The world of competitive singing shows is vast and sprawling — filled with strange niches and massive expectations. Since the arrival of American Idol in 2002, these types of reality shows have become staples on major networks and cable, and have seen their formats co-opted for all sorts of various talent/skill competitions: dancing, cooking, fashion designing, interior decorating, and more.
Bravo's The Kandi Factory attempts a new twist on the genre. Essentially, it's a reworked spin-off of the The Real Housewives of Atlanta that gives cast member Kandi Burruss her own platform away from the juggernaut Housewives franchise, just like her former cast mate from Atlanta, Kim Zolciak, and Real Housewives of New York cast member Bethenny Frankel. In those two cases, the women were given spin-offs focusing on some new, major life development — a baby, a wedding — so that audiences were able to follow the beloved Housewife away from the gaggle of cast mates. In Kandi's case, Bravo decided to use Kandi's career as a successful singer/songwriter/producer as a vehicle for her own small-scale competitive singing show.
It didn't work.
On paper, Kandi Burruss has the resume to back up the project. She earned a Grammy while in her early 20s for writing TLC's mega-hit "No Scrubs," along with "Bills, Bills, Bills" for Destiny's Child and Pink's breakout hit "There You Go." The late '90s and early 2000s made big money for Burruss as she racked up songwriting credits for the biggest names in the biz, including Whitney Houston, Usher, Mariah Carey, Alicia Keys, and more. She even has the distinct honor of being the first African-American woman to win ASCAP's Songwriter of the Year Award, in 2000.
On the Kandi Factory, the premise is relatively simple: Burruss and her team pluck two "talented unknowns" (now, remember that key word, "talented") out of obscurity to enter her "Kandi Factory" for one week. Over the course of the week, each person is given a song written by Burruss specifically for them. They must record a version of the song, practice like crazy, and eventually perform a live "showcase" for an audience and Kandi's team. Whoever impresses Kandi the most gets to release their recorded single, make a music video for it, and potentially become "America's next pop star," according to Burruss.
It sounds simple enough, right? But there are some major issues. For starters, each week, the audience must spend an hour with two contestants they've just met. There's a reason that it takes weeks and sometimes months to whittle the contestants down on shows like The Voice and Idol. And while a lot of that has to do with complicated voting processes (involving viewers), it's also because the audience uses those passing weeks to get to know the competitors. Their storylines are carefully dribbled out over numerous episodes so that by the time it's down to a final four or last two, the audience knows the ins and outs of their stories and their talents. That's very important. It's what gives those performances and rehearsal scenes gravity. Otherwise, they'd just be displays of total strangers warbling emotionally for weeks on end.
On last night's Kandi Factory, we met Terrence, 30, and Jen, 23. Jen seems like someone you'd expect on these types of shows, with her Miley Cyus-esque swoop hairdo and faux-edgy style. She can sing well and also loves to rap, citing TLC as inspiration.
Terrence, on the other hand, is a complete conundrum. While he's certainly a nice-seeming teddy bear, there is no discernable connection between him and what most of us would describe as "music." He neither writes nor performs with any regularity and can only vaguely cite that he likes to sing here and there as his main reason for being in the competition. This is unusual. Much of the audience incentive for these shows is in watching someone thrust into the limelight who has been toiling away in their bedroom with mountains of raw talent just waiting to be harnessed. Terrence is not one of those people. He is, however, looking to propose to his girlfriend on camera.
This storyline seems to be the majority of the reason, if not the only reason, Terrence was cast on the show. He absolutely, without a doubt, cannot sing. Not at all. It's so obvious that Kandi and her team begin discussing it in the early stages of rehearsing and recording the song Kandi wrote for him, a cheesy ballad about a man wanting to propose to his girlfriend. Still, they seem unfathomably certain that his "charisma" and "personality" will somehow trump the off-key squawks coming out of his mouth. This is baffling and frustrating to anyone familiar with these shows. There has to be some modicum of talent to help the process make sense. It's impossible to shape and sculpt something that does not exist.
Over the course of the week, we see Jen get dinged for sounding too much like the late Lisa "Left Eye" Lopez of TLC when she raps in the upbeat party anthem Kandi wrote for her. Jen corrects it enough to give a solid showcase performance at week's end, although her ill-fitting clothing and floppy 'do covering her eyes make her look uncomfortable in her own skin. The performances themselves are also a bit of a joke in that the backing track is blasting over the live audio. It's impossible to tell how well Jen or Terrence are doing in a performance that's really just shots of an overly enthusiastic audience and frenetic swoops across the stage.
And of course, it doesn't really matter how well Terrence performs, because the real reason he's there is to propose to his sweet, nerdy girlfriend, who is in the audience. Given that his song contains lyrics like "Make me a happy man and say 'yes'" and his backup dancers are wearing white dresses and holding bouquets, it would have been almost cruel to not propose to his poor girlfriend afterward. Of course, he does, and she says yes.
At the end of the show, Kandi chooses Jen as the winner, thanks to her "awesome" voice. Though her voice is certainly capable and fun, it's a shame she wasn't pitted against someone who actually sings and could provide real competition. It's also frustrating given the sheer number of people who do harbor some type of singing ability, even if they're not penning original compositions in their rooms at night. It feels lazy and presumptuous on the part of the show to ask the audience to follow a man for a solid week (even if it was distilled into an hour show) on a quest to achieve something he seems to have only a passing interest in.
Even more unfortunately, we don't really get a chance to know more about Kandi either, which one would guess is sort of the point of having one's own spin-off. Other than hearing the songs she writes for her competitors, we only see her in small snippets in the studio and at the judges table during the showcase. It would be delightful to get to see her actual songwriting process or follow her Atlanta music-world life in a more day-to-day way. Instead, we're stuck watching poor Terrence flop around a poorly lit stage amid back-up singers that are bizarrely holding bouquets while dancing. That should send even the biggest hater running back to Idol with arms wide open.
More reality show drive-bys...
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- Is it now OK to have sex with animals?
- In defense of Gwyneth Paltrow
- Republicans love this new health care plan. Too bad it's basically a tax cut for the rich.
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to
- 17 old proverbs we should use more often
- In Ferguson, Michael Brown lost his life — and America's police lost the benefit of the doubt
Subscribe to the Week