'America's Got Talent' -- and Child Exploitation?

Media Guy Deconstructs the Myth of 'Raw Talent'

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The big TV hit of the summer, NBC's "America's Got Talent," has the potential to get really ugly.
Bianca Ryan
Bianca Ryan Credit: NBC Universal

If you've been watching -- and a lot of you have, given that it's the new No. 1 show on TV -- you know that it's already pretty ugly. Given that it features a wider range of "talent" than its sibling "American Idol" ("AI" judge Simon Cowell is an executive producer of "AGT"), we face the ominous prospect each week of being exposed not only to awful singers, but awful jugglers, awful comedians, awful contortionists, awful performance artists (for lack of a better term), and so on. Naturally, watching the losers crash and burn is part of the fun, particularly since some of the contestants clearly are being amusingly bad just to get a little TV time.

Of course, there's also a certain perverse pleasure in watching the cheesy judges -- David Hasselhoff, faded R&B chanteuse Brandy and some Simon Cowell wannabe named Piers Morgan -- pass judgment. ("America's got talent -- except for the judges," a friend quipped when I told him about Hasselhoff's unlikely elevation to cultural critic.) And if certain contestants are authentically bad and authentically clueless about their badness, that's also part of the wicked pleasure of watching this modern-day "Gong Show."

But what's really problematic about "AGT" is that it's been putting some wonderfully talented kids on the air. Kids, in some cases, who haven't even hit puberty.

I confess that I was initially thrilled when I saw some of these young "AGT" talents. In fact, I've sent around viral videos of few of them, as found on YouTube, to friends and colleagues -- including a clip of an 11-year-old named Bianca Ryan performing an amazingly soulful rendition of Jennifer Holliday's "And I Am Telling You." (When I first sent around the clip, it'd been viewed only a few hundred times. As of this writing, it and other Bianca Ryan clips posted at YouTube have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.)

OK, putting on only really talented kids is certainly preferable to putting lame kids on the air, only to immediately, cruelly judge them off. But keep in mind that most or all of these kids -- because there will be only one "AGT" winner -- will ultimately be rejected. On national TV.

Bianca's already faced a bit of rejection. Piers Morgan loved her singing, but sternly advised her to upgrade her look ("Change your hair, change your dress ..."). For the love of God, she's 11 years old! Does the world really need her to become more Jessica Simpson-like (or whatever Morgan thinks would make her more "marketable") before she's had her first period?

What's particularly distressing is how readily we're willing to buy into the mythology of raw, undiscovered talent. A lot of the viewer comments on YouTube, for instance, refer to Bianca's uncanny ability to "interpret" and "express" a very adult song.

Well, remember that talented kids with training can often seem like little adults. And Bianca happens to have been heavily trained. One of the people I sent her YouTube clip to is an actress friend, who wrote back:

"I know her! My old roommate has a voice teacher who has a party every year to show off her students for industry people and I went two years ago and everyone sucked until this little 9-year-old redhead sang 'And I Am Telling You' and I told her then how f**king amazing she was and her dad was there and she was so cute and great. Then I was watching 'America's Got Talent' randomly and she walked out and I remembered immediately before she opened her mouth I told my boyfriend, 'Watch, she is going to sing "And I Am Telling You"' and she did. She rocks!!!!"

Now, not every potential child star is gruelingly, mercilessly stage-mommed (or stage-dadded) into performing-seal compliance. Not every child star is a Judy Garland story. But it does change the "raw talent" equation a bit to learn that Bianca has been trained to sing this song like an adult since before she hit even double digits.

We all know lots of kids can mimic adult emotions without understanding their meaning. Like, you could probably train a child actress to outdo Meg Ryan's fake-orgasm scene in "When Harry Met Sally" -- but that doesn't mean it would be a good idea.

So what's the line between exploiting kids and celebrating precocious talent? I don't know, but I'm pretty sure that I'm not comfortable having David Hasselhoff, Brandy and Piers Morgan decide for us.

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