Clash of the Choirs II
Last night millions of Americans witnessed the birth of Clash of the Choirs, NBC’s glitzy, Prozac-driven TV competition of amateur choirs. Singers were picked and prepared by celebrities Michael Bolton, Patti LaBelle, Nick Lachey, Kelly Rowland and Blake Shelton. Over four nights, starting Monday, each choir will compete for the votes of American viewers and a quarter-million dollars in prize money for charity.
Music geek that I am, I was excited by the possibilities, imagining millions of viewers transfixed by the beauty of Morten Lauriden’s Lux Aeterna or Mozart’s Requiem. Lives would be changed!
The show arrived at 8:00 p.m. Its arms and legs flailed: it cried lustily. But ultimately, the Clash of the Choirs failed to deliver the great tribute to choral singing I’d imagined.
First off, the actual singing amounted to only about ten minutes out of two hours. The rest of the time was devoted to ancillary material and long commercial breaks. I rarely watch live commercial TV anymore and wondered how people can stand it.
Second, the show’s producers dropped the ball with the auditions. Auditions scare people to death, and with hundreds of prospective singers trying out, the producers had tremendously rich material on their hands. They didn’t seem to know what to do with it. We saw brief flashes of embarrassment, wretched singers wringing their hands and flouncing angrily out the door. But for the most part, everything was super-perky and positive. “It’s the holidays,” you could almost hear the producers say. "Let’s not embarrass anybody.”
We heard back-stories from some of the singers. We met the Silver Fox, a veteran singer in her 70’s. We cried with a Katrina victim who’d lost everything in the storm, save her Ipod. Kelly Rowland of Destiny’s Child stood to hug her after her audition, wiping back an adorable tear.
Then came the singing part.
I soon realized that the word “choir” actually meant “gospel choir.” I was not going to see Michael Bolton take on Morten Lauridsen after all. The Lachey choir, led by boy band star Nick Lachey, offered a breeze-easy version of Natasha Bedingfield’s 2004 debut song “Unwritten.” Kelly Rowland’s choir sang a pumped-up rendition of George Michael’s “Freedom.” Patti LaBelle beamed at two LaBelle clones and back-up singers she’d collected in Philadelphia. Her choir wasn’t a choir at all: most of her singers stood in the dark.
“I don’t read music,” country music star Blake Shelton confessed to his choir during rehearsal, coaching them to “feel” and “believe in” what they were singing.
Twice, white singers were praised for singing like black people, giving the broadcast racial overtones that made me cringe. You know, I knew what they meant, but I thought we were past all those stereotypes. Look at mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, Rochester baritone Derrick Smith, or white singers who can belt out the blues. We need a new vocabulary. I asked my friend Rhonda, who's African-American, if this kind of thing bothers her. She snorted and said, "A lot of things in this country bother me."
The choirs continued clashing. The singers shimmied, lunged, and clapped their way through short rousing numbers in matching glittery outfits. One group even did jumping-jacks. Then the show paused for another interminable commercial break. I picked up the remote and started surfing. A few stations later, on WXXI, I stopped to watch soprano Audra McDonald singing “Moon of Alabama” in a new production of Kurt Weill’s opera, “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.”
McDonald struck me as oddly static. She looked like she was standing in a museum diorama. The body language was completely different. Nobody around her did jumping jacks or clapped. All of the focus was on the gorgeous stream of sound coming out of McDonald’s throat. This looks boring, I thought. No wonder most people my age aren’t into opera.
McDonald finished, and I returned to the Clash.
Later, I went online to check the official website where viewers were already gushing.
“What a refreshing show......finally a reality show with no bs!!! I love it!!”
“I love Nick and Blake. I will probably be voting for both. I have a feeling that Michael Bolten (sic) will sink faster than the Titanic.”
“I haven't been sleeping well and now I just realized it's thinking about Blake Shelton on "The Clash Of Choirs" has consumed my mind.”
Meanwhile, on Choralnet, a website devoted to serious choral singing, viewers described other reactions.
“I feel this is one more nail in the "dumbing down of our culture" coffin. It will be another celebration of mediocrity. It will be just like the final scene of "Sister Act II" in which the disciplined, classic choral groups are portrayed as boring and snooty while the heros (sic) are the gospel-type, step and clap, hoop and holler group . . . I'm concerned that my passion and life's work will be belittled as credit for making a "winning group" is given to the likes of Nick Lachey. How many ACDAs has he attended? How many music classes? How many true choral concerts?”
After briefly wondering what an ACDA was, exactly, I returned to the Clash of the Choirs website and voted for my favorite group, the one with the Katrina survivor that made Destiny’s Child cry.
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For other points of view on the Clash: