Novelty Acts: are we laughing at them or with them?

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This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 2nd August 2011.

I’m not really a fan of talent shows on television. I haven’t watched a single second of the current season of Australia’s Got Talent. I suppose I don’t really fit the demographic for buying records from fourteen year old singing prodigies. If I do have to watch American Idol or such shows, I prefer to sit through the first few episodes which cover the initial audition process. There is something quite fascinating to me about those talentless contestants who face the audition panel with nothing but an overwhelming sense of self-belief.

Do these wannabes truly think that they have a talent that they must share with the world? Surely they can’t be completely delusional. Hasn’t someone taken them aside and told them the ugly truth? “Look mate, I don’t really know how to tell you. You can’t sing / dance / play the gumleaf.”

Every now and then, one of these “gifted” performers slips through the net of good taste and becomes a star of sorts. A novelty single or album gets quickly released. Someone makes a buck, usually the manager or producer, the performer’s fifteen seconds or so of fame expires and we all move on. We were all in on the joke. They weren’t. Or were they?

William Hung rose to infamy when he auditioned for the third season of American Idol in 2004 with an off-tempo and off-key rendition of Ricky Martin’s She Bangs, prompting an uncomfortable situation where the judges had to stifle their laughter and present some level of constructive criticism. When informed by Simon Cowell that he really had little to offer in the way of talent, Hung replied, “Um, I already gave my best, and I have no regrets at all.”

This “glass half full” attitude somehow struck a chord with audiences, despite the fact that in terms of singing ability Hung had no glass in the first place, and William was signed to a record deal. What followed was three, that’s three, albums of Hung murdering perfectly innocent pop covers. Inspiration, Hung for the Holidays and Miracle: Happy Summer from William Hung are all CDs worth listening to… once, and would all make wonderful additions to your coaster collection.

Hung’s misplaced belief in his singing prowess is evident in the fact that he clearly recorded three albums of unfamiliar songs with little or no rehearsal, and all probably in one take.

Speaking of one take wonders, have you sampled the vocal stylings of New Zealand’s own Wing? Born in Hong Kong, 51 year old Wing has never let a lack of talent stop her from making records, twenty of them to date. From Andrew Lloyd Webber to AC/DC, Michael Jackson to Abba, Wing has recorded them all in her unique offbeat vocal style (think cats fighting outside your bedroom window).

As Wing’s notoriety spread via the internet, she became the subject of a South Park episode and was invited to perform at a BBC Radio One music festival in the UK in 2008. She later toured the US, even playing the famous Birdland Jazz Club in New York City.

For around US$15, Wing will phone you up and personally sing you a song. It is already on my Christmas wish list.

Throughout all of Wing’s recordings and performances, there is not a single hint that it may be all a gag. Regardless of the song, Wing performs it seriously. What won’t be serious though, is your reaction. Make sure you check out her performances on YouTube.

Wing has truly made a little go a long way, and has had a remarkable career so far, especially for a novelty act. And that I suppose is my point, do Wing and William Hung know that they are novelty acts? Is self-belief, or even self-delusion, enough? Are we laughing at them, or is the joke on us? I guess we’ll never know. The only certainty is that I shouldn’t have admitted to owning William Hung albums.

Published in: on August 14, 2011 at 09:03  Leave a Comment  
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