talent than I have to even make it into the auditions process, let alone be "discovered"; c) being a model is harder than it looks; and d) the road to discovery is often paved with much criticism and public humiliation.
Reckon you're a genial, down-to-earth person? See what the Big Brother producers have to say about that …
Reality TV has also given amateurs a whole new vocabulary with which to critique themselves. Now, when I belt out a show tune in the shower, I'm conscious that my pitch is off. And that my song selection doesn't showcase who I really am. I am painfully aware that my dancing doesn't tell a narrative.
In the kitchen, I can't help but notice my lack of textural contrast and uncreative plating up. The judges would also disqualify me for the fact that I am always, always 20 minutes later serving than I say I will be.
It may sound miserables, but the shows have done me and the community a favour. The world is probably better off without my cookbook and its nine variations of tomato-based pasta sauces. It is definitely better off without my indie pop folk angst album.
Idol promises that "the dream is back". But for me, I now realise it should never have been there in the first place.
Judith Ireland is a Canberra Times journalist.