Thursday, June 3, 2010

So You Think You Can Judge?

By my humble estimations, America, and every other place in the world with access to American cable television, is about six or seven seasons too many into So You Think You Can Dance, a show that, we're always assured, is the most popular dance show on television. That there are enough dance shows on television to merit such a comparison still mystifies me, but I'll save that rant for another day.

Anyhoo, last night's audition episode aired footage of deaf dancer Jarrell Robinson's performance for Dance's esteemed . . . [wait for it!] JUDGES! After completing what appeared to be a perfect performance, Robinson, of course, had to subject himself to the assessment of the panel of "experts" convened to determine whether or not FOX would be flying him to Vegas. Watch the following clip to see the whole thing play out before your very eyes:

Now, before I continue, I know that I should just simply ignore spectacles like the one above. That mainstream American television has yet to figure out how to represent the disabled should no longer shock me. Nevertheless, last night's commentary on Robinson's audition was one of those WTF moments that I just could not let go, and here's why:

Setting aside Adam Shankman's awful, enormously condescending description of Robinson as "incredibly special" and "inspiring," and completely forgetting Stacey Tookey's deer-in-the-headlights-how-do-I-diplomatically-remind-this-guy-that-he-can't-hear-the-music-? blather (gotta' love that "vocabulary of your steps" comment--pun anyone?), we are left with saintly Nigel Lythgoe's fair and balanced commentary to lead us: "How do you feel the music? Is it through the vibrations?"

Deep, deep sigh.

Robinson responded diplomatically, emphasizing the force of the bass and the way that the low end vibrations help guide his dance steps. I smiled at this response because, from a technical standpoint, it was precisely the way that a dancer should respond. Also, I couldn't help but chuckle at the difference between Robinson's answer and what mine would have been. Below is what I would have said:

"Yes, dear Nigel. I feel the music through the vibrations, much like you do. Or did you not know that you too feel music through vibrations." I probably would have spiced up the response a bit with a few choice expletives, but I don't want to offend my legions of readers . . . just yet.

Again, we're talking mainstream television, so this kind of aggressive ignorance to, well, the functioning of the human body should not be surprising. (It should be noted here that given the recent Sarah Palin-Seth McFarlane dustup, I'm not entertaining tired, simplistic arguments about FOX being all conservative and corporate--though I would grant you that SYTYCD is a conservative show.) Regardless, what mystifies me is why shows like Dance continue to trot out people with disabilities only to kick them off in favor of tweeny-looking contestants who ramble on and on about all manner of tragedy--dead mothers, estranged fathers, lost dogs--and about how they have only one shot to make it, of course, on this bloated television show. Granted, many of these contestants get cut, too, but I still can't help but wonder what kind of catharsis Dance is supposed to be peddling.

Moreover, I know that Robinson was supposed to have appeared to be cut in the name of objectivity: His dancing, disability aside, wasn't right for the competition, as Nigel kindly put it. Again, though, we need to be generous here, because we are never really told why his dancing wasn't right for the competition. Also, dancing, as this show configures it, is an entirely visual medium. There's no singing, and there's little talking, so in many ways, Robinson was not at all disabled in that context. In fact, given all of the godforsaken finger spelling that the contestants do when Cat Deeley encourages viewers to call in to vote, Robinson, as someone fluent in sign language, would have been better than everyone else. Maybe that's why he was cut?

FOX palyed a similar "objectivity" card a few years back when The Big Toe band, fronted by Mark Goffeney (a bass player born without arms), was cut from the short-lived reality show The Next Great American Band because their music lacked hooks, as judge Ian Dickson noted after "closing his eyes" during the performance. Again, the basic premise here is that if the able-bodied limit their senses, attempting to block out the context that reveals the performers as disabled, then some form objective judgement should reign. (It's funny, though, how when I close my eyes during the music of The Clark Brothers/Sons of Sylvia, the show's winner, I can't hear any hooks, either.)

In Robinson's case, though, that gesture toward objectivity is utterly wrongheaded because the fact remains that all of us experience music though vibrations. Robinson's disability had nothing to do with anything last night, yet he remained, in the judges' eyes, "special," "inspirational," and "unfit for a dancing competition in which he feels the music better than the other competitors." If only his pet cat had been run over on the way to the audition.

I'll grant FOX credit for at least attempting to air programming that represents the disabled more regularly than many other mainstream television networks. But, as we know, they have missed the point over and over again. At best, the network is deploying poster-child like representations; at worst, the network is just clunky and is scared of "taking risks"--which is most likely the case.

And so as I sign off for the day, I'll leave all of you--and especially Nigel--the following clip of Mogwai playing "Mogwai Fear Satan" live. FF to around the 6:45 mark to feel the deafening vibrations. Punctured eardrums have never vibrated so gloriously.


  1. Joe--
    I'm listening to the bass of Mogwal as I write this.
    I loved your write up on this SYTYCD event.
    Jarrell did amazing! He should have at least been put through to choreography since the bass in Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" would have surely inspired him to dance his best! It would have been interesting to see him try couples dancing. It was clear that the judges were being careful in their commentary. It could have been less awkward for Jarrell, but I appreciate the exposure of the deaf reality. A little glimpse into Jarrell's world goes a long way for me.

  2. Thanks, Jennifer. I think I'd also add the term homogenization to all of this. Namely that this show homogenizes dance, as Idol homogenizes music, above all else. This a better way to explain why they "don't take risks" with the contestants they pass onto Vegas.

    Regarding the couples question, isn't the whole point of having a partner to make dance, in a sense, more visceral? Sure there are other reasons behind couples dancing, but, again, I wouldn't necessarily agree that Jarrell's deafness would have hindered him there, either (if only because so many of us hearing folks can't dance with partners--as the show makes clear in every season). I'm not suggesting that you were implying any of that. I'm just copyrighting the argument.

  3. the reason he didn't make it it because the power of elites only choose the sniger and dancer by selling their's the link to get you better understand why music industry is terrible now:

  4. Noah, You'll need to establish a stronger connection between the articles on that website and the implications that all of them have on the disabled. Rhetorically, your comment, though appreciated, does little to further this discussion.