Have you ever heard of Justin Guarini? How about Diana DeGarmo? Blake Lewis, anybody? Or how about Lee DeWyze? Does Dia Frampton ring a bell with anyone? Anyone?
Dia Frampton was a contestant on the inaugural season of NBC’s reality singing contest The Voice. Frampton, like all of the other names listed above, was either a runner up, or a winner of either The Voice or American Idol. And there’s an infinite list of other indistinguishable names from where these names came from: singers that reached the very heights of reality show competition, only to fade back into the unknown masses once the next season kicked off. Reality singing show nerds might be laughing at me right now, knowing all of these names, and the styles and stats of each artist. And so maybe to them, I’m the one who needs to fade back into the unknown masses. But even those people should hang with me for just a second more.
Not to pick on poor Dia Frampton, but let’s just take a look back at what happened to her after she made it onto The Voice finale, and almost won. In December of 2011, Dia released an album called Red through Universal Republic Records. How did the album do? It reached a peak of #106 on the Billboard charts. The album’s lone single “The Broken Ones” didn’t chart at all. But in reality, that’s not bad compared to the actual Season 1 winner of The Voice, Javier Colon. His album peaked at #134 on the Billboard charts. In fact Javier, who had his own successful music career before The Voice, released an album way back in 2003 that made it to #91 on Billboard—43 spots better than the album contracted to him after his big reality show win.
Of course for all these types of anecdotal stories about reality show winners, there are success stories such as Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson, and to a lesser extent, artists like Kellie Pickler and Scotty McCreery. But many of these big stars came from the first few seasons of American Idol, while many other finalists and winners have completely dropped off the map or have taken to starring in other reality show competitions, or reprising B-level acting roles to attempt to keep the momentum of their big reality show win rolling.
And this brings us to the matter of the young, fresh-faced finalist on The Voice, Jake Worthington. Jake finished 2nd and has captured the hearts and imaginations of many traditional country fans by wearing a big cowboy hat, and singing Keith Whitley songs on the show every chance he got, along with songs from Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams Jr., and others throughout the competition. Hey, that’s great. Great for this kid, and great that good, real country music is being exposed to the masses through him. But how many times have we been through this exercise with one of these reality show contestants, wondering if they are the ones that will rise out of the unclean masses to save country music with big reality show exposure?
I’m not saying it couldn’t happen. Jake Worthington seems like a really good kid, and good on Blake Shelton for shepherding him to the top level of the competition, and doing so while letting him keep his voice and style instead of swaying him in a more pop direction. But the reason that The ‘X’ Factor was canceled, the reason that American Idol has seen dramatically-declining ratings, and The Voice has remained stagnant, is because these competitions cannot consistently deliver winners that truly are American Idols, or that truly define “The Voice” of a generation.
Producers try to shake up the production, they shove more star power into these shows than the viewer can compute. ABC, despite the writing on the wall that with so many of these singing shows, they’re cannibalizing each other, is still starting their own competition come next season. But these shows are not delivering on their promise to the American public of delivering stars that they will then see selling out arenas, and performing on the Grammy Awards. That is why the singing reality show model is losing steam.
Opportunity is only what you make of it, and regardless of what the marketeers of these shows try to sell you on, the simple fact is nobody has the power to anoint a star. The winners themselves must still rise to find themselves, must still figure out a way to connect with the public at large. Some stars have done this like Carrie Underwood. Many haven’t like Javier Colon.
Let’s not overlook that it says a lot about the appeal of traditional country music that an artist like Jake Worthington even made it as far as the finals of The Voice. Everywhere you turn there’s people preaching to you that nobody wants to hear traditional country anymore, and it can be argued that Jake Worthington’s coach, Blake Shelton, has been one of the loudest champions of this sentiment. But whether it is Shelton changing course by seeing the blossoming of Jake Worthington right before his eyes, or the American public letting their voice be known by voting for Worthington, George Strait winning Entertainer of the Year at both the CMA and ACM Awards this last year, or even the recent announcement that Big Machine Records is partnering with Cumulus to reintegrate classic country artists into the fold, everywhere where traditional country is given a chance, it proves that it’s appeal and resonance with the American people is not on the wane as many would have you believe.
And don’t discount Mr. Worthington just because his path led through a reality show. At this point, with artists like Dan+Shay being nominated for awards before they’ve even released an album, and previous reality show contestants like Kellie Pickler putting out albums like 100 Proof that end up becoming the best country music has to offer in a given year, the most important question to ask is not where the artist came from, but what they accomplish with the opportunity they’ve been given.
Jake Worthington’s success, and the renewed interest in traditional country that might bestow, has much less to do with The Voice and where he placed, and much more to do with Jake Worthington, and if he has the stuff to speak to people’s hearts, and the guts to stick to who he is as an artist.
Our job is to help him.