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Leading Voices: Lindsay Wright

Televising Talent: Musicality, Meritocracy, and the Aesthetics of Exclusion

Talk description: Throughout the history of television, American audiences have participated in a tradition of programs that follow a consistent structure: amateur musicians and entertainers are offered an opportunity to display their talent on stage, competing for audience votes to win first prize and a chance at stardom. This contributes to a growing literature on the significance of televised talent shows, arguing that their remarkable longevity and representational power stems from their configuration as a “format,” the set of guidelines that structure and constrain the content of each broadcast–an aesthetic process grounded in exclusion. Through their formatting, these programs reify the notion of “talent” at the heart of talent shows, transforming a multi-dimensional and context-contingent assemblage of musical abilities into a seemingly stable object able to be recognized, rated, and ranked. Musical auditions in particular offer a microcosm of formatting’s role as a means of training audiences’ attention, normalizing the practice of eliminating whatever (or whomever) is deemed unworthy—on these programs and in the wider world. Through analyzing examples from Ted Mack and the Original Amateur Hour (1948), The Gong Show (1978), and The Voice (2017), the talk will demonstrate how beneath the widely discussed content of contestant demographics, judge commentary, or audience voting results, the talent show format serves to obscure the contradictions upon which meritocracy’s cruel optimism rests.

Dr. Lindsay Wright’s research and teaching concerns the interconnection of musical performance, pedagogical practices, and racialized systems of privilege in the United States. Read more about Dr. Wright here.

For more information, contact:

Andrew Mall - [email protected]