Talent To Burn

Bearing mute witness to America’s Got Talent, and to the urge to compete
by Richard McLachlan

The story that persuaded me to be more than just faintly interested in attending a live filming of America’s Got Talent involved an overweight guy – naked from the waist up – rolling in the carpet tacks he had just scattered on stage. When this expression of talent failed to impress….well, he replaced the tacks with mousetraps. It was being filmed out on Long Island in a town called Hicksville. To be fair to the residents, their town is named after the Mr. Hicks who started the Long Island Railroad over a hundred years ago. Yup, that’s what got me taking up the kind offer of a complimentary ticket to the show. All of the above.

The show was filmed in one of a collection of enormous empty hangars once used by Northrop Grumman to manufacture jets and spacecraft. Manned aircraft production has moved to Florida. Drones and surveillance equipment (including a robot-on-wheels with an ‘optional taser’) are now designed and built in San Diego. Of Grumman’s 25,000 Long Island employees in the 1980s, there are 550 left working at the ‘Electronic Attack Center of Excellence’ in Hicksville.

Despite the image these shows present on TV, the set itself was but a fragment of glossy illusion in an empty warehouse with rows of cheap seating, wads of gaffer tape, and cameras on bare concrete floors. A hired ‘comedian’ was there to prep the crowd, to instruct us how to cheer on cue, to create an enthusiastic roar as the stars (the judges) arrived. ‘Scary Spice’ Mel B was there looking perfectly normal, Heidi Klum likewise, the notorious Howard Stern, a celebrity called Howie Mandell, and (guest of honor) Michael Buble. Stern was the only judge with interesting comments to make. Given his reputation for the crass and the offensive, I was surprised to find him by far the most perceptive, humane and useful contributor to the panel. We all cheered and clapped appropriately as royalty mounted their thrones.

After each act the comedian would come back to work a docile crowd while crew ran mops over the smudged black Perspex flooring. He pulled a little girl out of the audience for a moment of public cuteness – and then abruptly dismissed her when it was clear there wasn’t time. “Go back little girl” he snapped without even looking at the shy creature walking tentatively toward him. The man sitting next to her protested, and I heard the comedian say to him, sotto voce, “listen buddy, another comment like that and I’ll have you out of here so quickly you won’t know what’s hit you.” In contrast to the wonderful talent appearing on stage, his faintly racist routines and insistence that the audience do his bidding in the spaces between acts was unpleasant – like some sort of neurotoxin flooding uninvited into a synapse every time the cameras and sound stopped.

The acts appeared, spoke to the judges, did their numbers, and were given their judgment, and an opportunity to respond to the panel. That was it – very workmanlike. There was the Select of God choir from Detroit, a vaudeville/ballroom dance troupe from Utah, a rhythmic gymnast, a blind dancer, an extraordinary tumbler from West Africa, a mass hypnotist who failed in his goal to put a group of people under his spell. It all seemed so familiar. It was after all, an old-fashioned talent quest of the sort that once happened (and maybe still does) in provincial towns everywhere.

The experience took me right back to the regional Competitions that came through Gisborne New Zealand every year during the sixties. Young girls and boys standing on stage in the town hall, doing their elocution routines, their Scottish sword dancing, tap dancing, violin recitals. Backstage, the groups of children – who had been practicing all year, learning dances, making costumes – were there with makeup and tutus, coping with stage fright, supporting each other, and trying to be humble in victory. It’s not okay to bignote yourself in New Zealand – back then, if you scored a goal, you would hang your head while the crowd roared; not jump up on your team-mates and kiss them. They learned how to cover up the mistakes in their dance routines and just keep on going. They told each other, when they were marked down, that the judgment was one person’s only. They let each other know that someone else might have an entirely different opinion. Competition played a role of course, but it was also an opportunity to perform for an audience.

