Michał in ”The Star-Ledger”, a magazine from New Jersey – 16.09.2011


A slim boy wearing jeans, a red jacket, and a narrow black hair band, comes to the stage. He blinks his green eyes with painted eyelashes from under a large mane of chestnut curls. His face shines with a great joyful smile, his lips are covered with a lip gloss. The singer is about to perform  in the Polish edition of Simon Cowell’s program, ‘’The X- Factor’’. Asked for his name, he speaks with hope in his voice. 

Michał Szpak.

When they heard the 20 – year – old boy, the crowd bursts out with a laughter. When he speaks, they realize that, in fact, he is a man who does not have a very masculine voice. Poland does not have a long tradition of well – known, androgynous personalities at all.

However, this lost child of the era of one of the artistic incarnations of David Bowie, Ziggi Stardurst, became a finalist of this highly-rated talent show.

The premiere of the first season of the American version of ‘’The X Factor’’ takes place on Wednesday and at the same time, new groups of people with hope start forming a queue for the auditions of a new edition of an American “Idol” in East Rutherford. The participants are expected to be received in a different way. Singers with an image that violates the gender stereotypes have been appearing in the USA and Great Britain for a long time.

According to the experts, an image, a sexual identity and some biographical elements, especially the fight with obstacles in a day – to – day life and fate, can play a very important role when it comes to the appreciation of somebody’s talent. In the United States and in many other countries that broadcast talent TV shows, you can have an  impression that people – via voting and sharing links from YouTube – helps to accept participants whose appearance does not correspond with the expectations of the audience.

People from the previous editions are a good examples here: Susan Boyle, once a church volunteer, a participant in a British version of “Mam Talent” (I have a talent) and a rococo-  styled boy, Prince Poppycock from the American equivalent of the show, as well as Landau Eugene Murphy who was an American winner from last Wednesday.

Murphy, a 36-year-old car wash worker, from West Virginia, has imitated Frank Sinatra’s vocal style successfully and he was also using an element of a surprise.

“I have to say that you are a great surprise,” said a juror Howie Mandel to Murphy who had dreadlocks that day, after his first performance in June, when he sang Sinatra’s song “I’ve got you under my skin.”

“I mean, the discrepancy between your look and the music you perform …”, he added provoking the laughter from the audience. “…I did not expect that”.

Many weeks before that, during the Polish final of ‘’the X Factor’’, a juror Czesław Mozil, a Polish equivalent of Simon Cowell, said a few words about Szpak, the finalist who placed himself on the second position. Similarly to the case of Murphy, Szpak’s voice undermined the spontaneous reaction of the audience to his appearance.

“This young boy is so important for this country,” said Mozil about Szpak, a rock singer with a strong, moving voice that reminds Jim Morrison. “You know what? During the last seven weeks he has changed Poland a bit”.

A stereotype judgment.

Szpak has not changed Poland, says Magda Dul. “He divided Poland.” Dul, a shop assistant in a Polish grocery store in Garfield, is one of the many residents of New Jersey who saw Szpak’s performance on the Polish-language channel TVN. “I loved him. His voice, his image, the way he looked, his personality … He is different from the rest’’. But some of her friends – especially men, who believe that a guy should look and sound according to the male tradition – do not feel what she does. “They are jealous!” Says Dul.

Danusha Goska, who is a professor of anthropology at the University of William Paterson in Wayne, came to Poland this summer and who also lived there in 1989, during the times of the end of communism, says: ‘’The appearance of  Szpak violates the sex norms that guaranteed security and balance in Poland during the unstable period of confusion.”

The Polish vocalist may have stressed the cultural conflict overseas, but the discussion about a sexual identity has not by passed American participants. This summer, “The Voice” was the first television talent show where homosexual participants came out for the first time, noted Danielle Stern, who is a media analysis research worker at The University of Christopher Newport. In the past, Clay Aiken and Adam Lambert, gay stars of the American “Idol” revealed their sexuality only after leaving the program. In the case of Aiken it was five years later.

