Music and meaning in reality TV competition finals - and beyond?

[This is an excerpt - read David Biermann's full article on his website]

Recently reality TV music competitions have received a lot of attention in the public media. For example millions have

viewed the finals of the Eurovision Song Contest and BBC Young Musician and, following these, there was copious feedback on Channel 4’s 'Gogglebox', on Facebook and on Twitter about Conchita’s 'drag' act and Martin James Bartlett’s facial expressions. Arguably such cursory comments, though often interesting, fail to delve deeply enough into the possible musical meaning of Reality TV competitions. They also fail to properly consider the input to the musical meaning of such areas as semiotics, age and gender, the ethnic identities of performers and the influences of industry and commerce.

As a teacher, performer and composer of music for well on forty years - and member of ISM for many of these - I wonder whether such reality TV music competitions have an important and lasting musical meaning and whether cooperation is preferable to contest in creating music.

Just as programmes such as ‘Masterchef’, ‘University Challenge’ and ‘The Apprentice’ cannot lead to universal improvements in cooking, higher education and business management, neither can ‘The Voice’ or ‘X Factor’ improve standards of singing. Naturally viewers who watch these programmes are given guidelines as to how contestants prepare and perform their entries, but the competitiveness (appearance, conversation and on-stage performance) shown in their TV “spots” are regarded as more interesting and more memorable by TV audiences than are their practical talents.

More importantly reality TV music competitions celebrate the few at the expense of the many.

We congratulate the winners but forget the vast majority of prospective musicians whom we could help far more if we ‘spread our net’ more widely.

Two examples illustrating how the culture industries and the mass media have cooperated in gigantic spectaculars involving video mapping, pyrotechnics and more in promoting the arts. In July 2014 the massed orchestras of Raploch and Govan Hill in Scotland cooperated in music making to open the Commonwealth Games. They were seen by mass TV audiences of over a billion people and their performances, by no means virtuosic, will have inspired countless people of all ages to try to develop their own musical interests.On a personal note I have just cooperated – one of almost two thousand prospective entertainers - in an introductory rehearsal for the Great North Run Opening Ceremony in which we were shown how to illustrate, through music and dance, the industry, sport and technology of North East England. We know that our performance will also be sponsored by the culture industries and the mass media.

Both the above examples show how reality TV could encourage mass music making just as it has already encouraged mass participation in Sport and Keep-Fit.

A final, perhaps provocative question - why couldn’t we now promote the idea of reality TV regional, televised musical ‘boot-camps’ involving people of all ages who wish to learn how to cooperate in music making?