Reality TV Cruelty: Platinum Hit Edition

Reality TV has a long history of cruel challenges. Fear Factor, for example, was based on the idea of seeing how far people would go to win a cash prize. Spiders, snakes, fish, blood, testicles, and all sorts of other creepy things were routinely used after a stunt challenge to send as many contestants possible home as possible. Similar stunts were pulled on shows like 13: Fear is Real (where one contestant actually chipped a tooth trying to escape a serial killer's trap), Monster House (the modern primitive's challenges were very out there for many of the contestants), and Scare Tactics (where the entire conceit was Brenda from 90210 calling you an idiot for believing a chupacabra ripped your best friend's throat out). One network, however, has stood above the rest in inflicting psychological warfare upon its contestants. Bravo's shows are cruel to creative people. It's true. Do you remember when the first season of Project Runway saw contestants having to make elegant swimwear for a cocktail party in about 6 hours? Or when Top Chef first told contestants they had to cook on an open flame at a beach and then criticized people for getting sand in their food? Or the first season of Make Me a Supermodel was decided by an audience vote each week so the judges treated contestants they didn't want to win like gum on the sidewalk?

But one show has now risen above all the others in terms of cruelty to creative people: Platinum Hit.

This songwriting competition doesn't seem to know what it actually wants to be. If the prize includes a recording contract, how can you disregard performance from songwriting? A mediocre song can be turned into a hit by the right performer, the same way the wrong performer can make a great song sound like garbage. The two are intrinsically linked.

The show is also edited pretty poorly for the judging. Do the judges have lyric sheets in front of them to call contestants out on poor lyrics or are they working just with their ears? It's problematic either way as some lyrics need to be heard to get but some singers routinely mumble lyrics to pass over bad phrases.

More damning is the nature of the challenges themselves. The songwriters are given a genre and theme they have to use. That's not particularly off-putting. As a record label songwriter, you could be told to write a country love song for "x" artist and be expected to do it quickly and efficiently. But how often is a songwriter going to be told to write a road trip song using the word "wheels?" Not very often, if ever at all.

But those examples pale in comparison to this week's challenge. The remaining 9 songwriters were told to write a hook for a rap song about a superpower they wished they had. Oh yeah, and the hook had to be rapped.

Here are the issues with this challenge.

  1. None of the contestants are primarily rappers (unless you count Sonyae, who also said during the first week she's mainly a rock artist).
  2. How often do rappers have other people write their rhymes for them? Very rarely.
  3. How often is a songwriter expected to do more than produce a beat and a chorus for a rap song? Not very.
  4. These contestants don't understand the concept of superpowers.
  5. The challenge never said it had to be a serious rap track yet they bashed anything that was playful or funny.

Rap is very different from melodic songwriting. The entire meaning is conveyed through the words themselves. Melodic songwriters use notes, phrasing, and arrangement to convey the meaning with the lyrics. At best, you might help get the feel of a rap out through a beat. Giving this challenge to a bunch of people who do not write rap music on a regular basis is just cruel.

You hear gossip occasionally that someone (usually a female MC) didn't actually come up with their own rhymes. These arguments are preposterous. A rapper is nothing without the ability to write. Even if their rhymes are cliched and labored, they're writing them. They may have a co-writer (another rapper, or a well-versed Hip-Hop producer), but they aren't going to be teamed up with Kara DioGuardi to write a song about hustling on the streets. The challenge was false in its premise and cruel to the contestants.

Songwriters do write for hip-hop artists. That's not out of the question. They're expected to come up with beats, hooks, and bridges. These backing tracks/hooks are then shopped around to various rappers who try to write their own verses off of them. The song that would become B.o.B.'s "Airplanes" was shopped around for years before B.o.B. got his hands on it. The way this challenge should have worked was pairing each winning team with a rapper. The rapper would write the verses with the contestants while the contestants would be in charge of writing the backing track, hook, and bridge in a way that pleased the artist. Since the show decided to go with artificial drama the contestants will most likely never face in the actual record industry, the challenge is cruel.

The next complaint is the contestants' own faults, but it doesn't mitigate how cruel the challenge was. Most of these people don't understand superpowers. It is not a superpower to be numb to emotion; it's sociopathy. My favorite was Johnny whose ability was based on a video game cheat code to walk through walls. He actually stumbled into an actual superpower (and the subject of an amazing short lived Broadway musical, Amour) by being clueless about superpowers. The ones who succeeded are the ones who spun the conceit to create their own powers. Jackie Tohn actually turned a joke--wanting to be a super rapper--into a believable conceit for a rap song and niche comic idea. Despite the two good pitches out of nine submissions, this challenge was cruel for throwing in the superhero twist.

Honestly, the cruelest part about this episode was the judging. Johnny's team went over the top and super-serious and won for being over the top and super serious. Sonyae's team went middle of the road rap love song and were safe for going middle of the road rap love song with poor structure and no memorable hook, bridge, or verses. Jackie's team actually committed to the conceit of her hook based on the judges' comments (do a funny rap like Missy Elliott) and were ripped apart for not doing funny "social commentary" like Eminem. I've heard Eminem do social commentary, and I've heard him do funny, but never at the same time. Pink did social commentary and humor on "Stupid Girls;" mocking Tom Green's "Bum Song" in "The Real Slim Shady" is not social commentary. Because the judges don't even realize they're being hypocrites, this challenge was especially cruel.

So how did the songs turn out? I've already purchased the Jackie Tohn track "Super Duper Rapper" because it's the same kind of humor as Gym Class Heroes, Asher Roth, Biz Markie, and--yes--Ludacris. Considering the clever lyrics and memorable beat, I would expect this rapper to actually have more depth to offer outside of the superpower gimmick. Of course this song lost.

Johnny's song "Walk Thru Walls" was decent because it at least had a clear structure. I think it was a bit cliche and the opera integration didn't match anything else in the track. I could see it getting radio play. Of course it won.

Sonyae's song "Miss Make the Boys Cry" is a mess. There is no clear structure. The beat is boring. The verses are old-hat. At best, it's album filler; at worst, it would be shelved and never released for being too boring. You don't want people to skip over a track on a first listen of an album and that's what I think would happen here. Of course it was safe.

This is not an attack on the contestants. They did the best they could under terrible circumstances and bizarre rule choices. It is an attack on the production company for developing such a cruel challenge. These are without a doubt the worst songs the contestants have produced on the show, and that's counting contestants who forgot their words during the quickfire chorus challenge. It was a bad idea made worse by horrible limitations. Hopefully the rest of the show presents believable challenges to the contestants they could actually face as professional songwriters. I'm not holding my breath. It's a Bravo reality show. They don't believe in fair.