Who’s Got Talent? Discourses of Musical Potential in American Talent Shows”

In the 2002 premiere of the television show American Idol, judge Simon Cowell declared that his role was to inform “the people who cannot sing and who have no talent that they have no talent.” Indeed, the quest for talent is pervasive; the international Got Talent franchise holds the Guinness World Record for most successful reality television format, Idol exists in over 50 countries, and the Eurovision Song Contest viewership has grown to the hundreds of millions. Despite such popularity, the notion of musical potential remains as ambiguous and problematic as ever. What is this elusive quality Cowell calls “talent”?

Focusing on two specific talent shows, American Idol and America’s Got Talent, this paper examines the musical and non-musical characteristics marking contestants as “talented,” “gifted,” or possessing “potential” in an American context. I argue that such estimations rest on historical associations between musical genius and qualities like youthfulness, autodidacticism, and eccentric individualism. In analyzing the discourses surrounding several contestants, I introduce a taxonomy of talent that disentangles the concept’s varied implications—for instance, whether talent is learned, exclusive to the musical realm, or necessary for greatness at all. Judges’ discussions of features like intonation, timbre, and use of melisma demonstrate that these shows’ portrayals of talent do not simply correlate with musical proficiency, but are inextricably linked to expectations surrounding age, race, gender, and educational background. I build upon Katherine Meizel’s work on American Idol and identity as well as Henry Kingsbury’s contention that talent is a cultural construct to argue that while these shows seemingly “discover” talented contestants and assist them in “realizing” their potential, such potential is far less equitably acquired and recognized. My analysis will show that popular discourses surrounding talent and giftedness serve to naturalize masked privileges and sustain a comforting myth of musical meritocracy.


Lindsay Wright is a graduate student in historical musicology and ethnomusicology at the University of Chicago. Specializing in American musical cultures, the history of music education, and intersections of race, class, gender, and musical identity, Lindsay is currently interested in the perception and acquisition of exceptional musical ability. Her dissertation project explores histories of musical talent as a concept, as well as the role perceptions of talent play in more contemporary American contexts. Case studies include investigations of talent in televised music competition shows, prominent string pedagogies (the Suzuki Method, the O’Connor Method, and El Sistema), and early twentieth century African American racial uplift ideologies.

Lindsay holds a Masters degree in Multicultural Education and Bachelor’s degrees in music and African American studies. Before her time at the University of Chicago, she taught instrumental music in the public schools of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Lindsay is the co-coordinator of UChicago’s Music History and Theory workshop, lector for the University’s writing program, co-founder of the South Side Suzuki music school, conductor of the Hyde Park Youth Symphony, and maintains a private studio of violin students.