The western United States is aflame and June temperatures in Western New York reached the 90s. That I can find election candidates who still fail to believe in global warming is no comfort to me.
Political hopefuls, especially Republicans, tout their belief in American ingenuity, spirit and resourcefulness, while working to suppress rights and opportunities to preserve the advantage of certain of their stakeholders, which is why, if Mr. Romney leads the polls in October, I’m buying stock in Halliburton. Hey, it couldn’t hurt.
I have learned, though, not to turn to politics if I seek innovation. The place to go is either a personal technology palace like Best Buy, for a look at how easy-breezy your children’s lives will be, or to my personal standby, the performing arts.
A television program called “America’s Got Talent” has an unexpected hold on me this summer. Several times per week, until its television network falls under the spell of the Olympics, it will offer a presentation of surprisingly sophisticated performance art, typically routines that straddle the line between art and entertainment if that line travels through the neighborhood the comic book crowd (and Jerry Seinfeld) called Bizarro World.
Like most “reality” programs, this is competitive (there is allegedly a $1 million payoff), has judge/guides like Howard Stern, Howie Mandel and Sharon Osbourne (three household names who know a few things about the fringes of showbiz) and relies on viewers to call in votes of approval.
We observe performers who otherwise would never get on television or approach stardom (unless they robbed a bank) engaged in matters such as:
A man playing homemade musical instruments, including a clarinet/baseball bat, a shovel/violin and a vacuum cleaner/harpsichord. A ventriloquist employing live dogs as dummies. A dancing duet with an uncanny sense of timing implying Siamese twins. A young Goth fellow resembling Marilyn Manson, who sings the soprano parts of opera arias. A bicycle troupe which brings its own ramps and turns that X-Games stuntwork into the work of a precision drill team. Mimes with illuminated costumes, who turn out the lights and perform short plays involving dragons, butterflies and flowers.
People, this is exceptional stuff, examples of ingenuity and grassroots upheaval of the entertainment paradigm, and it is largely offered by the generation, and its descendants, that turned the record turntable into a musical instrument. And yet, it is a reminder that we (i.e., the U.S.A.) had something of an appreciation of this sort of thing before television and the recording industry commodified art into acceptable and non-acceptable categories.
Vaudeville was full of this stuff, as was a long-gone TV staple called “the variety show,” Ed Sullivan’s the best remembered. The early days of cable television, in which programming desperately needed to be found to fill all those hours, brought out some inventive performance artists, the libertarian magicians Penn & Teller the most prominent. “The New Vaudevillians,” this class of entertainers was called.
The sideshows of rock music festivals had their share of fire eaters and skin puncturers. Try to explain to your kids how Blue Man Group or Cirque de Soleil fits into American culture. Yeah, novelty acts, but at their core, a deep appreciation of their forbearers and antecedents, as well as everything else going on around them.
Take something simple and doable on a stage (e.g., dance), add the influence of pop culture, sport, Radio Shack electronics and breakthroughs in helmet design, and suddenly you’ve got something recognizable but uncategorizable, something at once clever, brilliant, innovative and silly. That’s “America’s Got Talent,” and I am thrilled to see this remarkable idea returning to public consciousness.
There is a certain amount of lard added to the lineup, of course, so as not to turn this production into a low-rated freak show. There are straight-ahead singers, adorable kids who are dancing fools and amateur opera ariaists with backstories of poverty and despair. There are overweight drag queens and a man whose only talent is a capability of withstanding assaults to his crotch (he lays down, an assistant swings a stick like a baseball bat, everybody winces). I would not recommend anyone’s sons aspire to careers in these endeavors, but the television program highlights not only the depth of 21st century talent in this land but its effectiveness in innovation, even if the category is nothing more what a performer can offer to a seated audience facing the stage.
Innovation. We used to have a lot of that around here. This television program will be gone, until next year, by the time the politicians take over the airwaves this autumn, and I will think of it when those blowhards attempt to make their case.
Ed Adamczyk is a Kenmore resident whose column appears Fridays in the Ken-Ton Record. Contact him at EdinKenmore@gmail.com.