In what may have been a moment of madness, I decided to watch the most recent (fourteenth) season of America’s Got Talent, the US’s favourite (?) summer-season performance competition show. Now, normally I’m a pretty elitist guy when it comes to my TV watching, preferring dour cable dramas and bizarre anime, but I have been known to enjoy reality competition shows like Survivor and Top Chef in the past. And I figured that if I wanted to try a more performance-driven show, the variety of acts in AGT would make it more interesting than one of the numerous singing competitions.
This was about four months ago. The first thing I discovered was that there was a lot of America’s Got Talent. If you watched it live over the course of a summer, it would take 41 hours. Watching commercial-free episodes after-the-fact, as I did, makes it come in at somewhere above 26 hours. In roughly the same amount of time, you could watch five seasons of Bojack Horseman or three seasons of The Wire. When viewed as a live event, comparable to sports, this length starts to seem less ridiculous, but it’s still a lot of time to spend on something that doesn’t pretend to be more than light entertainment.
A surprisingly small amount of this time is taken up by actual performances. Each act — whether they be singers, stand-up comedians, acrobats, or what have you — gets 90 seconds per round, and 12–13 of them perform per live show. The rest of the time is taken up by judges’ comments, coming-up-on bumpers, hokey backstage sketches, and most importantly introductory videos.
These videos contain the core of AGT’s appeal: naked sentimentality. About half the acts have a tragic backstory, having overcome bullying, disability, general life struggles, or all of the above. The voting audience seems to reward such stories: the final includes an autistic singer (more on him later), a child violinist who survived cancer, a disabled comedian, a choral group of military veterans, and no fewer than three song or dance troops who overcame poverty.
America’s Got Talent is not exactly subtle about its emotional appeals, being replete with sappy music and slow-motion celebrations as confetti falls. The competition advertises itself as an arena for emotional overcoming: simply by being on the show, its competitors have proved the doubters wrong, and demonstrated resilience and courage. There are also a lot of children competing, which produces its own kind of blunt emotional appeal.
This is, from what I can tell, the direction in which network TV trended throughout the 2010s. From the glimpses I’ve caught of shows like The Voice, So You Think You Can Dance, and American Ninja Warrior, they all lean heavily on stories of triumph over adversity and adulatory judges’ comments to make the viewer care about someone running an obstacle course or doing a two-minute breakdance. This has even crept into scripted programming through the two-fisted emotional appeals of This is Us or Modern Family. What viewers want, it seems, is positivity, and they don’t particularly care how cheaply their uplift is earned.
Perhaps nobody embodies the shift from the cheap, superficial cynicism of the 2000s to the cheap, superficial positivity of the 2010s than Simon Cowell. Cowell made his name on American Idol with his cruel putdowns of amateur singers, but now serves as judge and producer on America’s Got Talent, pretending that his mind is blown by a guy doing a good Chewbacca voice. The show takes great pains in its attempt to humanize Simon, showcasing his affection for dogs and kids and portraying his criticisms as simply an earnest attempt to help acts improve. There are a few montages of goofy acts that get savaged, but the show’s heart clearly isn’t in it.
There are good reasons for a cultural shift towards positivity. The penchant for dark, grim popular culture in the 1990s and 2000s creatively exhausted itself, resulting in the overbearing misery of Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan movies. Critics and audiences alike expressed a desire to brighter, more uplifting media. The much-needed increased attention to issues of diversity and identity has sometimes resulted in assessing and praising representation as a substitute for criticism. After all, given the way in which white men have dominated the arts for centuries, it seems churlish to critique, say, a black female comedian too harshly. Negativity creates controversy; positivity lets the corporations and the marginalized get along fine.
But the problem with blanket positivity is that it can paper over real problems. Such is the case on this summer’s season of America’s Got Talent, which we now know was rife with backstage acrimony. Judge Gabrielle Union left the show making accusations of racist remarks from production and domineering behaviour from Cowell. Scratch a little further beneath the surface and the whole process starts to seem exploitative: the much-vaunted million-dollar prize is paid out over forty years, and the “headlining show in Vegas” is a four-night showcase of AGT stars.
All of these contradictory impulses are highlighted in the case of Kodi Lee, this season’s winners. Lee is an autistic man whose awkward, non-verbal presentation melts away when he sits down at the piano and belts out easy-listening classics. He’s a genuinely good singer, although his material would normally be dismissed as too supper-club for a popular reality show.
On America’s Got Talent, however, Lee’s singing is besides the point. The judges don’t comment on whether he’s in-tune or pitchy, or about his choice of material, as they do with other musicians. Instead, each performance is followed by a gush of praise about how he’s changing the world and inspiring people. He isn’t performing music, he’s performing inspiration.
As an autistic person (albeit someone whose symptoms society finds to be less inconvenient than Lee’s), I know I’m supposed to be either inspired or angry at this sort of thing, but mostly I just find it boring. Kodi Lee’s portrayal on America’s Got Talent is an example of what disability theorist Eli Clare calls the “supercrip”: the disabled person who, simply by doing something fairly mundane, is held up as a superhuman inspiration. This inspiration, of course, relies on our default assumption that the “normal” disabled person is just an unthinking burden, or that their life is an unimaginable hardship which they have to heroically overcome.
But alas, America’s Got Talent is woefully behind on its disability studies readings, and here we have an unreconstructed version of all the old condescending tropes which we’re supposed to be past by now. (Kodi isn’t even the only supercrip in the contest.) As a result, we never really get to know the winner as a person: we don’t hear what he might like to do with his musical career, or who his inspirations are. He’s simply a monolith of disability and inspiration.
None of this is to say that I entirely disliked watching America’s Got Talent. Most of the acts were entertaining, and it was refreshing to see niche acts like magicians and contortionists in the spotlight. In a different age, these acts might be performing on The Ed Sullivan Show or another of the countless variety shows that filled the hours of early television. But here, in the age of late capitalism, we only care when they’re pitted against each other in a contest for our sympathies. So many of the talents depicted on the show are quintessentially American, going back to vaudeville or the sideshow, but postmodern America has left them behind.
So, to answer the question I cheekily posed in the title, America does have talent. What America doesn’t have is a way for people like those featured on AGT to pursue their art forms autonomously, without having to spell out their darkest moments on national TV and sign forty-year contracts with a ghoulish multinational corporation. But, in the absence of robust public support of the arts, at least we have reality television.