This article first appeared in Malta Today
I remembered why I had stopped watching Amici when a video went viral in which one of the judges was unnecessarily mean and spiteful to Emma Muscat, comparing her to an emotionless Barbie doll. (And if you do not know who Emma is by now, you must have been living under a rock all these months).
As we now know, Emma was voted out during the semi-final this weekend, and on Monday morning we woke up to a predictable chorus of dismay, fist-shaking and angry expletives from all her supporters who claimed the whole thing was rigged against her.
I do not intend to get into that controversy: these talent shows which depend on popular tele-voting and judges are always a throw of the dice (and part of me never really believed that they would allow a non-Italian who does not even live in Italy to proceed to the finals, let alone win). But what does concern me is that such shows are exploiting young people when they are at their most vulnerable.
When Amici first started in 2001 it was called Saranno Famosi (which translates to ‘they will become famous’ borrowing the concept from the 1980 movie Fame which featured a Performing Arts academy). The televised academy at first was a true showcase for talent and had everyone hooked as week after week we were treated to performances by some really gifted people. But somewhere along the line the production company owned by the presenter of the show Maria d Filippi, decided to turn it into a Big Brother style reality show, throwing the 20 students into a house together and filming their interactions, which are then transmitted throughout the week. That is when I switched off.
No, I do not want to see teens and young adults being snide and bitchy behind each other’s backs, and egged on by the producers to fight and argue, and then have to turn on the smiles and be all professional when it is their turn to perform. To me it started to seem more and more like a bizarre social experiment to see how far they could push them until they broke down. And of course many of them do break, on camera, bursting into sobs, because of the tension and pressure they are under. These lows are then ‘balanced’ by the highs achieved with the letters sent by the relatives of the students which are read out on air, and the occasional surprise visit or phone call from one of their parents, which ensures the ratings continue to rise as the show pushes all our emotional buttons.
The situation is already one which would make any of us be fraught with nerves: being asked to ‘audition’ each week in front of millions, pitted against each other like gladiators in a ring, while the judges sit there slit-eyed, waiting to give a thumbs up or thumbs down. In the audience and at home, are an infinite number of other judges, eager to vote someone whom they don’t like off the show, so that their favourite will win.
What especially disgusted me with each successive edition of the (admittedly successful) show was the behaviour of some of the judges who are usually former performers themselves. They seemed to be on a mission to demoralize the youngsters rather than to mentor and motivate them and there was often the flash of a malicious glint as they tore a performance apart. I don’t know if they get some perverse pleasure out of this, but I guess you have to have a certain kind of personality to just sit there and watch a young person full of hopes and dreams literally crumble before your eyes. I fully understand that show business is a harsh industry and that they have to build up a tough skin if they are going to make it, but rejection in a room with a handful of people in it is one thing: being picked apart for all your perceived ‘flaws’ on a televised show is a whole other story.
I have also often wondered what it says about us the public when such shows achieve such amazing success – because it seems the more ruthless a judge is the more he/she is, the more popular they become, if only for the “we love to hate them” factor.
And, of course, when a beautiful, talented young woman like Emma Muscat stands before a judge who seems to be absolutely choked by unabashed envy, it is very hard not to wonder how far producers will go as they push and push, playing with human emotions to ensure everyone is glued to their TV set. As for the rivalry (whether real or concocted) between Emma and Carmen, it created a furore which was clearly calculated to send the ratings through the roof.
Frankly, Emma is probably much better off now that she is out of that toxic atmosphere – time will tell whether she makes it or not in the music industry but certainly a record deal with Warner Music is a good start. The rest will be down to hard work and let’s face it, a lot of luck. As for Amici, despite its name, as the saying goes, with ‘friends’ like these, who needs enemies?