The End of Talent

by Elison Alcovendaz
McKayla and the POTUS are not impressed.

McKayla and the POTUS are not impressed.

Forget McKayla Maroney (maybe you already have), my wife is not impressed. I admit, I am Captain Hooked to reality talent shows: So You Think You Can Dance?, American Idol, The Voice, etc. I am on top of it like nastiness on quinoa (or whatever else you eat that stuff with). But Patty, she just doesn't get it. Any time she happens to be watching such a show with me, she gets visibly annoyed. Eye rolls and sighs galore. Finally, last week, as two wonderful singers belted out "Light it Up" on The Voice, she said something that perfectly explained her reality show distaste:

No one is talented anymore. 

How can this be true? was my original thought. If anything, the proliferation of reality singing, dancing, cooking, comedy, design, home building, and bunch of other talent-showcasing shows automatically disproved Patty's theory. After watching these shows over the last decade, I was still amazed by how many talented people are out there in the world. Just check out a few YouTube videos, and you'll see - the world is full of talented people. 

But what is the definition of talent? Not even looking at a dictionary, most of us would agree that talent means being able to do something well that most other people cannot do well. Typically, you would hear a song on the radio, or see an actor perform, or read a book, and you would know that person was talented because you couldn't find anyone else like them. This is what I call "The Old Model of Talent." Industries everywhere acted as gatekeepers for what talent would actually get into circulation. In the music industry, these would be the major record labels; in the film industry, the major production companies; in the book industry, the major publishing houses. We trusted that these institutions would filter out the talented from the talentless, put those talented people into circulation, then, by way of our spending dollars, we would, as the public, decide who in that talented group was talented enough to make a living showing the world their talents.

Another example: if you attend any English program at any college in the country, you will eventually discuss "The Canon." The Canon is a term used to describe the collection of literary works throughout history that has been decided upon to be "the best writing" or "the writing done by the most talented authors." You will learn, however, that the people who decided on the The Canon are OWMs, or as we in the know call them, Old White Men. The idea is that The Canon cannot be the "best writing of the most talented authors" because there was a bias against female authors, black authors, Asian authors, etc. The idea is that, while much of the The Canon we know today is great writing, there are actually multitudinous more literary works by traditionally minoritized (if this isn't a word it should be) groups that need to be included as well.

That accurately, I think, describes The Old Model of Talent. The New Model of Talent, for the most part, dispenses with gatekeepers. Take self-publishing, for example. Now, those trusty publishing houses are no longer in charge of what authors and what books enter circulation; anyone who can write something and has access to the Internet and  a little bit of money can publish a book. This isn't talent, you say, and I agree. However, I've scoured plenty of self-published ebooks and let me tell you, there is an infinite amount of more talented writers out there today then there ever was. There is crap out there too, of course (there always was, just more of it now), but the fact remains that without the gatekeepers, the literary world has been flooded with more talent.  

The same goes for the music industry. The abundance of reality singing shows, while still managed by gatekeepers (hello Simon Cowell), has put into circulation tens of thousands of regular Joes and Janes who would never have been able to showcase their talent before. Or, better yet, YouTube. It is unfathomable how many talented singers and musicians and rappers are on that site, many of whom have established careers just based on a few videos (case in point). The whole "indie" scene is no longer really an indie scene in the true sense of the word if we can be honest; authors and musicians and actors considered to be "indie" are some of the richest, most widely read, listened to, and watched people of our time. 

So, back to the wife. Her point about the end of talent is an important and, I think, poignant one. Talent can only be talent when not a lot of other people can do it. But this isn't actually a problem of talent, really, but one of technology. I would argue that there have always been countless people who could sing, play the guitar, act, write, do makeup really well, interior decorate a house, etc., we just couldn't see them. The gatekeepers and the lack of technology kept them away. Now, with the rise of cable channels and the Internet and YouTube and mobile devices and iTunes and iPods and Amazon and a million other things, millions of these talented people have been brought to our front door. If there are millions of good singers and authors and directors and comedians out there, how can there still be talent? How can we still be impressed?

Easy: marketing. After all, a reader wading through the bookshelves of the Internet has much more work to do than a reader scouring the bookshelves of your local bookstore, much like a listener scouring YouTube has much more options than the local Camelot Music store selection (maybe I'm dating myself here...). How do you get someone's attention? The common answer is: you make good music, write good books, produce good films, and the audience will follow. This is the advice people give when they don't want people to know the truth - that having talent is only the beginning. In the Old Model, "talent" carried a lot more weight. Marketing was always a part of it, but in the New Model, marketing is exponentially more important. There are so many more options for the public to sort through. You need to catch their attention. You need to be scandalous. You need to "go viral." Most of the great self-publishers and YouTube sensations are marketing geniuses. They know how to get "hits." 

Have you heard this stupid, racist song or read this stupid, stupid book? Even if you haven't, millions of other people have. It's hard to imagine that this would happen so often in the Old Model. I'm glad that talented people have the opportunity to enter the market now without being at the whim of some unseen gatekeeper, but there's also more occurrences of the crap becoming more successful than the talent. The goal now is to heavily market yourself or do something so terrible that the media talks about it. Or, in the case of reality TV show contestants, an "emotional story." Most of these are so contrived (you mean they actually air the "emotional story" about the single mom who overcame bullying and an eating disorder when she was a child and went to Afghanistan during the war and is now living on food stamps and this is her one and only chance to show her twenty kids that you can achieve your dreams BEFORE she actually sings for the first time?), that they're borderline unbearable. Of course there's room for rapping Panda Bears and for dinosaurs to satisfy themselves sexually with girls in bikinis and singers with dramatized sob stories in the market, but is this "talent"?

Of course not. 

There's probably a blog to be written on how technology has changed our attention spans (and thus our capacity for deep, attentive, creative, critical analysis), to make songs and books and stories like those above profitable. And in the end, without the gatekeepers, the result might be the same. We get to decide who can survive making a living performing their "talent" by how we spend our dollar. Should someone who spends a month in the studio recording songs on auto-tune make a living when that actually talented band doing gigs at bars and clubs and podunk festivals cannot? Maybe technology has made us so mindless that we want movies that only blow things up and that flash edited screens across our eyelids every second; or maybe we want overly repetitive synthetic beats that some DJ "sampled" from someone else; maybe we want books only to escape, not to learn something. Maybe there's a reason commercials went from being informational to just trying to be "catchy." Maybe the entire world suffers from ADD. I don't know. What I do know is that even if we have reached the end of talent, even if the market is flooded with billions of contenders, we are still the ones with our hands on our wallets and in our purses; we are the ones in control. 

Perhaps I shouldn't say that we've reached the end of talent. Maybe, having talent just isn't special any more. And in case you were wondering, in regards to the reality TV shows, I'm voting for contestant #8. You know who I'm talking about - she's the 10 year-old who wanted to be a singer and sell out stadiums all over the world her "whole life..."