While many tuned in faithfully the first few seasons of American Idol, we were busy with YMCA basketball and pee-wee baseball. Sure, for the sake of keeping up with the water cooler chatter, I'd read recap articles and occasionally view moments of the voting result shows while channel surfing. But eventually, our family joined the bandwagon. We'd rationalize why certain contestants were deserving over others and it was during this popcorn-bowl bonding time that my son, Spencer, began defining his standards of good artists over bad.
Eventually, Bieber-Fever struck the world and our eyes opened to the possibility of parlaying Spencer's school and church choir solos into Youtube popularity. Why not? If that Bieber kid could be discovered on Youtube, why not Spencer? So we naively thought.
Fast forward. Spencer auditioned once for America's Got Talent and twice for X-Factor. In every audition, he made it past the first round. In the final audition process for X-Factor, he made it to the round where he would await the call where to show up and perform before the judges. As a parent, you hope and want to believe the best can happen. As a teen, Spencer played out scenarios of what he'd do at each level of the competition. He'd also point out the 1978 Corvette for sale just off the main highway near home and describe how cool he'd look driving it around. After all, at this point he had fully consumed the fantasy of a life as a reality talent show contestant.
No call. No callbacks. Nothing.
I've purchased a few lottery tickets over the years. As I crumpled mine when watching the news of the winner in a land far from my own, I could only sigh remembering the small statistical chance I had at winning. After all, I went in with full knowledge of the remote chances. Reality TV was the same for us.
However, here's where the reality met the fantasy.
I can state that (as a matter of fact) these shows are not so much about casting the best talent as they are for what makes good TV; revenues. After all, sponsors buy ad time and producers and celebrity judges need their pay check. Like everything in the real music industry, it's not as much about the talent as it is the pot of gold everyone is trying to discover and keep. In that sense, reality TV is no different.
I've had the privilege of talking to a lot of parents who are on the same path as my family with one or more of their kids. Most have children with easily verified talent. Some even have phenomenal talent. What links us all together is the challenge we face of managing expectations of our highly impressionable, dreamer kids who ingest the fantasy-life these reality shows present. They see contestants who are overnight celebrities because they were fortunate enough to be an ingredient in ratings-seeking potions fed to viewers and advertisers. Which contestants will viewers most relate to... hate... love... despise... etc. all makes for good reality TV. It's what makes advertisers pay millions and viewers tune in. I envision droning prayers of show creators repeating "Please, Mr. Nielsen, accept our sacrificial offering of these diverse personalities for your blessing of a #1 rating on Tuesday night programming."
But what happens in the real world, like my own home, is exactly what these shows intend. Households are thrown into a pseudo-frenzy of comparing friends and family members who have more perceived talent than what they show on the TV. Hence, the Youtube star explosion and the making of divas at local talent shows. Instead of America's Got Talent, it could be "Everybody Thinks They Got Talent", a show in which Spencer may have been cast.
In our case, Spencer was not thrust into the national limelight. He was not a vocal prodigy that confounded viewers on his Youtube channel. He was just a cute kid that kept pitch and learned how to croon his way into social media popularity. But when the big labels didn't come calling, or big tours or festivals didn't return our calls, that's when reality set in for us. Even having a large social media fan base doesn't necessarily equate to success.
It isn't about the lottery like TV talent show that will help Spencer get discovered. It's all about the good old formula of hard work.
Then more hard work.
And finally, hard work.
Spencer has not arrived. But gone is his innocent, wide-eyed stare like he did at the Christmas tree when Santa was about to arrive in a few hours. Gone is the adrenaline rush of making it to the next round on a TV talent show. Gone is the waiting for the music industry's Big Daddy Warbucks to come a calling. Reality, not fantasy, has arrived.
Instead, what he has discovered is the joy of seeing the fruit of his hard work in the eyes of the fans at his concerts, or the messages on social media of how his music changed a life, or the schools that send reports of how they are being kind to one another because of his visit with them earlier that year. Now he sees that it isn't about the fantasy of skyrocketing to fame and fortune through a TV show. It's about the power of music to touch lives along the way. He's still highly motivated to make a career as an artist, but he understands like the wise spokesman, John Houseman, and the Smith Barney TV commercials of the late 70's, "...they make money the old fashioned way, they earn it."
Even if he never reaches elite stardom, what I know he will have learned is that nobody can take away his amazing experiences at such a young age and the up front and personal perspective of the real music business that the vast majority of artists live through. He is learning that success isn't the fantasy of reality TV, but comes in the form of a four letter word.