The Curse: Why Talent Show Contestants Never Survive The Real World

In case you haven’t heard, the grand finals to MediaCorp Channel 5’s singing competition The Final 1 is happening this Sunday. Also in attendance as guest performers: American Idol alumnus Jessica Sanchez and Malaysian Idol winner Jaclyn Victor. Notice a pattern here?

But first, The Final 1. The search for Singapore’s next big star (no promises) is in its second season. As proudly advertised by MediaCorp, the show will not be open for public votes until the grand finals, paired with the declaration that “It’s no longer a popularity contest”. But how popular is the show itself, exactly? Televised weekly over a course of three months, it seems the programme has stayed past its welcome.

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This comes after three rounds of the Singapore Idol franchise, which was met with flagging enthusiasm with each new season. Can we finally call it? Are talent shows a passé gimmick to garner returning viewers? Are the public done with the entire concept?

But while the consumers might have rejected the whole predictable shebang (William Hung reference, hmm?), the many products of these contests do not have the luxury of leaving the Cowellian system that easily. Many a runner-up have desperately tried clinging on to their 5 minutes of fame, even though their most stable income post-Idol may come from singing the National Anthem at sporting events. Even the winners of the most global edition of all, American Idol, have not returned to the level of success they enjoyed in the immediate months following their victory. Notable exceptions include (and this is an exhaustive list) country songstress Carrie Underwood and The First One Kelly Clarkson. What happened to the likes of Fantasia, Kris Allen, and Jordin Sparks? Do the idols live on rented space on the altar?


This is, essentially, the talent show curse. At face value, the shows may appear to be the perfect TV formula. The idea: Televise the process of a star being born for the enjoyment of millions, subtly hinting to the consumers that “all this can happen to you too!”. The process: Primetime slot with good promotion, ensuring a closed loop of interested viewers (future auditionees) that keep the show alive on both sides of the small screen. The finale: Market the finished products as singers, shove them over to the music industry. Not our business anymore. Count ad dollars.


Glaring self-interest aside, this model is incongruous with the logic of the pop music industry. New faces only achieve lasting breakout success when 1) they fill a sub-genre that is not represented by anyone in pop’s A-list as yet; or 2) they offer a good hit at a particularly parched period of time when the old guard are underperforming. Each batch of Idol alumni arrive at the foot of pop music’s sacrificial temple en masse, all singing the different songs with the same radio-friendly voice. And because they’ve been singing nothing but other people‘s songs on national television, the public is used to only hearing how they sing and not what they sing.

One expertly-produced and co-written song later, they’re left to fend for themselves. Pavements slowly replace red carpets. Street lamps light up their faces more than camera bulbs. Those who started off as singer-songwriters live to see a few more sunsets than the rest. They exit the charts, the gossip rags, the limelight.


So let’s not forget the public is fickle. We’re wielding one giant rotatable spotlight and some really hyperactive hands. Is Jessica Sanchez’s guest slot on The Final 1 a sign of the cyclical nature of talent shows? Can her attending a singing contest held halfway across the globe be attributed to former contestants being unable to break out of the shells of their initial fame? Can one programme be replicated and repeated so many times without the viewers realising?

How many more times do you want to change someone’s lives… but only for 5 minutes?


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