According to Stern, “the TV reality could have revealed a larger number of  pop stars and other performers who had been dreaming of a success, but I’m not sure if this type of TV show have really democratized the path to fame. Many of these shows still allow the audience to laugh at the dissimilarities, just like during the episodes of the American ‘’Idol’’ or the auditions of “Mam Talent”.

Fortunately, there was one participant of  “Mam Talent” who was prepared for a mock reaction. Last year he got through  to the final four, dressed up in a theatrical outfit of a dandy called Prince Poppycock, John Quale, was not afraid to play with his lady- like image.

„Look at me, I’m on fire! ” shouted Quale during his re-appearance in August.

An outside – stage effect.

Similarly to Szpak from Poland, Susan Boyle, a 47-year-old church volunteer from Scotland, had to listen to the laughter  from the audience during her debut in 2009 in the British “Mam talent”. In her case, it was also her appearance that provoked a specific first impression. According to ‘’The Guardian’’ the audience “just waited for her failure judging her according to her  appearance” . There was a similar situation in a case of a maestro, Paul Potts, in Great Britain in 2007. A few moments later, her voice made Cowell, who is a strict judge, become fascinated as a small kid. The winner of the second position in the show, an average-looking Boyle, became so popular on YouTube that Americans got to  know her even before “Mam talent” reached  The USA. Currently, there is a musical created describing Boyle’s story.

‘’In the TV industry they always looks for something different or fresh and so does the audience” says Sean Garret, the Grammy-nominated artist and an author of 17 hits. He used to worke with Beyonce and Chris Brown and Fantasia Barrino who was the winner of the American ‘’Idol’’ from 2004. Garret, who is currently a host of a talent show “Seeking a teenage Superstar”, sponsored by Columbia Records, calls Antonio “L.A.” Reid, a juror in the upcoming “X Factor”, a mentor.

A great vocal may be a good beginning, but the biography that the public can identify with can definitely influence the attractiveness of an artist, says Garret. “That’s enough to make a whole story.”

It was probably the life story of Sung-Bong Choi that influenced the way he  was received by the audience.  He was the participant of the first Korean season of  “Mam Talent” broadcasted in June. Since that time he is called ‘’another Susan Boyle’’. He told the jurors that he was an orphan deprived of his relatives at the age of five and he was selling chewing gum in order to survive. He claimed that he had learned to sing only be listening.  A bit shy, 22-year-old, with too long hair to be compared to Justin Bieber, opened his mouth and sang an opera song which was a revelation. His story and  his appearance was a hit on the Internet. Some time after the performance, people from behind the scenes of the project revealed that Choi had some practice before the show and it was all omitted on purpose to make his life story move the audience. However, it was the fact that he did not have any family support that made the greatest impression on the jurors.

“We always keep our fingers crossed for those in a weaker position,” notes Jay King (49), a producer and a founder of the R & B Club Nouveau group in the 1980s. King, who has been in the music business since 25 years, said that TV shows, the talent shows, fail to attract singers with a unique style. According to him, they are  “big karaoke shows” that help people in the weaker positions achieve success.

“Michael Jackson would never win such a program,” says King. In his opinion, participants like Choi and Murphy who sings Sinatra can be good imitators, but it does not mean that they would manage to survive in the music business after the talent show ends. Only the American “Idol” is a bit more trustworthy, because the participants have to sing an original song, no matter if the vocalist is it’s author.

For Qual, Pince Poppycock in the American “Mam talent”, it was being accepted that was already a big part of the success.

Before leaving the show, he said: “Let every child who feels that he is different  believe that dreams come true’’. During the casting he performed with a harlequin make up and a high white wig, he sang ‘’Largo al factotum’’,  an aria from ‘’The Barber of Seville “Largo al Factotum” and his voice was becoming stronger and stronger. It was clear that he won the admiration of the jurors and the audience.

‘’When a person appears on the stage dressed like you and calls himself Prince Poppycock, you can expect that it is all going to follow a specific direction”, said a juror Piers Morgan “However , it all turned out to be completely different “.

author: Amy Kuperinsky


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