Friday, May 22, 2009
Airtel Super Singer
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Original post below:
I have been watching this show on Vijay TV for the last 8 months. I also follow other talent shows in the North such as SaReGaMa; and have watched Pakistan's "Sangeet Icon" show.
At this point the finals are running and some interesting questions have risen - Super Singer's current edition being one of the most popular.
Performance vs Musical ability
The reality shows emphasize performance on stage along with pure singing. They also make the performances attractive by themes (such as patriotism) and specific costumes.
I have seen even judges (such as Vani Jayaram) question such performance based shows. The reason is, of course, that Indian music's ideal is when the singer can express emotions completely through their voice. In classical music shaking your head to bring out "gamakam" (the peculiar curving of Indian music) is banned. Indian art traditionally tries to simulate a half-merged state between the sub-conscious and the ego - and therefore immersion in Indian music requires minimum distractions by the singer's actions.
Singers such as P.Susheela and Jesudas were famous for this - they showed no outward emotion while their voices expressed maximum pathos or romance.
But the reality shows are based on American Idol style rendering. They seek to entertain their audience, so they require the singers to perform wildly. These performances are usually confined to faster songs or "Kuthu" style songs. Along with it, the singers are encouraged to show lots of emotion even while singing softer, melody songs.
But in the case of Super Singer, the end goal is to produce a play back singer. The idea is not to create a showman (as Indian Idol does) but to select a voice and singer who is best suited for employment in play-back singing.
Thus even though Super Singer borrows all of its entertaining elements from other talent shows to the North and West, its prize (a singing stint with music director Yuvan Shankar Raja) is at odds with its selection process.
Why does this matter? We will see below.
The current batch is very talented and they have evolved over the last nine months. The singer Ravi, who has the best grasp of classical singing has already won on SS music channel. But as the show has progressed he has been found to be a great singer of semi-classical or old songs. His voice has an amazing range but I do not think it is best suited for play-back singing. He can run his own band.
The singer Ajesh is the youngest of them. He has a very casual way of singing and his voice changes between higher and lower scales(which is sometimes disturbing). He is talented, no question there, and could win.
The singer Ranjani, is one of the most sincere and confident singers I have seen on this show. She killed in the final rounds. Her voice is a boon and sounds very well in higher and lower ranges.
The singer Prasanna - I initially liked him. He has a very good adaptable voice. His song delivery (particularly "Shambo Shiva Shambo" from Ninaithaale Inikkum) was amazing. But somewhere along the line he seems to have lost his moorings. He tries excessive drama and has been annoying and embarassing to watch. I will return to him later.
The singer Renu is my favorite. She has been consistent, even though she does not have a background in classical music. Her voice is absolutely soaked in honey. Her songs such as "Unna Vida" from Virumaandi; "Saami Kitta"; "Ninaithu Ninaithu Paarthen" from 7G Rainbow Colony are unforgettable. I think she has the most unique and cinematically suited voice of the lot.
[Not in this list, one of the singers, Vijay deserved respect, but was eliminated from the finals. He was passionate about music and he could sing Bryan Adams or Hariharan's Gazals with ease. He was better at Hindi and English songs than Tamil. He does not belong in talent shows - he should run his own band.)
Thus, if I were to choose simply for the purpose of their utility, I would choose Renu - she has the ideal voice for play back singing. But as we will see, that is not just the determinant here.
The Mass Voting Process
I remember the show SaReGaMa, the unquestioned king of music talent shows in India. During the late 90s SaReGaMa was not run as a reality show. A set of judges chose the winner. A few years back that changed; the voting system came in.
Since the voting system came in to music talent shows, there have been many controversies. At one point Indian Idol contestants and the audience fought with each other, because one of the singers, Debojit was getting all the votes from East India. There were campaigns to vote for him from Assam to Bengal and that year's Indian Idol was one of the worst.
A certain set of music lovers believe that the voting system is open to such pulls and prejudices that have nothing to do with music. For example, some of the best singers in the shows such as "Junoon - Kuch Kar ke.." (Akbar Ali and Ali Abbas), SaReGaMa (Amanat Ali) and SaReGaMa Little Champs (Ameer Hafeez) have been eliminated for no good obvious reason. It is suspicious that Pakistanis and Muslims are routinely eliminated from Indian talent shows. To me, it seems possible that prejudice is at play.
In the case of Super Singer, there is no such room for prejudice; all the singers are actually from the same background. But Prasanna, the singer I mentioned before, was eliminated by a judge (Unni Menon) and then brought back in by the voting system. When he was "reselected" he mentioned that he targeted "popular" performances mainly because he knew people would then vote for him. This was a smart move - being an "entertainer" he calculated that he would get more votes from the public than from the judges. Thus while the judges repeatedly criticised his "drama", he stands a very likely chance of winning the Super Singer contest.
Purely as a game show. Prasanna's move is smart and focussed. But the result may not be of utility value - I do not think that he has such a unique voice for playback singing as compared to the current crop of talented singers. Thus while the Super Singer contest may select a good performer, by no means does that help Yuvan Shankar Raja.
What is the ultimate goal of a music talent show? The voting public may consider the show from a bang-for-buck or Paisa-Vasool kind of angle. They do not end up selecting the best, most versatile musician. There is a disconnect between the show's purpose as seen by different "stakeholders":
1. The corporate show organizers consider it an effective way to increase the channel's popularity. They are not specifically interested in contribution to the music world.
2. The contestants, of course, see it as a game with a prize and so try to win.
3. The voting public consider the show a popular search for musical talent, and therefore vote for the person they would like to hear more.
4. Poor Yuvan Shankar Raja, meanwhile, is looking for a good play back voice.
5. A small minority, of course, see this as a genuine opportunity for music to be enriched and look forward, not to a single winner, but a collection of stars. This minority is somewhat "knowledgeable" about music and are passionate about it.
If you take a step back, this is no different from the questions raised by our nation's election process itself. Different groups act in self-interest and hope to have an outcome desirable to themselves. If nobody is "gaming" the system, then such a popular voting contest will eventually succeed in finding good talent. But there is a difference between a somewhat objective search for administrative talent and a subjective search for a good artist.
My core question is this: is the system of selection by a voting public (in a music talent show or any art show) better or worse than a system in which a few judges pick the winner?
It is a very political question - and it relates to recent ideas such as crowdsourcing.
Is popularity a good measure of talent in art?
Is popular art better art?
Meanwhile, below is Ameer Hafeez singing Laaga Chunari Mein Daag (starts at 1:52). He was eliminated in that show: