Turning Over the Keys: Musical Guests in Reality Competition Programming

Turning Over the Keys: Musical Guests in Reality Competition Programming

July 9th, 2010

LeBron James’ decision to join the Miami Heat in the fall isn’t half as interesting as his choice (nay, demand) to announce this decision on live television after twenty-eight minutes of hilariously awful build-up in which television sports journalism lost a great deal of credibility. Frankly put, ESPN had no idea how to string together a show around such a crass act of self-promotion, which to their credit isn’t a particularly easy task: this was an hour-long special built around a ten second announcement, taking what could have been some interesting pre-decision and post-decision analysis and blanketing it with hyperbole about how this will forever change the game of basketball. This wasn’t ESPN covering LeBron James (which has become nauseous in and of itself), but ESPN turning itself over to LeBron James, which at the very least will have media scholars talking for a long time (or, about as long as it took Jim Gray to actually ask LeBron the question of the night).

And in what is the most shameless segue you’re likely to see all week, this same problem of “turning one’s self over” plagues reality competition programming (oh yes, I went there). For shows like American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, and So You Think You Can Dance, it’s necessary for time purposes to turn over part of their results shows to a musical guest or some other type of performer who kills some time, promotes their record/show, and moves on with their life. These performances can occasionally be quite interesting, but the fact remains that there’s a tension between the narrative unfolding (the elimination of a contestant, in most instances) and the musical performance, and watching tonight’s So You Think You Can Dance (which, in my defence, I watched immediately after tuning out from “The Decision” at the half-hour mark) a few thoughts came to mind about how shows work to keep these musical performances from seeming disconnected from the series itself.

Earlier this year, Lady Gaga performed her new single, Alejandro, on American Idol. Musical performances on Idol have always been pretty logical: considering that the show is about finding musical talent, showcasing musical talent is a great way to kill some time. However, when Gaga appeared, she brought an elaborate stage show that clocked in at six and a half minutes, and Idol only had a five minute window for the performance (which was pre-taped earlier on the day the episode aired). And so, considering that the contestants (as boring as they were this year, on average) are the priority, Idol did what any television show which runs long to begin with would do: they cut a minute and a half out of Gaga’s performance (or more accurately, they really awkwardly cut a minute and a half out of Gaga’s performance).

American Idol – Lady Gaga – “Alejandro” (TV Edit)

It was a decision which she was, um, not too pleased with (if her capital letters are to be believed). She posted a link to the full performance (which was later hosted at Perez Hilton), and all of Twitter (and the internet at large) became aware that American Idol wasn’t really about celebrating Lady Gaga, a fact which most of them should have known to begin with.

In some ways, the same reason that musical performance is logical for Idol makes any sort of integration impossible: the show can’t really have the contestants perform with the artist, in that it makes them out to be backup vocalists, and it would take away from the finale gimmick of having the contestants duet with various classic musical guests. The show implies that the contestants need to earn their way to the point of sharing the stage with the likes of Christina Aguilera or Janet Jackson, which makes sense but which makes the various musical guests brought in throughout the season entirely disconnected from the competition at hand. They may be thematically linked in that they both showcase musical artistry, but crossing the streams would complicate things.

By comparison, Dancing with the Stars has largely solved this problem by turning the musical performances into an opportunity to showcase their professional dancers. Because the series’ premise doesn’t directly compete with the musical numbers (and, in fact, complements them quite nicely), the show is able to take what is effectively a form of advertising and turn it into another opportunity for people watching a show about dancing to see people dance. Take, for example, this shameless attempt for the show to cash in on another reality series’ success with a performance by Susan Boyle:

Dancing with the Stars – Susan Boyle (featuring Tony and Chelsie)

Here, the show successfully takes something which is arguably associated with two other reality series (American Idol indirectly due to Simon Cowell’s role in Britain’s Got Talent, America’s Got Talent directly) and turns it into something unique, featuring her first American televised performance of this song (what an honour) while still celebrating the show itself with the professionals choreographing a routine to go along with it.

The series has even brought these two particular worlds together, further emphasizing the role that music plays in the series’ choreography by having Derek Hough and Mark Ballas bat from both sides of the plate. With some help from autotune, the two dancers formed “Ballas Hough,” and were the musical guest on the show late last year:

Dancing with the Stars – Ballas Hough performs

Of course, considering that they’re lip synching, it’s really just a dance performance, and the crowd reacts most when the two bust-a-move as opposed to miming the lyrics to this attempt at a dance hit. However, that ability to move between the two spheres demonstrates the degree to which that music is a part of the Dancing with the Stars experience: one of the series’ Emmy-nominated pieces of choreography this year, in fact, also bridges the gap between the two worlds, as Hough begins the piece playing guitar before transitioning into a paso doble with Chelsie Hightower while Ballas remains on what looks to be rhythm guitar (apparently because he injured himself the night before, which forced them to re-choreograph the routine on short notice).

Dancing with the Stars – Chelsie & Derek – Paso Doble

In this case, the dance is unquestionably the focus of the piece, but the music is integrated into the choreography, becoming a collective unit rather than simply a dance being worked around a performer’s new single. The series doesn’t always treat music so kindly, especially since its singers tend to murder every second song they perform and the arrangements kill most others, but the results shows tend to bring the two worlds together in a way which makes the time-killing, attention-grabbing musical guests part of the series.

This finally brings me to the reason I started writing this post, which was to discuss the role of musical performances on So You Think You Can Dance. For the most part, they’re just sort of there: the show has, in the past, not had professionals who could be paired with the musical guests in question, so the Dancing with the Stars route hasn’t been available to them. They have, of course, moved instead to pulling in the types of performances which Idol would normally shy away from, like dance troupes or Broadway shows (as we saw tonight, with Lin Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights taking to the stage), filling a different sort of niche. However, there were many calls when the All-Stars structure was introduced this season for the show to work them into the musical performances, and tonight saw one such opportunity: with Natasha Bedingfield (who appears to be a friend of Cat Deeley’s) as the musical guest, the show took advantage of its situation and produced something really quite entertaining.

So You Think You Can Dance – Natasha Bedingfield – “Touch” (with the All-Stars)

The performance isn’t strong because the song is particularly good (it’s inoffensively catchy), but rather because Bedingfield is clearly singing live, and the choreography (which I presume to have been done by Tabitha Duomo, who the camera cut to when the routine was finished) is actually designed around the song and this particular performance. It’s dynamic, it’s visually interesting, and it elevates the entire performance to something that I didn’t have any interest in fast-forwarding through (which I could have, considering that I had some DVR space buffered). It’s a win-win: viewers get a chance to see the All-Stars perform a routine together, and Bedingfield gets an effectively captive audience who now associates her song (and her persona) with the routine. The show has always had a strong relationship with music, many of its most famous routines named after the songs featured in them (“No Air,” “Bleeding Love,” etc.), but this creates a new level of synergy which approaches and in some ways even surpasses the Dancing with the Stars model (in that the artist was clearly involved in the choreography*).

*This isn’t the first time this has happened, as Tabitha and Napoleon choreographed Jennifer Lopez’s performance on last season’s finale of the show, albeit not with any of the show’s dancers involved.

It’s something that I hope the series does more in the future, although with the future of the All-Stars structure uncertain it’s possible that they might not have that luxury in future seasons. There’s nothing really stopping the contestants from dancing with the celebrities: unlike the Idol winners, who are expected to be stars in their own right, the dancers are likely going to be in professional situations not unlike this one, so it would actually be great practice for them and help them grow as young dancers. However, with multiple routines to rehearse (individual dances, group numbers, etc.), there really isn’t enough time in the week for them to go into rehearsals with an artist on a busy schedule, which means that without the All-Stars this isn’t likely going to become a trend.

But, for this brief moment, So You Think You Can Dance managed to take a time-filling measure and merge it beautifully with the season’s unique new structure, succesfully doing what ESPN absolutely failed to do – and yes, I’m aware how ridiculous returning to that opening topical non sequitur is.

Cultural Observations

  • Some truly emotional stuff at the episode’s conclusion tonight, with Alex being sent home due to his lacerated achilles tendon (which seems better than “ruptured,” but still sounds pretty terrible). It meant that the show was basically pretending to be suspenseful to fill an hour, as it was clear as soon as we heard no word about Alex’s condition that he wouldn’t be dancing anytime soon. Still, the other contestants were an emotional wreck as he said goodbye, and very few reality shows can pull off this much honesty (especially not the other two shows mentioned in this piece).
  • I didn’t intend it this way, but there’s a pretty mayor So You Think You Can Dance connection within the other two series: Mark (one of this season’s All-Stars) is dancing with Gaga on Idol, and Chelsie Hightower was his partner during SYTYCD’s fourth season.
  • I’m very sad that an absolutely terrible Oscars telecast garnered the most nominations ever for an Oscars telecast. This simply tells me that every other award show was truly awful this year, because those Oscars were a technical mess.


Filed under American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance

4 responses to “Turning Over the Keys: Musical Guests in Reality Competition Programming

  1. I don’t know what the future of the All-Star format is but I really love this trend of using them as backup dancers for the musical guests. I’m also really glad we have the little All-Star highlights (Pasha and Anya were fabulous) and the “dance world guests” (which were cut out for awhile during season 5 I think for those terrible audition clips). I have to commend SYTYCD for trying new things…the Idol results show is pretty much all filler but SYTYCD has managed to make the entire hour worth watching.

  2. Paul M.

    I couldn’t agree more about this year’s Oscars, Myles. The concept was horribly misguided – something about “the glamour of the Oscars right in your living room”, I think, as that would explain all the lamps and bookshelves – and the hosts were, except for a few lines, terrible.

  3. Erika

    Loved last night’s Bedingfield’s number. Unabashedly Brit inflected dance pop. We don’t get enough of that here. Plus with fun dancing that wasn’t overly sexualized or mired in cliched gender stereotypes.

    You might already know this, but Mark’s been one of Gaga’s dancers for a while. He’s in the Telephone and Alejandro videos and you can often catch him on live footage of the tours on youtube. He left the tour to be an All Star this season.

  4. Pingback: Injury Time: Contestants turned Survivors on So You Think You Can Dance « Cultural Learnings

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