What are contests actually good for?


One of the frustrations people are having with Unpretty Rapstar is that it’s not truly what you would call a rap competition–it’s not about finding the person who can rap the best according to some empiric musical standard.

But, as anyone who has watched them can tell you, shows and other competitions like this are rarely (if ever) about what makes a person the best whatever. And this is not simply a phenomenon you see in reality TV shows (although the need to keep popular characters on the show for the sake of ratings is a factor that’s unique to the genre)–it’s true of any competition once you get outside the realm of academia.

Why is this? Because the people judging the competition are typically professionals–they make a living doing whatever it is they are judging. And they are going to look at factors that will affect how commercially successful something will be. Those factors are varied, and many of them have nothing to do with talent.

Take last week’s Unpretty Rapstar (all translations by unprettty rapstar). Who did the delightfully uninhibited Kangnam (from MIB) want on his song?


He changed his mind once he figured out that Jessi was a whole lot more likely to spank him.

And what about the venerable Verbal Jint?


Revolutionized Korean rap, has an economics degree, and is currently attending law school. Still hasn’t figured out how to dress.

Note that neither one is saying, “Give me the best rapper you’ve got!” Neither one wants to waste their time working on a song that isn’t going to sell.

They wound up giving the win to both Cheetah and Jessi, which seems absurd. From a rap perspective, Jessi is nowhere near Cheetah. Jessi has been getting a free pass for her truly horrible rapping because she’s mostly using English. No one on the show (except, I suspect, Verbal Jint) seems aware of the fact that she says, in this performance alone, “What I need a man a big baller,” “dude a big shaller,” “stellian” (earlier in the show it was “shallion”), and “let me see what you pawking”–all stuff the show would call out in a heartbeat were she speaking Korean.

But hey, she’s a good performer, she brings an existing fan base, and look what happens when Verbal Jint gets to work on her:

Her voice is much softer, her lines end in a sexy little moan, and she actually enunciates. (This is what it sounds like when a producer doesn’t modulate her voice–it just doesn’t fit the song at all. And she rhymes “lasted” with “everlasting.” Park Kyung hits people for that kind of shit.)

And the song has done just dandy!

Now, obviously the fact that two of the competitors already have fan bases and are far more marketable affects the competition aspect of the show (if Jimin actually has to compete for her single next episode, I will be very surprised). It skews the judging in a way that is very predictable (although I will say that the show is managing to deliver plenty of entertainment anyway). I mean, if you thought Jimin had terrible stagecraft on the Seulong song, why would you give her the win? Given all her experience, she should be judged the hardest for failing.


Ah, that. Plus you can assume that, since Jimin is such an experienced professional, she will pull something out for the upcoming performance–no guarantees that Jolly V or Tymee could do the same.

So, is my point, “Oh, this is soooooooo unfair”? No. I don’t even know what would constitute “fair” in the context of a reality show: In any context, “fair” always seems to depend on whose ox is being gored. Would it be fair to Verbal Jint and Kangnam to saddle them with someone less marketable? (Well, Kangnam probably wouldn’t mind being saddled….) It is fair to give a single to someone who raps well in the studio but is a dead fish onstage? Verbal Jint can fix what you do in the studio, but he can’t fix what you do onstage.

My point is, there’s a tremendous difference between being a professional and being an amateur, no matter how talented the amateur. You might think that the best singer is the person with the best voice, but the best professional singer has a voice that doesn’t break down after a gazillion performances, can handle being onstage in a variety of environments, sings in a popular genre, etc. Likewise a fantastic prose stylist who can’t spell, use correct grammar, meet deadlines, or write to length is not a writer many people want to hire. And, as Jessi demonstrates, as a professional you work with other people who are as or more talented than you are, making your raw talent less important.

Nobody–not even reality-show audiences–freaks out about this more than people who are transitioning from being an amateur or student in the arts to being a professional. Suddenly your connection to the Muse is so much less important than your ability to dress appropriately and show up on time. But the smart move is to figure out what’s expected in this new environment and see if you have it in you to deliver it.


3 responses »

  1. Kangnam’s proclivities were so blatant: I was beginning to think 5Zic either has it very easy or very tough depending on how the fanfiction’s written.

    Showing up on time and doing the work is most of being a professional. Tymee is failing that, unfortunately for her and the E.Via fans. Over on AJ, some couldn’t understand why Tymee looked bad for complaining while Jessi’s getting more and more accepted, and the simple reason is that Jessi is doing the work. Even Lil Cham is doing the work. It’s really hard to work with someone who isn’t all there, even if they’re really good at things when they do it.

    • He was so entertaining! I hope they keep up this Freaks of K-Pop theme with the judges, because it’s awesome.

      I was amused by Tymee’s contention that those who did do extra work were sly foxes. Yes, why would a normal person attempt to present themselves in the best light to people who are well-connected in the industry, especially when their efforts are being filmed and broadcast for all to see? How devious!

      She’s also getting minus points from me because she was so openly hostile to everyone this episode that she made them all uncomfortable–that’s what I didn’t like about Jessi and her camera-hogging “going off,” and I don’t like it any more when Tymee does it. It just brings down the whole room.

  2. Pingback: Still the best drama on Korean television | My Other Blog

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