Two South Carolina singers are the latest to appear on nationally televised singing competitions.
Kalifa Wilson ("Kai the Singer"), a 19-year-old from Kingstree, and Charleston native Grayson Little, 27, are among those who have received a golden ticket to skip ahead to the live competition in Hollywood on "American Idol" this season. The show began airing on March 3.
Wilson's audition had judges Katy Perry and Luke Bryan tearing up; Little's audition has not yet aired but he's been seen in preview clips jumping for joy with his golden ticket and hugging host Ryan Seacrest.
Both singers are among tens of thousands who turn out to audition for the music-themed reality TV show, now in its 17th season, with dreams of making it big in the music business. As singers compete once again on national television in front of millions of viewers, a question arises: How much clout do these reality shows really have? Do they actually help singers launch and maintain a music career?
A history lesson
Reality TV shows are not new; the first one was "Candid Camera," which first aired in the late 1940s. Singing competitions, in particular, have captured audiences for decades, most notably with the launch of "American Idol" on Fox in 2002, the first of its kind to ask viewers to cast votes.
By 2004, it was the most-watched show on U.S. television, a title it held for seven consecutive seasons. Because of this initial success, other networks developed similar programs, such as "The Sing-Off," "America's Got Talent" and "The Voice."
"The Voice" certainly has thrived. Since it started in 2011, it has almost just as many seasons as "American Idol." "The Voice" has wrapped up 15 seasons in 8 years, while "American Idol" had a total of 15 seasons in 14 years.
"The Voice" has mostly maintained its ratings, which have hovered around 10 million viewers for each episode, even through the age of Netflix and Hulu. "American Idol" ratings, in comparison, are closer to 8 million this time around, nothing compared to the first-season finale, which garnered almost 23 million viewers.
Because of its rating decline, "American Idol" disappeared from the air in 2016, in part because it had lost its monopoly. Less than two years later, surprisingly, it was revived.
The viewer obsession
Today's popular culture is characterized by short attention spans and a dependence on social media, so it's no surprise that celebrity has a very short shelf life most of the time.
This is true for most "American Idol" contestants, although there are a few exceptions, such as longstanding star Kelly Clarkson, the winner of the series' inaugural season in 2002, and Jennifer Hudson, a finalist in the third season who went on to star in "Dreamgirls" and win an Academy Award.
But as a rule of thumb, "American Idol" contestants tend to enjoy their brief 15 minutes of fame then disappear from the spotlight, according to College of Charleston pop culture professor Robert Westerfelhaus. And that's largely dictated by audience reactions.
"Fans follow the show for the same reason NASCAR fans watch a race," Westerfelhaus says. "They like the action, root for their favorites and are curious to find out who finally wins."
Much like a sporting event, fans watch to jeer and cheer, he says. They feel superior to contestants with little talent and root for their favorites throughout the contest, experiencing some of the thrill of competition vicariously.
It's a short-lived rush: many of those fans won't stick around after the episodes are over. It's on to the next season and new contestants. The show profits.
"As long as some people want an audience, and others enjoy being entertained by shows featuring talented and talent-less competitors, 'American Idol' and similar shows will continue to occupy a niche in popular culture," Westerfelhaus says.
The contestants don't come out of the competition empty-handed. In the long run, Westerfelhaus says, some exposure is better than no exposure at all. And in many cases, the little exposure most singers get on "American Idol" will be the only national attention they receive. Those who don't win at least will have their memories and some video of their brief moment in the limelight.
However, truly successful music careers launched by "American Idol" are rare.
Charleston success stories?
Elise Testone, the Charleston singer who placed sixth on the 11th season of "American Idol," wonders now if she would be in the same place in her career without the show.
"Though ('American Idol') was a great opportunity for exposure and experience, I never wanted to be the next Beyonce," Testone says. "I don’t know that I would be happy as a pop star in that kind of world. ... Now, I feel like I’m doing things that are more musical and less cookie-cutter than what the show was pushing for."
The last time Charleston-based vocalist and songwriter Elise Testone performed a major concert in town, it was as part of the American Idol Li…
Testone, who independently released an album following the show and has another one that will drop this spring, says that during her "American Idol" experience, contestants were placed into a box. And decisions were made based on what the producers of the show anticipated the viewers enjoying, versus what was authentic.
Westerfelhaus confirms Testone's description, noting that producers of shows like "American Idol" are very aware of their audiences' responses and preferences and promote both negative and positive situations to drive interest and improve ratings.
"The way they choose contestants is based on a scale of criteria," Testone says. "Some people have to be awesome, some just OK, some have to have a really great story; it makes for a good reality TV show. That's not to disrespect the show, that's just what you have to do in that career."
Mitchell Lee, a Citadel graduate who auditioned for "American Idol" and who was on Season 13 of "The Voice," compares both experiences.
"American Idol," focused more on the business side of the music equation, he says. The show had it's own record label and protected its interests and profits. Yet, from the start, Lee says "The Voice" let contestants know it wasn't really part of the music business but a reality TV show; there was more transparency and, seemingly, less exploitation.
Though he didn't make it to the final rounds on "The Voice," he was hired as the show's red carpet social media host, and that has opened more doors for him.
"The Voice" contestant Mitchell Lee has won over the hearts of America, and locals have been sending him quite a lot of love from the Lowcount…
No matter how much exposure a contestant might get on either show, it's still going to be a lot of work to maintain that momentum once the show is over, Lee says.
"The most important thing to really keep your head space in when you go into these reality TV situations is knowing it’s reality TV," he says. "When this is done, how will you be able to use this to springboard your goals?"
Testone and Lee agree that the right mindset is essential, along with forming relationships that can last beyond filming. They also agree that it's ultimately about staying true to yourself, because that's what will really matter once the show is done.
"If you never pretend to be anyone else, you never have to remember who you were pretending to be," Lee says.
Season 17 of "American Idol" airs on ABC at 8 p.m. on Sunday and Monday nights.