The Sing-Off: A Lesson In Jumping The SharkOver the past 10 years, those of us with an interest in music or simply an interest in reality television have been subject to many shows that promise the "next big star". American Idol, America's Got Talent, and X-Factor are three such shows. It's a love/hate relationship for most people; they love to hate certain people/acts. There will be good acts and there will be bad acts. That's a given. Not everyone in the world can be an amazing singer. For a small portion of the viewing audience, there was something missing.
What, though, was missing? We wouldn't be able to place our finger on it until the sixth season of American Idol. What happened in the sixth season, you may ask? It was during this season of the show that we were introduced to Sanjaya Malakar. That, in and of itself, was not a problem. He was just a young kid trying to make it in the music business. His talent, however, was less than satisfactory.
This is where we encounter the problem. American Idol, and most other shows like it, are shows where we, the people, get to vote on the contestants. This is a horrible idea. There are two situations that can, and do, arise proving that America should not be allowed such power. First, America could do the opposite of what is right. In the case of American Idol, we are supposed to vote on the best performers so that they advance to the next round eventually crowning the best person as champion. In the case of Sanjaya, we did the opposite. Of the group of contestants on that show, he had the least amount of talent and should have been the first to be removed by our vote. Instead, we kept voting him through each round until he eventually places seventh. SEVENTH! At least he didn't win.
That is the first problem. America is dumb. The second problem is exponentially severe, compounded by the first problem. America, as a group, are not trained musicians. They wouldn't be able to differentiate between a pentatonic scale and a major scale if a gun was placed to their heads. But who cares, right? We're not expected to be expert musicians, are we? Certainly not in the case of American Idol, America's Got Talent, etc. Those competitions are based on popularity, not talent; who will the people like the best.
The Sing-Off, however, was supposed to be different.
Three years ago when the show first aired, it appealed to each and every true musician in America. Finally, there was a show that would put musical talent above popularity. You could be ugly as sin, but if you could sing you would win. How was this possible? The judging was kept in the hands of professionals, people who know music inside and out.
Ben Folds, Shawn Stockman, and Nicole Scherzinger (now replaced by Sara Bareilles) had complete control of who moved on and who went home. It was a match made in heaven. Three people who actually KNEW music would ensure that real talent wins over popularity. For those of us in America with musical talent, the angel choir sounded. This was OUR show. Finally, a competition that America couldn't ruin with their lack of knowledge and sly tricks.
There was still the finale each year which allowed America to vote in order to crown the champion, but for the first two years everything seemed to fall into place. Though there were episodes where groups got booted who possibly didn't deserve to leave at that time, in the end the best group won. First was Nota followed by Committed in season two.
Third time's a charm, right?
Wrong. It seemed that there was some executive power at play during the third season. Immediately noticeable was that one of the judges, Nicole Scherzinger, was wooed away to another, similar, show. Personally, I think Sara Bareilles is a better judge, but that's not the point. The whole feeling, the whole charm, of the show changed.
Remember back to the first two seasons. Do you recall all of the times that Ben Folds called out certain groups for their great use of the pentatonic 7th or the suspended fourth chord? That happened all of the time. The judges were not only watching the performances; they were "watching" each and every note that came out of the singers mouths. If they missed a single note or were flat by a quarter of a step, they got called out. The judges cared about technical ability.
Do you remember any of that happening this season? I remember it happening once or twice. Compared to the previous two seasons, it's like the judges didn't care about technical ability at all. They spent more time talking about stage presence and rapping and dance moves. Forgive me for being curt, but what the fuck?
What happened to The Sing-Off? What happened to the judges? I don't have any insight; anything I say will be completely unfounded. It's clear, however, that this is not The Sing-Off we have come to love over the past two years. This was immediately evident when Afro Blue, the jazz group from Howard University, didn't even make it to the finale. Of every group who ever competed on The Sing-Off, Afro Blue was the most technically competent. Their bass singer was almost indistinguishable from a real, upright bass, their rhythm section put thoughts of drums and cymbals in your head instead of that face-twitching feeling you get when someone does a bad impersonation of said instruments, and their singers hit chords that no one else has hit on that show, ever. Sure, they gave each song a jazzy sound and jazz isn't for everyone. But if this show is based on actual musical talent, Afro Blue should have won.
Getting off of my soap box, let's move on. One group that, whether you like them or not, broke ground was Urban Method. They introduced America to "rapapella", combining acapella music with rapping. After two or three episodes, it was clear this was just a gimmick. Adding rapping into songs that clearly weren't meant for such structures and hitting wrong notes in literally every song that they sang, I was astounded when Urban Method made it into the final three. Forget that Afro Blue got screwed, Urban Method did NOT deserve to be in the finale. This was the biggest problem with the third season and what prompted me to think about how the show has devolved.
But wait, there's more. The final two: Pentatonix and the Dartmouth Aires. Pentatonix, a five-member group from Texas, and the Aires, a 16-member group from New Hampshire, waited to see who would be The Sing-Off champions. Were this to be based solely on technical ability, the Aires would have won. Pentatonix was good, don't get me wrong, but they were a few people short for the sound they were trying to create. Having one person on bass and one on rhythm left only three people to actually sing the song. That wasn't enough, at least for them. They lacked a full sound that other groups had. Sometimes it even seemed that there was no harmony in their music at all. This, I'm sure, can be fixed with the help of professional vocal trainers, but for this competition at this point in time it wasn't enough.
The Aires, on the other hand, seemed to have too many singers. There were many times when I reckoned back to my high school choir days when you heard 30 individual voices instead of one sound. That's how I felt a lot of the time with the Aires. There were so many of them that they didn't blend. But blending aside, they had a fuller sound than Pentatonix and enough people in each section of the group to make everything work. This was intensely apparent in a few of their songs such as the Queen medley and Club Can't Handle Me. What's even more apparent is that, given the final three groups, the Aires should have won.
I'm not sure where we go from here. The show has, without a doubt, jumped the shark. For those not familiar with the reference, it was a moment in Happy Days when the Fonz literally jumped over a shark. This was the point when most feel that the show resorted to acts of desperation in order to keep their viewers. If The Sing-Off continues down this road it's going to end up like every other talent competition on television. It's going to churn out mediocre acts while raking in the cash for the network. Where, though, does that leave us, the musically inclined? What about OUR show? It seems that we have to go back to the piano bars and smoke-filled speakeasys in order to find good music. We're certainly not going to find it on The Sing-Off.
Congratulations, America. Your voice has been heard. The only shining star left in the television world has been extinguished. Are you happy now?
I thought Pentatonix were fantastic, and their cd release sounds awesome. Perhaps if you're looking for a thicker harmony a bigger group is better, but they do really well with the three they do have. And that bass and drums....