The Uncool, Undeniable Appeal Of ‘America’s Got Talent’

We probably weren?t using the word ?viral? to describe the skyrocket success of odd, mesmerizing one-off moments from television in 2003, but it?s safe to say that the most-watched clips from reality competition shows looked significantly different from the ones widely shared on social networks today.

That was the year William Hung, a civil engineering student at UC Berkeley, carved out his legacy in pop culture with an off-key, humorless rendition of Ricky Martin?s ?She Bangs? for the judges of ?American Idol.? He was not admitted through to the next round ? judge Simon Cowell, known for his straight shooting, simply said, ?You can?t sing, you can?t dance, so what do you want me to say?? ? but a legion of fans who loved him simply for his outright terrible audition grew around him. Hung made the late-night rounds, earned a meager record deal, and ensured no one could ever think of ?She Bangs? in the same way again.

It?s easy to recall friends saying their favorite part of the subsequent ?Idol? seasons was the cringe-y auditions; small-screen-watchers loved to lampoon the poor souls who put themselves up for judgment on national television.

Fourteen years later, primetime on basic cable is no longer the only place to watch human foibles unfold in real time. Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, even, the app that?s impossible for anyone born before the year 2000 to understand ? there?s no shortage of hours of dumb stunts, terrible singing or ill-advised ?pranks? for those seeking it out. Is that why, when looking at the viral moments in the early episodes of ?America?s Got Talent? Season 12, stories of unexpected talent, early mastery, and overcoming obstacles are the ones that stand out?

Moreover, in a year marked by unprecedented political divides and large-scale scandals, is the happy innocence of dance-partner children, a chicken who can peck ?America the Beautiful? and a Pierrot-esque clown who can belt out ?Chandelier? the antidote?

This trend seems to have begun in earnest one year ago. Season 11 premiered in a nation that was no less divided than it is today, exhausted from and glued to the nonstop election cycle in equal turns. The premiere hit a ratings high for the show, nabbing the kind of audience numbers (12.6 million) it hadn?t seen since its Season 6 finale. That momentum, likely boosted by the appearance of the charming, gifted, ukelele-toting 12-year-old Grace VanderWaal, carried through to the season finale. VanderWaal took home the top prize, and the competition show earned its most-watched finale in five years, with 14.4 million viewers tuning in. The Google Trends for the ?AGT,? which show a predictable spike each time the show is on the air, reached a new high with VanderWaal?s win. 

?America?s Got Talent,? on its face, is not a ?cool? show. It?s wholesome and family-friendly to its core; its variety of acts, good and bad, dates back to programs like ?The Gong Show.? Prestige TV it is not. (There?s already been a Trump impersonator getting down to Bruno Mars this season.) Goofy acts abound. And yet the emotional stock is undeniable ? try sitting through the audition of Mandy Harvey, a deaf musician who re-learned how to sing through muscle memory and self-trust, as she expertly belts her way through an original tune. In an internet full of hyperbole, Harvey?s performance is the rare clip that induces the chills and watery eyes it promises. 

Except, on ?America?s Got Talent,? those chills aren?t rare at all. They?re there when you see young ventriloquist Darci Lynne Farmer begin to cry at the sight of the room on its feet, thunderous with applause, at the end of her act. They?re back again for the 12-year-old dancer who says his main inspiration is his 80-year-old grandmother, and again when the 21-year-old Yoli Mayor is rebuffed by Cowell, only to earn a standing ovation after starting her audition again. The stories feel classically American: the talented everyman finally getting noticed, the brave upstart overcoming unlikely odds.

I should acknowledge that the program isn?t an untouchable oasis of kindness. Season 5 star Lindsey Stirling has spoken about the emotional roller coaster of the process, admitting that hearing criticism from the judges can be hurtful. (It?s easy to imagine these kinds of highs and lows could affect all those cute kids, who haven?t had a chance to develop thick skin that showbiz often requires, even more.) There was also the controversy over a couple who claimed host Tyra Banks ?physically manipulated and verbally abused? their daughter offstage while they were performing.

Even while in the emotional throes of watching the auditions over and over again on YouTube, you wonder about the corporate hand behind it all, perhaps calculating the right combination of perceived obstacles, adorable children and stunned judges to elicit the highest rate of tear-jerking. The executives behind ?America?s Got Talent? want you to cry, to share the show with your friends, imploring them to cry ? but, hey, they?re doing it quite well.

You can be highbrow. You can be lowbrow. But can you ever just be brow? Welcome to Middlebrow, a weekly examination of pop culture. Read more here.

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10 James Comey Quotes That Would Look Great On A T-Shirt

The opening statement and subsequent testimony from former FBI Director James Comey were doozies that included hip, fun phrases like ?obstruction of justice,? ?Lordy, I hope there are tapes,? and ?hookers in Russia.?

Is the government in shambles? Who?s to say?!

At any rate, we watched Comey?s testimony and couldn?t help but think: ?Dang, I want that culturally relevant phrase on a shirt.? So, we plucked out the freshest quotes from the whole situation and imagined what they?d look like on a t-shirt. Or slapped on a mug. Or rocked on a tote bag! The options are honestly endless.

Here?s some of what we?re lovin? right now: 

None of this actually exists, but, man, we wish it did.

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Donald Trump’s Lawyer Suggests James Comey Should Be Investigated For Leaking Memo To NYT

President Donald Trump responded to former FBI Director James Comey?s testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday by suggesting that Comey broke the law by leaking information to The New York Times.

?It is overwhelmingly clear that there have been and continue to be those in government who are actively attempting to undermine this administration with selective and illegal leaks of classified information and privileged communications,? the president?s lawyer Marc Kasowitz said. ?Mr. Comey has now admitted that he is one of the leakers.?

?We will leave it the appropriate authorities to determine whether this leaks should be investigated,? he added. Trump has long vowed to crack down on leakers, and his administration made its first leaks-related arrest earlier this week.

Kasowitz also echoed comments Trump made earlier in the week that Comey?s testimony vindicated his claims that he was not personally under investigation for potential contact with Russia.

In Comey?s highly anticipated hearing, he admitted that he indirectly leaked a memo he?d written about his interactions with the president to The New York Times. He said he did so hoping that it would prompt the Department of Justice to appoint a special counsel in its investigation of the Trump campaign?s ties to Russia.

Comey also accused the White House of lying and said he was confident special counsel Robert Mueller would look into whether the president obstructed justice. Comey, who Trump fired in May, would not say whether he believed Trump was guilty of obstruction of justice or colluding with Russians to interfere in the U.S. election.

Read more on Comey?s Senate hearing in HuffPost?s liveblog.

On Tuesday, The Washington Post?s Robert Costa said that Trump planned to tweet during Comey?s testimony so that he could ?be the messenger, his own warrior, his own lawyer, his own spokesman.? But Trump ending up staying off Twitter during the hearing. His son Donald Trump Jr, however, wasn?t so mum.


This is developing, check back for more updates.

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