Tracey Thorn: one round in today’s TV talent shows and I’d have been back in the library

These shows can be harsh and cruel, but they are merely a microcosm of the world – a swift introduction to the realities of a career as a performer.

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I get asked quite often what I think of singing competitions on the telly, and if you know me you won’t be surprised to hear that I’m an avid, if ambivalent viewer. But if one thing encapsulates everything that is problematic about these shows, it’s the battle rounds on The Voice, where two singers, each of whom has made it through the blind audition stage, have to perform a song together.

If this were conceived as a duet, each singer taking a role, complementing each other and creating sweet, sweet music with two harmonious voices, it might work fine. Instead, it is indeed a “battle”– and if that sounds to you like the opposite of a musical experience then let me confirm that, yes, it is.

In any battle, victory is likely to go to the stronger. In the case of The Voice, that means the louder, as each participant tries to out-sing the other, ramping up both the volume and the hysterics into an amusical shrieking contest, at which point you look mutely at the person sitting next to you on the sofa, wondering why you decided to watch this, or indeed any telly at all, or in fact buy a telly.

Remembering the story of David and Goliath, you might well challenge my assertion that the stronger always wins, and you would be right – there is also the question of tactics, or plain deviousness. This takes the form of one singer putting on more of a show, dancing flamboyantly while their opponent is singing, developing some kind of curious vocal mannerism to distract them, or – and here the competition is at its most basic – trying to hold the last note of the song for longer. With maximum vibrato. Till the breath leaves their body and the song ends, at the same moment as your will to live.

The loser is almost invariably the less battle-ready of the two. The one who doesn’t seem to want it quite as much, who doesn’t fight as hard. Who might actually have some reservations about whether louder necessarily means better, and whether they want their singing to be judged along the same lines as a free-diving endurance feat.

Often it’s just the shy one who loses. They get weeded out at this point in the competition, those gentle souls who sang well enough at the start to send the chairs spinning, yet who, on closer examination, prove to have some basic human flaw – self-effacement, doubt or, worst of all, fear. DON’T LET THEM SMELL YOUR FEAR, O FOOLISH SINGER, FOR THAT WAY LIES YOUR RETURN JOURNEY HOME.

It is so cruel, and so conventional, seeming to hark back to a 1950s definition of the showbiz personality. Only the stagey survive, with their melisma and their jazz hands; meanwhile the ones who look like they might feel more at home back at home . . . well, that’s where they get sent.

Perhaps, after all, it’s being cruel to be kind, teaching the introverts an early and useful lesson about what it feels like to be on that side of the lights and forcing them to question whether they belong there. Because whatever The Voice says, over and over again in all its publicity material, it’s not just about the voice, is it? None of us believes that.

I should know. I spent nearly 20 years sweating and trembling on stages across the world, trying to find a way to flourish in that hostile environment, like some woodland plant struggling to survive on the upland slopes in full sun. I got where I did because people liked the Voice I had, but one short battle-round early in my career would have ejected me and sent me back to the safety of the library.

I’m not sorry that didn’t happen. And I never want to see pop music completely dominated by the show-offs, the extroverts, the ones who think they belong there. I love the misfits and the scared ones; I’ll always be cheering them on. But at the same time, I fear for them, out there on the stage and in the music business. If TV talent shows can be harsh and cruel, they are merely a microcosm of the world, a swift introduction to the realities of a career as a performer.

You might as well make up your mind right now whether or not you’re cut out for it. Because if you’re not, well, then it’s a battle.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her books include Naked at the Albert Hall, Bedsit Disco Queen and, most recently, Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia 

This article appears in the 04 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 100 days to save Great Britain

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