Why American Idol was such a hit, why I like The Voice better, and what it all has to do with your career:
The 21st century has been a boom time for prime-time televised competitions – starting with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and Survivor, and then blossoming to include shows like The Amazing Race, Hell’s Kitchen, and Project Runway – and there is no question that the most successful one of all has been American Idol. To me, American Idol is like junk food or cheap booze – kind of fun to sample, but if you get hooked on it, you’re only going to end up sick in the end.
I watched almost all of Season 6, convinced early on that the most talented singer was Melinda Doolittle. She was consistent, expressive, and powerful, and no other contestant had anything approaching her technical skill and emotional range. I thought she was sure to win, but I hadn’t realized that, because the whole point of the show is to cultivate a new product, musical talent is only one consideration. Doolittle was not as adorable as her competition, and as a 30-year-old she was nearly twice the age of the eventual winner, Jordin Sparks. Doolittle came in third, and suddenly American Idol seemed to me to have been one long unhealthy binge, leaving me only with a queasy headache.
From that point on, I dismissed American Idol as a mere popularity contest, and assumed that idle Americans responded so vigorously to it because it reminded them of voting for the Homecoming King and Queen. Who’s cutest? Who are my friends voting for?
But recently I realized that something else is going on. American Idol resonates so strongly with viewers not because they identify with what they went through in the past, but because they identify with what they go through in the present – not in high school, but in their jobs.
First, every season starts with tryout episodes. Thousands of people – most unqualified – try out for a few coveted slots. Many of the auditions that make the broadcast are painful to watch: earnest but untalented hopefuls shamed on national television as the judges tell them to take a hike. Isn’t that what applying for job feels like? A meat market, culminating in a brief performance in front of a small panel of judges, who have the unappealable power to deny you your hopes?
And what happens to the chosen? They are required to perform, every week, in front of a row of critics who tell them – after the fact – whether they thought their performances were good, bad, or indifferent. If they make a mistake, believe me, they hear about it – for all the good it will do them, since one mistake may be all it takes to be let go. But that doesn’t mean the performers get no guidance – not at all! Every once in a while, an outside consultant – someone like Cher or Tony Bennett, a music-world equivalent to Booz Allen – will be brought in for a week, make some quick judgments based on one meeting with each contestant, and then offer oracular advice about how each one can synergistically maximize his or her performance potential.
No wonder Americans relate to American Idol! The contestants go through the same special hell many people in unhealthy work environments go through! They have their noses to the grindstone, get slammed by their bosses if they screw up, are told how to do their jobs by someone who has never met them before, and are in constant danger of being fired. Plus, how well they actually do their job is not what determines how far they will go; politics, popularity, and prettiness often matter more.
For a lot of people, American Idol must subconsciously remind them of work – except that, through the electronic voting system, the viewers get to be the decision makers! At some level, it has got to be deeply satisfying, after a long day of being kicked around by forces you have no control over, to become one of those forces controlling someone else. And if the contestant you favor actually wins the whole shebang, what a splendid vicarious victory!
After that one season of American Idol, I gave up on competition shows – singing, modelling, designing, cooking, what have you – thinking them all to be variations on Idol’s sadistic popularity contest. What bits and pieces of them I saw all seemed to rely on drama and humiliation – contestants goaded into confrontation, celebrities like Gordon Ramsey declaring them to be worthless. At that point, I hadn’t consciously made the connection to the workplace, but the echoes are clearly there.
What led me to realize that these shows are not about high school, but the office, was my discovery of the show The Voice. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have watched five minutes of it, but in the presence of a friend who watched it regularly, I would up seeing much of last season. And I liked what I saw. To begin with, the entire televised audition process is truncated. Only people who have passed a pre-screening audition are allowed to try out in front of the judges. Those who are not chosen are disappointed, to be sure, but no one truly embarrasses himself.
Not only that, but the judges do not face the contestants during the audition. They cannot see their appearance, their age, their ethnicity – nothing that might factor into that “is this person a pop idol?” calculation. All they have to go on is how the person sounds. Getting in the door, at least, is based purely on merit.
What really makes the show worthwhile is what happens once the judges select a candidate. On The Voice, the competition is not technically between the individual contestants – it’s between the four judges, each of whom fields a team of singers who compete against all others. If only one judge selects an auditioning candidate, then that candidate joins that judge’s team. But if two or more judges select the candidate, then the candidate gets to choose which team he or she will join. It’s like receiving multiple job offers! The contestant tries to choose the best fit, and the judges are motivated to do right by those who select them – not only to justify the choice, but also to influence the choices of contestants in future seasons.
Once a team is assembled, it’s the judge’s job to coach and counsel the team members to help them prepare for competition. Over the course of the season, each judge gets to know the strengths and weaknesses of the team, and we see them suggesting means of improvement before the televised performances, not just after. The judges have a reason to do more than just criticize, but to help their team members grow – after all, it’s the winning judge who gets the trophy. The contestants are motivated to excel, not just for themselves as individuals, but for the benefit of their coaches who have given them so much opportunity and guidance. And yet, it’s a friendly competition, so the judges neither generate nor encourage conflict or humiliation. They give compliments to members of rival teams when compliments are deserved, and they know that their team members will get the same honest appraisal in return.
In a way, The Voice is the anti-American Idol, in that, instead of an unhealthy work environment, it emulates a healthy one: one in which bosses and employees share the same goals, people are not given tasks plainly unsuitable to them, long-term relationships are fostered, training and mentoring are favored over correction and criticism, and talent and effort are recognized and rewarded. This is what work — your work — should be like: humane, cooperative, foresighted, and fair. And, as The Voice or any healthy work environment shows, your work can be all those things and still be demanding, unpredictable, productive, and competitive.