Friday, 18 September 2009

Handel, Simon Cowell’s Fortune, and The Strange Business of Talent

Watching a performance of Handel’s Samson broadcast from the Proms a few weeks back, I found something very suddenly affecting about the wealth of musical talent on display – not just the obvious superbity of the vocal soloists and choir, but the discipline and discernment behind every instrument in the orchestra, the concertedness of the performance, even the acting qualities of the singers, something I usually find obstructively deficient in opera.
On this business of discipline I got to thinking about what Sean Penn once said to me about why, as a young aspiring actor, he had been so inspired by Robert De Niro:
“Primarily because – besides that he was great in the films, and the films were also great – one was aware of the discipline that he had and the commitment to what he did. That was inspiring. It’s something I associate with ballet: I don’t particularly like the aesthetics of ballet, you know, but when you see a great dancer and you know the sacrifice that went into it – that is moving to me."
The same goes for that Samson by the English Concert and friends. Britain has indeed got talent.
Now then: I’m going to try to be self-critical, to speak as one among fellows in society, and assume that all of us (or a goodly proportion of us) must be held responsible for making Simon Cowell a ‘star’, and probably the best-remunerated person on television. We the people have gifted him his success, and that of his TV-talent-show protégés. What have we got back in return? Hours of listening/viewing pleasure? A deeper insight into precisely whom in Britain has really Got Talent? You tell me.
The more I think on it, the more extraordinary I find Cowell’s achievement. Here are a bunch of shows of his that urge the public at large to come along and live the dream that they could be somebody, so assuring a huge turnout of auditionees, most of whom are then, for the purpose of entertainment, subjected to sneers on the theme of ‘Whatever made you think you were anything?’ I can think of few sights on telly more loathsome that Cowell’s patented leaning-back roll-of-the-eyes. And yet this is the gleeful, sadistic ‘Gotcha!’ hit that X Factor fans can’t seem to live without.
Eventually the series proceeds to its business end, the serious stuff of selecting the acts over whom the judges will fawn or else advise with tough love on how best to shine. And what exactly are the bona fides for Simon Cowell’s powers of discernment when it comes to talent? The acts he has nurtured toward pop glory? Sinitta, Sonia, Five, Westlife, Robson & Jerome, Ultimate Kaos? No, don’t tell me – Leona Lewis?
Amid the latest blanket coverage of the latest Beatles reissues, there was room for a dissenting voice, and yet I only heard Robert Elms put the Case Against as badly as it could be made by comparing McCartney’s vocal on Let It Be unfavourably with Aretha Franklin’s later cover version. Let’s not make the best the enemy of the good, eh? What we should do is compare Aretha Franklin to Leona Lewis. The annihilation that would follow would be good for the general ecology of talent.

Meanwhile, I hope for its own sake X Factor never inflicts on us another show where the contestants line up to do Beatles covers, as this spectacle is all too gruesome a reminder of how once-glorious British pop music has sadly regressed to the pre-Lennon/McCartney era of slimy impresarios packaging hits for kids too hormonal to know better.

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