First off, thank you to all of you on Facebook and Twitter that responded to my question about how I should respond to the invitation to participate on ‘America’s Got Talent’. I’m not going to do it, and I’ll explain why.
I’m surprised by how many of you said ‘go for it’, and ‘what have you got to lose’. I have a wonderful group of people that appreciate the music I make and come to the shows and buy my records and help keep my head above water. I’m sure there are plenty more people out there that would appreciate my act and my music it if they just knew about it. That can be frustrating so I am just as enchanted as the next guy by the idea that something like this could possibly be a magic bullet of mass exposure and move my career up to that proverbial ‘next level’. Several of my friends that surprised me by saying “go for it” are also artists who are more well-established than I. We all work at reaching new audiences to keep things going and growing, but is it really necessary to stoop to being involved in such ugliness to do so?
I’m also a little (but not too) surprised that so few recall that I’ve played this game before a few years ago when I was invited to appear on similar show ‘Must Be The Music’ in Britain. I was in two minds about that one and struggled to decide, but in the end the ‘what have you got to lose’ voice won out. I thought well, someone’s gotta stand up and let the kids know that we don’t all aspire to being the next Robbie Williams or Mariah Carey, and the idea of me with Hornicator on that kind of show seemed too absurd and surreal to reasonably pass up the invitation. I thought maybe here was an opportunity to try and battle the corporate homogenization of music by infiltrating it from the inside. But I should have known better. (I used to work at MTV, after all).
I mostly enjoyed the actual experience though, and I don’t regret doing it, even though these kind of shows really turn my stomach and after further contemplation I think they are even more of an ugly blemish on our modern culture than I originally thought (more on this later). Anyway, on the show I think I performed my rendition of ‘Why Dogs Howl At The Moon’ well. In fact, the live audience were clapping along and howling without prompting (see email below). They let me finish the song, but the judges promptly and unanimously voted me off. I wasn’t all that surprised. We each had an on-camera exchange of words following the performance (as is the standard thing) which I thought was priceless and in a nutshell went pretty much like this:
Jamie Cullum – “When I saw you setting up I was hoping maybe it would be something like Tom Waits”
Me: “So, in a contest where you’re supposedly looking for something original, I’d have faired better if I’d been a Tom Waits imitator?”
Dizzee Rascal: “You got the crowd going I’ll give you that”
then he turned towards the crowd and said “but would anybody want to BUY a song like that?”
(As I recall, a large part of the crowd roared approvingly, to his dismay).
Sharleen Spiteri: “That was just a lot of noise with no melody, it was terrible”
Me: “That’s what my parents used to tell me when I listened to old rock and roll and punk music when I was a teenager”
Dizzee Rascal: “It were good fer da eyes, but not fer da ears”
Me: (intending the comment for all the judges, though Dizzee seemed to take it personally) “Everything you’ve just said to me I could say is how I feel about your own stuff.”
With that a big ‘Woooooo!’ from the crowd and I was ushered off. I left feeling quite smug and amused about the whole thing and thinking how great it would be if they aired the conversation in full. But I knew deep down how it was probably going to turn out, and what was actually aired in the end was about five seconds of me howling into the Hornicator and Dizzee’s final comment, my response and a shot of him looking, well, a little taken aback, all as part of a quick edit montage with an introduction something to the effect of “the solo acts didn’t fair so well either”. I was surprised they kept that last part, as that show is obviously really more about perpetuating/glorifying the celebrity of the judges than any new talent.
A day later I received a couple of nice Facebook comments and the following email from people that had been in the studio audience:
I saw your performance at The Hackney Empire and I we thought your performance was very entertaining. I liked the way you looped the samples and built the song up in stages. We could see exactly what your musical concept was all about. I hope you could feel that the audience was with you all the way.
The song was very addictive and in case you were not aware that at least two hours after you had gone the audience were still doing the Howling sounds. So much that the compare felt intimidated by this and reminded us that you had left a long time ago and to think of something else. The judges were just considered as not really up to their job as they did not make decisions as individuals and they were not exactly the best people to judge. They themselves have not exactly had what we would consider ground breaking careers. It would have been better for A & R people to Judge these kind of events because they really know what to look for. But of course on television its all about image I guess.
Have a great Career Thomas,you deserve it.
I felt okay about having done the whole thing, no regrets. I felt the sting, but I’ve been doing my thing for years, played large shows as well as empty rooms, lived through some bad reviews and rejections and sometimes downright violent responses (amongst the generally favorable reactions) and have, through the course of it all, built up a reasonably thick skin. I took a chance that it might work, that maybe what Andy saw would also go out to millions of people. A chance that some of those people might just happen to be open minded souls tied to their chairs by burglars and forced to endure Sky 1 programming rather than go out on a Saturday evening. Problem is, in mainstream television, they have an agenda and have to answer to advertisers. Together they hold all the cards, and will use and edit them as they see best fit to sell their products and keep their salesmen looking good.
Something else really bothered me much more than my own little situation though, and that was being in the green room beforehand and seeing all these hopeful younger kids go through the same wringer with much higher expectations and a bit more at risk. A lot of them needed the encouragement they were seeking to grow. Some of them will probably never sing or play an instrument in public again. Whether they have talent or not, a lot of them don’t have all the positive things I do to fall back into after they get three (or four) giant X’s and buzzers flashed in their faces by famous ‘judges’ on national television, after they give it their best shot. Let me tell you, there’s something powerfully psychologically destructive in that. I only vaguely knew who the celebrity judges were (I have to admit I’m out of touch that way). But what if one of those judges happens to be a personal idol or hero of yours? Seeing it on TV is one thing, but I’m telling you, it’s cartoon rejection on steroids and if you can’t laugh about it and see through it it’s not going to result in anything positive.
I’m not saying that their foremost intention is to be sinister (they just don’t care), but after considering it more carefully I believe that shows like these personify and perpetuate some of the worst illnesses of our modern society, especially in the US, where the myth is more along the lines of either you make it real big, or you haven’t really ‘made it’ at all.
I don’t see music as a competition. I think such things are about as healthy and realistic as a beauty contest. When I was in high school and they had things like ‘Battle Of The Bands’ I steered clear and hid under the stairs making up scary sounds with my Moog Rogue and a Boss Delay pedal. I’m still doing that sort of thing. I wouldn’t have been happier playing ‘Stairway to Heaven’ in a school gymnasium then and I wouldn’t be happier now playing on some televised red white and blue lit Las Vegas stage.
I’m not sure the producers of AGT even realize I’m not living in America anymore anyway.
Anyway, if you’re reading this and you’re not familiar with my music, you can listen to some of it here. And I always love hearing back from you in the comments below. There were some real divided opinions about how I responded to this invite.
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