The last performer in America’s Got Talent came on in high heels and an enormous blond wig – a transgender comedienne with a beard. She looked and sounded great as she launched into her act; funny but faintly bitter routines about a painful childhood. But it was a launch that barely got off the ground. She froze, standing there, on form in every other respect – but the lines had fled. Despite getting right through to the semi-finals, she had blown it completely. She stood there devastated, and began to cry. The judging panel was completely compassionate – recognizing the potential, encouraging her to not give up for a moment, and to keep on working at what she had developed.

We saw her later being welcomed, red-eyed but still in full drag, by a group of cheering performers from earlier in the day. The peculiar ordinariness of a glamorous Heidi Klum coming to work in a disused aircraft hangar in Hicksville was illuminated later by the appearance through a door behind us, of a diminutive and heavily tattooed sideshow carnival operator in a red cowboy hat. He had an artificial leg, the result of an interaction with a train. The impressive metal knee mechanism that enabled him to walk normally was fully and deliberately exposed – a cowboy cyborg with an attitude. He is the MC for an act in which a dwarf rides a motorcycle through a wall of fire and, following that, through a burning picket fence. I was back in childhood, watching someone ride a revved-to-the-limit two-stroke motorcycle, horizontal on a Wall of Death made of wooden planks, wide-eyed children with pink candyfloss staring down over the edge.

The more things change, the more appealing the actual smell of motorcycle exhaust – or a live band in a concrete soundshell.

At Celebrate Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Band Shell there are free concerts right through till August – part of a much wider summer music scene in New York City. There are enough tribes in Brooklyn to justify shows tailored specifically to a neighborhood or expatriate community. At last night’s performance, every second male was a bearded hipster. The Village Voice named Lucius the best indie band in NYC. They’re from our neighborhood, from Ditmas Park. The place was packed with adoring fans. They knew the words, they sang along, sitting on blankets, getting high and eating fries and kale from Ditmas Park’s locavore restaurant, The Farm on Adderley.

In 2012, Trinidad’s Machel Montano packed the Bandshell arena with ecstatic Carribean Soca fans, waving flags of the different islands, and singing along to the songs of a genre I’d never heard of. Soca was coined to describe the ‘soul of calypso’. The music was fast and high energy, and the show fully choreographed with rows of twerking dancers in gold bikinis and an astonishing performance by Montano – like Michael Jackson on speed. Later that year he was the Grand Marshal of the Flatbush Caribbean Labor Day parade, a massive annual spectacle. Montano was a child prodigy, a nine year old with his own band, and a hit album, ‘Too Young to Soca’, when he was eleven. Now at 40, he owns the stage. Check him out on You Tube. This year the first week of Celebrate Brooklyn saw the same atmosphere and supercharged music created by Krosfyah from Barbados.

FOMO or ‘fear of missing out’ is rampant at this time of year. The ‘river to river’ festival starts this month with dance performances in assorted venues between the Hudson and the East River; Central Park in Manhattan has its own equivalent of Celebrate Brooklyn running all summer; the Lincoln Center has a program of outdoor shows; there are concerts every Thursday lunchtime for an hour in downtown Brooklyn (King Sunny Ade, George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, lute players from Mali or session musicians Muscle Shoals). It’s all free and almost all of it is really good.

It’s stinking hot during the day right now – at its hottest, it’s not so different from India. Apartment buildings become like brick pizza ovens. They empty onto the streets on the hot evenings and in this neighborhood you can see grandparents and three-year olds walking hand in hand, taking the evening air many hours past bedtime. The garbage bags and the Linden trees compete for olfactory dominance. Mr. Softee ice-cream trucks are everywhere on the streets, and Mexican handcart operators sell shaved ice drenched in fluorescent syrup in the parks. They are playing chess in Union Square until well into the night, and there are people and performers everywhere.

If you want to see some of the talent America’s got, you can reach it all via the subway system (and in the subway itself, in the cars and on the platforms; from solitary violin players to subway acrobats) – every day. If you can get here for a week or two, if you can stand the heat and the crowds, now is the time to come to New York City.