I don’t understand why anyone interested in forging a ‘real’ music career would ever audition for a televised singing competition. While the singers are on television, everyone loves them; but after the competition is over and the cameras stop rolling, everyone forgets the contestants they loved, already replacing them with already-established superstars or by thinking about the next crop of contestants on the next singing competition. Typically, the winner releases a rushed, 2.5 star record that is #4 on iTunes before gradually fading into the deepest depths of obscurity until the end up on Celebrity Rehab or Dancing With the Stars… so why would this be your chosen career path?
Likely because it’s easy. Because if you’re the least mediocre of a mediocre bunch, you have a shot at releasing an album and rubbing shoulders with L.A. Reid or having songs written for you by Diane Warren featuring Richie Sambora on lead guitar. Because the opportunity to live in a mansion with a pool for a couple of months with other like-minded young people and going to movie premieres and getting to advertise Ford vehicles seems like a pretty sweet short-term gig when compared to selling burnt CDs out of the trunk of your Camaro… but once the crappy record is released, it’s all over.
I would argue, his is mostly true. While there is definitely a real stigma surrounding artists who got their start on a singing competition with little star power trailing behind them afterwards and a critical and artistic dismissal for the over-produced, MOR-laden flat, hurried 12-track mess, there ARE exceptions to the rule. Believe it or not, if you dig deeply enough you will find records that are diamonds in the rough of the market-cornering singing competition contestant cash cow. Here are four that I feel are definitely worthy of checking out, despite your reservations or blatant criticisms:
Kalan Porter – Wake Up Living
Porter has two full-length records released in his name, this one being his sophomore (the first being the obligatory Idol-winner record). Surprisingly for some of you, this is a very good record. It has some truly lovely acoustic ballads and a couple of edgy, catchy pop/rock hit-worthy smackdowns as well. Porter is a talented musician with an incredibly unique deep, husky voice (as opposed to the melodic, high-pitched, smooth r&b of the Chris Browns and Jason Derulos on the charts). It’s unfortunate that Canada’s lack of a star system, combined with a saturated market of bands, hip hop artists and balladeers made it difficult for Porter to break out and become the mega superstar he deserves to be. I’ve heard he will soon be releasing a third record and given the time that this record has taken to come to fruition in conjunction with much more personal input, will be even better than this one.
Carly Rae Jepsen – Tug of War
Recently, Jepsen became an overnight sensation when she was touted by mega popstar Selena Gomez, and in my opinion, it’s about time. Jepsen, one of Canadian Idol’s most talented, artistic alumni, deserved to break out into the spotlight after her first record, the little-known but sweet, beautiful, loveable Tug of War. The title track was a mild radio hit, but for whatever reason, Jepsen failed to capture the Canadian imagination. Too bad: the material on this record is heartfelt, catchy and well-crafted acoustic pop that is comparable, though FAR better than releases from say, Colbie Caillat. Jepsen’s voice can be sweet and vulnerable in songs like “Heavy Lifting” and “Worldly Matters” and just as husky, sexy and beckoning in songs like “Sweet Talker”. She does a wonderfully adorable cover of John Denver’s “Sunshine on My Shoulders” and works with Canadian pop/punk star Josh Ramsay on “Sour Candy”, a rather beautiful, reflective album closer. If you are only just discovering Carly Rae as Justin Bieber’s girlfriend’s recommendation, don’t skip out on her debut; it did garner a Juno, after all.
Dia Frampton – Red
If you watched 2011’s breakout hit, The Voice, Team Blake Shelton’s unforgettable, pint-sized art-rock darling Dia Frampton will have stood out as a clear frontrunner, though she was unfortunately usurped in the end results. However, she has released a quick debut that demonstrates some serious vocal chops and an interesting grab-bag of songs including influences ranging from hip-hop (she features Kid Cudi on “Don’t Kick the Chair”), country (“I Will”, performed with her friend and mentor, Shelton himself), and the folk stylings she performed while on the show. There is pop music gold here on “Trapeze”, “Daniel” and “Homeless”, all songs that demonstrate an artist in the exact right place, and who knows herself so well, she is able to do what few singing competition contestants were/are able to do on albums: be themselves. And present on a record, in a collection of original material, the same singer & artist that Voice fans loved and were familiar with. This record is far from Dia Frampton’s ‘debut’: she has spent years doing micro-tours and recording iTunes-purchasable material with her sister Meg. This is her shot at a major label release, and it doesn’t compromise or down-play the artistry that Dia is capable of.
Theo Tams – Give It All Away
True, the bulk of this small list comes from Canadian Idol alumni; this is mostly because I feel much of this talented group of singing contestants didn’t get the adequate supports they needed and deserved to excel the way lesser-talented American Idol contestants did in their own homeland. Tams is no exception; an incredibly talented singer and pianist, he was the very last Canadian Idol winner on the very best season of a now-debunked show that had quit while it was very ahead. Canadian Idol was the first of the global Idol franchises to allow its contestants to bring instruments into auditions and furthermore, use them on the Top 10 stage. It was the very first Idol competition that saw its contestants play a ‘live band’ format on a results show. In other words, the show was very ahead of its time in terms of letting contestants express their own artistry on what would be otherwise, a very generic forum and in doing so, it generated a lot of fabulous unknowns who had no other platform to rise to sudden stardom. Tams’ record is not surprisingly for those familiar with his style on the show, piano-driven adult-alternative pop. He had some big-name Canadian Indie collaborators lend their skills and experience to the writing process for the record including Sarah Slean, Simon Wilcox, Damnhait Doyle, and Hawksley Workman; it also saw Tams co-write seven of the tracks. With big names like this, a top-notch ballad-based record was created which saw influences from all over the map but demonstrated to me, a promising, rising voice in Canadian music.