Platinum Hit, Bravo’s new talent competition for songwriters with Jewel as host and Kara DioGuardi as head judge, is not particularly enjoyable. Aside from the talented but super-ADD Sonyae (pronounced, somewhat ironically, like “soigné”) and the arrogant but thoughtful Nick, the contestants aren’t very interesting, and the challenges have been repetitive: come up with a hook, write a song as a group, perform it. No grocery stores, science fairs, or fish tanks have yet been involved.
What the show does provide, however, are some insights into the way people talk about music. There’s always been a difference between most reality shows and the ones focused on creatives, like Top Chef and Project Runway. When the competition involves taking someone else’s creative work and executing it well, like on America’s Next Top Model or American Idol, the judges’ language is about feelings and personal struggle: “make it yours,” “you have to want this,” and so forth. But on competitions for creatives, the criticism tends to be much more concrete. A dish is too salty, or needs more citrus; a dress has an uneven hem, or drapes badly. The problems come in measurable units like cooking time or number of stitches.
What’s weird about Platinum Hit is that while there is a certain amount of technical talk about word choice and arrangement, a lot of the judges’ criticism sounds like it should be coming from the mouth of Tyra Banks, not Tim Gunn.
On last night’s show, the judges told country girl Karen that she wasn’t really expressing herself, or being honest—she “doesn’t have an original truth,” as Jewel put it. The judgment was about the person, rather than what the person is doing. This might just be a remnant of DioGuardi’s (regrettable) time as a judge on Idol, with the self-actualizing tone of that pop-culture juggernaut carrying over. Or it might just be another miscalculation on the show’s part.
But while it’s jarring, it also makes sense. Music does indeed occupy a peculiar position relative to the other arts. On the one hand, it’s insistently popular, but on the other, it has a kind of mystical quality to it. Because most people think they can’t make music, the process of music-making becomes like magic, a matter of instinct and birthright that, unlike the skills of tailoring or cooking, resides always within the individual. Think of the exalted position of music within a relationship: the mixtape, “our song,” the first dance. Music has an ability to express truths about ourselves that other forms seem to lack. Re-enacting your favorite TV show at your wedding would be weird, but playing your favorite song is normal. Music has achieved a cultural position that lets it become a part of our ceremonies and our rituals; pop music, done right, is beatified.
Which is why Platinum Hit seems doomed to fail. When it comes to some activities, we might like seeing how the sausage is made; the way music is discussed, howver, seems to reject the idea that it could have emerged any way other than directly from God’s lips to your ears. When people don’t like music, it’s dismissed as being “manufactured” or “fake”; the adjectives “real” or “organic,” meanwhile, are positive, evoking not sausage so much as a solid piece of beef.
Even in a post-Idol world, few non-pop nerds care about producers and songwriters; most people simply don’t like thinking about music that way. A pop song is “perfect,” the proverbial block of marble with a statue waiting to be uncovered inside. Platinum Hit tries its hardest to comport with this image, but ultimately it makes it seem a little too much like the sculptor makes choices, too—like the statue could be anything, like the marble is a material rather than a vessel. But many people don’t like that kind of freedom when it comes to music. We like our music real—which is to say, finished, closed-off. Even our pop songs should be true and meaningful. The judges on Hit work hard to bridge the gap between reality and perceptions thereof, but ultimately, it might just be a divide too wide to cross.