Arthur Smith

Assistant Curator

August 2, 2011

Hit and Miss

by Arthur Smith

Songwriting is usually a private, personal activity that requires an uncomfortable degree of vulnerability and a willingness to generate truly embarrassing material en route to creating something worthwhile…which brings me to my favorite sequences in Bravo’s new songwriting reality competition, Platinum Hit. The contestants are given a “hook challenge” (a “hook” is the catchy bit of a song that, it is hoped, instantly lodges in the listener’s head) at the outset of each installment—say, 15 minutes to come up with a hook about “empowerment”—and the budding composers scurry off to various corners of the common space wearing noise-canceling headphones, manically mumble-singing under their breath, cobbling tortured rhymes and inchoate melodies together with honest panic in their eyes. It’s unbelievably awkward, and I can hardly bring myself to look at the screen as I cringe in sympathetic humiliation. The birth of a new song is almost always messy, full of false starts, labored lyrical conceits, and half-formed melodic and harmonic ideas. Watching a song being written, it turns out, is a bit like watching sausages getting made, which is to say it’s pretty gross and requires a strong constitution.

And yet, this is my favorite part of the show, as it requires the contestants to create something straight from the gut, and the results are colored by the writers’ individual quirks, concerns, and neuroses; they are often bad, but they give a sense of the creators’ unique sensibilities. The format of the show soon puts a stop to that, however:  the challenge winners pick among the losers to form collaborative teams, which then go into studios to convert the hooks into complete songs…songs expressly mandated to conform to the narrow and deadening strictures of contemporary mainstream radio. Platinum Hit is aptly named. The show isn’t trying to find the best songwriter, but the songwriter best able to approximate Katy Perry or Justin Bieber. It’s about hits, not art, and the sausage factory metaphor from above becomes increasingly relevant.

The recording artist Jewel is the Platinum Hit’s host and one of its judges. In her insightful blog posts about the show, Jewel admits to coming late to pop, having snobbishly dismissed it for years in favor of the work of serious, artistically ambitious songwriters like Tom Waits and Bob Dylan. Obviously, the likes of Tom Waits wouldn’t make it past the first episode of this program, despite a body of work that is among the most challenging, rewarding, and critically respected in the annals of popular music.

It’s frustrating. I’ve long been a fan of Bravo’s reality competitions, enjoying the display of some rarified skill in a heightened competitive context. But Project Runway (now on Lifetime) doesn’t generally task its designers to churn out ready-to-wear Gap knockoffs, Work of Art did not seek to produce canvases suitable for decorating the nation’s roadside motels, and Top Chef contestants are aiming higher than McDonald’s fare. It’s a shame Platinum Hit doesn’t have the faith in its premise to risk weirdness, intensely personal expression, innovation, anachronism, surprise; you know, something approaching art.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to put on Swordfishtrombones.

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About

Arthur Smith

Assistant Curator

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Arthur Smith worked in a film archive and failed to earn a living as a professional musician before joining the Paley Center in 1997. He’s not bitter, but has unhealthy fixations on tweedy clothing and Marvel comics.

Interests:

60s Pop Music, Comedy, Comic Books, Great and/or Terrible Movies, and Exotic Brunettes

Contact

Arthur Smith
asmith@paleycenter.org

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