Wednesday, October 7, 2015

TMFW 109 - The Worst Singing Competition

TMFW pal and Washington Post journalist Radley Balko sometimes tweets links to what he calls "your daily misanthropy."  Whether the stories are about bureaucrats harassing a family with a special needs child, or abusive day care workers, or modern-day racism, or even something like increased support for banning books, the links are typically sober reminders that our world is sometimes a crummy place with crummy people.  So with that as a background, let's get to today's not-much-cheerier TMFW.

When American Idol launched in summer, 2002, it was a nearly instantaneous success.  19 of the 25 episodes were in the Nielsen weekly top-10, with each of the last six coming in at #1 or #2.  And after Kelly Clarkson won the show, her debut single "A Moment Like This" was certified gold and set a then-Billboard-chart-record when it jumped in one week from number 52 to number 1.  Subsequent seasons were an even bigger deal - an Idol episode was the highest-rated television show of the year for eight consecutive years from 2003-2011. 

Though there had already been several singing competition shows before it - American Idol was itself an import of the UK show Pop Idol - the breakout success of American Idol spurred lots of imitators.  There were country versions (Nashville Star and CMT's Next Superstar), rock versions (Rock Star: INXS and Rock Star: Supernova), a Disney version (High School Musical: Get in the Picture), a competing Simon Cowell version (The X Factor), a let's-sing-duets version (Duets), and on and on.

Which brings us to today's TMFW: the singing competition Superstar USA.  The show, which ran in 2004 on the WB (now CW) network, was a "spoof" on the singing competition genre.  Instead of looking for a genuinely good singer, Superstar USA sought out the worst.  That was not a novel concept: highlighting bad singers or awkward performances during the audition phase of American Idol was a hugely popular feature of the show.  In January, 2004 William Hung famously performed "She Bangs" and became a celebrity.  His first record sold 200,000 copies.  And in 2010 Larry Platt became briefly famous with his song "Pants on the Ground."  That one sold 150,000 copies on iTunes.

But in Idol's case, the bad singers were sprinkled in with lots of good ones, and their moment of infamy/celebrity was truly a moment.  Because the plainly mean and derisive concept of "make fun of bad singers" would not be very fun to watch if it were played straight up over an entire season, the show's judges (which included Vitamin C and Tone Loc) pretended as though the singers were great.  You can see in eventual runner-up Mario's audition, or fourth-place finisher JoJo's audition, or top-12 performer Frank's audition, or Chad's audition, or Robert's audition, the show sought out naturally awkward people and then had their judges heap absurd praise on their performances.  (Then on the flip side, the show dismissed decent singers out of hand.  One judge brought a young woman to tears by declaring that her very short performance of "Midnight Train to Georgia" was disrespectful to Gladys Knight and "...a little disrespectful to the Pips.")  The eventual "winner" of the competition - Jamie Foss - did not learn of the premise until the very last moments of the show.  Thankfully, she was so thrilled with her victory that she didn't seem to care.

As it turns out, the show was self-evidently mean and derisive even when it was dressed up as satire. Though IMDB reviewers recall the show fondly and give it a 7.9/10, contemporary reviews called the show "the meanest show ever" and "a huge leap the race to the bottom of the reality show barrel," and declared that it "suck[s] in a way that few TV shows have ever sucked before."

The show is perhaps most famous for the cruddy way that they pulled off its finale, which was recorded before an audience.  Understanding that the audience would recognize the performers' lack of actual talent and may not be very enthusiastic, the producers of the show told the audience before the taping that the contestants were there with the help of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, thus implying that they were dying of a terrible disease instead of being secretly and elaborately mocked in pursuit of advertising dollars.  Before the show aired even its debut episode, it was forced to "sincerely apologize" for that stunt.

Mercifully, Superstar USA was a total ratings bust.  It lasted only 1 season before it was killed by the WB.


BONUS FACT:  Jamie Foss has a website touting her victory on the show, where she spins Superstar USA as "a send-up of the genre, where hopefuls had all the determination and drive to make it as a singing sensation, even if they lacked the voice."  I wish that she had gone on to a successful career, but the site features links to a sad IMDB page (the only role was as "waitress #1" in 1 episode of Las Vegas in 2005) and a sad Wikipedia page (showing that the entry was deleted because Ms. Foss was "only known for Superstar USA. Has not released any songs or done anything music-related since the show"), and has a space to click for a "Jamie Fan Site" that is not clickable and has no link.  [insert frownie face here.]

BONUS FACT 2:  I can't believe there was ever a market for it, but you can buy a copy of the "soundtrack" to Superstar USA on Amazon.

BONUS FACT 3:  American Idol presented Larry "Pants on the Ground" Platt as an unhinged oddball.  But his history is actually pretty amazing.  Platt was an active participant in the Civil Rights Movement, and earned his nickname "General" from the Reverend Hosea Williams.   He took part in the march from Selma to Montgomery and was beaten on "Bloody Sunday" as the marchers tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  The City of Atlanta recognized his efforts by declaring September 4, 2001 "Larry Platt Day" in the City and in 2005 the Georgia House of Representatives commended him for his "many valuable contributions to the Civil Rights Movement and his dedication to the struggle for equality and human rights."  It's a true shame that the first line in his obituary is sure to be his 30 seconds of foolishness on a Fox reality show.

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