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The Good and Bad of Social Media, Viewed Through the Prism of ‘America’s Got Talent’ and ‘The Voice’
September 19, 2016  | By Alex Strachan  | 4 comments

There was a telling moment during last week’s joyous, stirring finale of America’s Got Talent. If you blinked, you might have missed it.

And yet, in one of those tiny, unexpected, human moments that makes live television so compelling, the clouds of bombast and hype suddenly cleared and a tiny beam of humanity shone through.

Grace VanderWaal (top), a ukulele-strumming 12-year-old from Suffern (pop. 10,723), downstate New York, had just finished Baby, I’m Not Clay, a song she composed herself. It was her final competitive performance in this most competitive of Talent’s 11 seasons, and she brought the house down. The girl Simon Cowell dubbed “the new Taylor Swift”  — no pressure there — didn’t bask in the moment, though. When asked that most obvious of questions by host Nick Cannon (“How does it feel?”), she replied: “It feels good to just get it over with and get it out of the way.”

I immediately thought of Christina Grimmie.

I thought of Grimmie again the following night, too, during the results show when, during the excruciatingly drawn-out elimination, she was trembling like a leaf.

And little wonder. VanderWaal is a child of the Internet age, but she’s still a child. A lot of what has happened to her over these past three months happened online, on YouTube, Twitter, and on Facebook.

These past 11 seasons, Talent has shown off more genuine talent than perhaps anyone had a right to expect.

Yes, VanderWaal’s voice can be scratchy and inconsistent at times — it’s part of her charm — as most 12-year-olds’ voices are.

And her original songs, while endearing, are not going to make Taylor Swift lose sleep, regardless of what Cowell says in the heat of the moment. (Pairing VanderWaal with Fleetwood Mac legend Stevie Nicks in the Talent live-results show was a nice touch: The 68-year-old Nicks and 12-year-old ingénue, who would go on to win, hit it off, in a folksy, old-world charm way.)

In the scene-setting vignette that preceded VanderWaal’s performance, viewers watching at home got to see how her first performance, I Don’t Know My Name — another original — went viral on YouTube. Would-be singers, inspired by VanderWaal’s tune, performed their own versions, everyone from children her age to, perhaps creepily, older people who should know better. At last count, VanderWaal’s original performance, recorded three months ago, has racked up 37 million views.

VanderWaal won Talent thanks to those live TV performances but don’t think for a moment social media didn’t play its part. Those 37 million views on YouTube didn’t all translate into votes, of course, but they helped make her a household name. (It’s a measure of social media’s reach and effect that you hardly ever see the name VanderWaal misspelled.)

Even so, it’s hard not to weigh the effects of social media on TV talent competitions and see where it all went terribly wrong for Christina Grimmie (right).

More than anyone, Grimmie reflects social media at its best — it made her a household name — and its worst — unwanted intrusion from a lonely, socially inept outsider who would prove to be her undoing. Social media, with its illusion of intimacy and promise of unlimited access, feeds into the fantasies of unbalanced minds, loners who find solace — and company — in the small screen. Social media has a way of inviting strangers, wanted and unwanted, into our lives in ways that would have seemed inconceivable just ten short years ago.

Howie Mandel is fond of telling his favorite contestants, “Your life is about to change,” so much so that Mel B, aka Melanie Brown, aka Scary Spice from the Spice Girls days, took up the mantra and repeated it throughout the season.

Is VanderWaal ready for that? Really ready? Based on what I saw — her shaking like a leaf on that final night, standing at the back of the stage and to the left, where presumably the lights wouldn’t find her; her collapsing to the floor when Cannon announced her name as the winner, in front of one of the largest live-TV audiences of the summer; her innocent, unguarded admission, “It feels good to just get it over with,” I suspect the answer is no.

The Voice, the Emmy-winning competition that remains the biggest, most high-profile talent show of them all, faces a tricky tightrope walk when it returns tonight (Monday, 9/19, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), in large part because Grimmie’s sad end still hangs over a TV spectacle that, at its heart, is supposed to be about joy and discovered dreams.

Grimmie and Adam Levine became fast friends during their time together on The Voice. It was a friendship that continued long after the show ended. Levine was shaken by her sudden end, and the cruel, unlucky, arbitrary way in which it happened, and he still is. Grimmie’s fans have not forgotten her, but there are those who knew her, like Levine, who will always remember her, for as long as they themselves live.

Levine, fellow Voice coaches Blake Shelton and, this season, Miley Cyrus and Alicia Keys, paid tribute to Grimmie in a stirring rendition of Aerosmith’s Dream On during a special preview episode last month, immediately following NBC’s coverage of the Rio Olympics’ closing ceremonies.

Winning a TV talent competition is not child’s play. It’s telling, for example, that when then-10-year-old Jackie Evancho became a singing sensation on America’s Got Talent in 2010, her parents immediately scaled back her post-show public appearances and concert commitments.

Evancho, now 16, has quietly laid the groundwork to turn her passion into a future career as a credible, professional classical singer. She has stayed out of the social media spotlight, for the most part, mixing the occasional appearance at Lincoln Center and with Cirque du Soleil with charity work for the Humane Society. She may no longer be a hit on YouTube — for now — but she has a solid career and a grounded, proper life lies in front of her.

It seems strange to say — silly even, with a new season of The Voice about to start — but in many ways, winning a TV talent competition is the easy part. The tough part is what comes next.

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Jackie Evancho was very fortunate to NOT win the AGT season she was on. Her parents were then able to focus on helping her develop her career and protect her from the showbiz and Las Vegas vultures who would have descended upon her to exploit her until there was nothing left but a bad memory. Her success has opened the door to a lot of new, young artist around the world and an awakening and appreciation for classical crossover and a noticeable move away from RCN (Raucous Commercial Noise) See my website for further elaboration.
Sep 22, 2016   |  Reply
Tom Bombadyl
If you were Grace's parents what would you have done differently? Withdrawn her from the show after she won the Golden Buzzer? It was a Cinderella story of epic proportions, very hard not to see it thru I imagine. I'm guessing after Vegas things will settle down.
Sep 20, 2016   |  Reply
Adam Traynor
I don't think the producers and judges of shows like AGT are putting a great deal of thought into the effects sudden fame and fortune can have on a young girl. One hopes that in Miss VanderWaal's case, her parents have given this some consideration. Too many young "stars" burn out in painful and all too public ways.
Sep 19, 2016   |  Reply
Michael Busby
Jackie Evancho has performed between 20 and 30 concerts a year for the past six years. This is in addition to the performances you mentioned. She has performed in Japan, Malaysia, Thailand, Bali, Taiwan, Costa Rica, Canada, England and Italy. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jackie_Evancho .
Sep 19, 2016   |  Reply
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