I took the summer off from blogging because I was finishing up a book on a subject you never heard of and didn’t have time to write. During that time I found an article on how blogging was slowing down, while Twitter was rising. Not one to be far behind, I thought about shutting the blog down.
One of the reasons I did not shut down my blog is that I prefer the long prose of expression that is available to someone like me. Twitter, while a superior vehicle for getting up to the minute news, is severely limited in terms of long prose expression. Another, and perhaps more important, reason for continuing with my blog is that I have a 14 year old son who was asking me about popular music. I told him to ask his mother, who has more canonical tastes but that if he wanted to listen to some really weird music he could check out my blog. I have no evidence that he has done this, and that’s probably a good thing. But this weekend I was looking for yodeling music, and I found this performance, and I made him listen to it. He agreed it was “weird,” so I thought I’d present it to you as my first expression in months of ‘What I’m Listening to This Week.’
All I can say is thank God for reality television competition. Sure, television critics lament its rise to the fore, because it is displacing the quality television that rose to the top during the 1980s for cheap television that relies on people named ‘Snooki’ to revel in drunkenness and their own vomit. But the model of quality television had its own problems. It displaced the everyman quality of the variety show for attention to talented elite actors and actresses. As a result, reality television was ushered into our lives by big stars like Paris Hilton who have no discernable talent except for their fame and who leave their huge houses in Beverly Hills to travel as idiots into the heartland to get jobs that they have no idea how to do and no interest in doing.
I deal with the displacement of the variety show in my essay on ‘Why You Need to Write’ in Writing for People Who Hate Writing. I’m glad that it’s coming back, even in a demonstrably different form.
The appearance of reality television has given us a new venue for the long-gone variety hour, which used to bring America together in collective applause for acts that no one would have any interest in applauding if left to their own devices. And it was here, on America’s Got Talent, that America embraced Taylor Ware, a 12 year old yodeler from Nashville, TN.
18 million people have watched this performance on YouTube, and that’s a lot. And I would argue that, just like Andy Kaufman’s remake of Slim Whitman’s Rose Marie, the quality of singing, while high, is not comparable with the original. So what is it that makes reality television audiences so receptive to something that audiences have no interest in otherwise?
In the late 70s, Andy Kaufman could stand up and do a pitch-perfect imitation of Slim Whitman and all he had to do to get a lot more YouTube hits was to dress up in a diaper and turban and sing the same old song. The difference was not in his content but in his ironic stance.
But in this new reality show performance, there is no hint of the ironic distance that made Andy so unique. Instead, the 12 year old girl has an amazing talent—and I do mean amazing—that no one in the audience suspects. So before she performs everyone applauds her effort as one of those scrappy young ‘uns who show up with their talent to be laughed at for their pluck in thinking their talent that nobody cares about has some merit. But every once in a while, the audience is delighted to be wrong and yodeling (I mean, yodeling? C’mon!) turns out to be more interesting than people originally thought. And that is what makes ordinary people into stars.
This is one of those times. I recommend you watch it once just to see it, then watch it again for the reactions of celebrity judge David Hasselhoff and pop super star, Brandi.
Taylor Ware was 12 years old when she performed this song. The audience, made up of non-celebrity “real people,” take her performance in stride. We get a shot of a blonde guy clapping at 0:32 and 0:52, and kids in fake animal hats at 1:08 who are enjoying the show but are too young to understand how rare the performance she is giving is. The only hint of surprise comes from a member of the audience comes from a woman behind celebrity pop star judge, Brandi, as she covers her mouth in disbelief.
But the interesting thing is how shocked the celebrity judges are. They have not seen anything like this before. Though they are polite when she starts singing, they clearly don’t expect to get what they get in a performance that lasts only 1:20 seconds. Their world is transformed in that small period of time.
First, the young, energetic girl runs out on stage and the audience applauds her. But they applaud everybody, and it doesn’t mean anything. Then she explains that she taught herself to yodel from an instruction book and a tape. Celebrity judge David Hasselhoff shouts his approval of the laziness of the idea that ‘it was summer and I thought I’d try it.’ (0:28).
Celebrity judge David Hasselhoff starts out cheering her on at 0:36. Then, things start to change, as she hits her first yodeling note. Pop super star Brandi indicates her surprise with an ‘Ooohhh,’ while celebrity judge David Hasselhoff turns to vomit on his shoes at 0:46 (he’s done it before).
Thinking he’s been had, as he covers his mouth so as not to throw up again or because he’s genuinely interested in her talent, which in under a minute and a half has forever changed his feelings about stupid yodelers (1:17).
At 1:21, pop super star Brandi is beside herself and can’t believe what she is seeing, and her only reaction is to start slapping the British guy next to her.
After only five seconds, Taylor speeds up the tempo, and pop super star Brandi is no longer laughing. The look on her famous face seems to indicate her inner thoughts, which I render as ‘Gee, she’s a better singer than I am’ (1:24).
After she is done with her life-changing 1:20 solo, the audience gives her a standing ovation. Celebrity judge David Hasselhoff says she must be a hellava student to have learned that from a tape (1:58).
In her nod, she leaves out the fact that she had studied under Margo Smith, an internationally renowned yodeling teacher known as the Tennessee Yodeler, . She also leaves out the fact that she had won the Yahoo Yodeling Contest a couple years before, all of which you can find on Taylor’s Wikipedia page.
But she’s 12, and the audience loves her. Celebrity judge David Hasselhoff and pop super star Brandi join with the British guy to vote her through to the next round. Facts don’t matter as much as the fictions we create. That’s show business!
Reality television appears to me to be the remedy for our celebrity-obsessed culture, offering to broaden or ridicule the self-satisfied and extremely narrow-minded culture of privilege that Hollywood celebrities who preach from a pulpit given to them by their wealth but who don’t appreciate enough of the wide and vast experience that the world has to offer a broad mind.
Taylor Ware clearly is an example of the former impulse. She has worked hard and long to seem so natural.
Compare her to her mentor, the Tennessee Yodeler Margo Smith, who displays much better voice control but who has never captured the hearts of people to the extent that Taylor’s appearance on America’s Got Talent has (she is a country music talent, while Taylor is a crossover talent). Her video has just over 1% of the viewership of Taylor’s performance, but if you want to know how yodeling is done, listen to the 10 seconds after she speeds up the song. If you loop it, it will sound like one of those alien things that people go off to mountain retreats to experience in Indian chant meditation. Truly sublime.
Or look at the original song, which has 10% of the viewership of Margo’s version and which also features clearer lyrics and better singing than Taylor’s version.
But for reality television, operating on popular and celebrity judge ignorance, Taylor Ware is enough to expand the mind beyond its narrow limits. That’s enough for America, and that’s enough for me.
I hope my 14 year old son will learn this lesson from my forcing him to listen to ‘weird’ music, but if he is anything like his father, it’s highly unlikely.