Stranger in a Staged Land: Bill Horist on “America’s Got Talent”?!?!?

One avant-garde guitarist’s experience with network reality TV

It was back in October 2012 that I received a phone call from a man introducing himself as a producer for the NBC hit program “America’s Got Talent” (aka AGT). I had heard of this and others of the reality/talent ilk. Though I’ve never seen any of these programs, even to this day, I am aware that similar shows are the well from which corporate music enterprises find their next money-makers. These have become incredibly popular with mainstream America and AGT boasts a viewership of between 9 and 16 million. The format is simple – The producers conduct auditions in several major cities and anyone can audition. If you are selected, you do another audition that is recorded for TV with a live audience. This round is judged by an auspicious panel of celebrity judges, that vary with each season. If you’re selected by these judges, whose celebrity presumably gives them keen insight as to what is valuable, you will move on to a final round. The winner of the program receives a grand prize of an estimable one million dollars.

This producer had contacted me by referral, had viewed my prepared guitar work on youtube, and encouraged me to audition for the Seattle round in November. Initially, I needed convincing that this wasn’t some sort of joke. Why on earth would they be interested in me? Which posed the next supposition. I am familiar enough with these programs to know that there are often contestants used for comic relief or the like. Like most people to whom I’ve told this story and to my family and friends that witnessed the subsequent audition, I figured that would be my role should I pursue this inconceivable folly. This was always something in the back of my mind. I was assured by the producer that this was not the case. He explained that what sets AGT apart from the rest of the reality bilge is that it showcases, new, unusual and innovative entertainment, and it is now about being the best singer, hottest model or most marketable entity. He truly sounded enthusiastic about my work and even had some thoughtful insights. Though remaining cognizant of the possibility of a set-up, I let myself be convinced enough to take the audition. I cautiously sipped the Kool-aid.

I assumed that all the people they find for these shows would queue up for hours of their own volition for a chance to audition for a set of producers. It was explained that this is only partially true. There are others who are sought out in advance by producers and set up with an audition by appointment. In any case, I was somehow convinced that this guy was genuinely interested in my work. Despite how it all ended up, I still think it is possible that his interest was sincere. I also point out the above distinction to save a little face here. I would have never considered auditioning on my own. I still wouldn’t. But somehow an invitation by a seemingly sincere producer was different.

It feels important to talk about why I said yes. I checked out of mainstream entertainment and society back in 1983 as an incipient punk. My interests have long been in the fringe or underground or whatever it is called. I’m an artist and I like things that are different, recondite. Not to say that I was completely opposed to some of what mainstream media has to offer. I’ve always been of the mind that 95% of anything sucks and 5% is great, regardless of the source or agenda. I listen and like some mainstream music, movies and the occasional TV show. Even though most of my interest and practice is in a more arcane place, I’ve never had a long-term sense of acrimony toward the mainstream world. I don’t hate it, the people that create and market it, or the people that consume it on the sole merit of a passive acceptance of a truly diminished worldview. I know a lot of “normal” people that love this stuff. I don’t consider the mainstream audience to be some thrall of blind herd animals, insensately digesting anything for which they need make no effort to consume. I strayed from my Episcopal upbringing because, among other things, I was turned off by a pervasive sense of intolerance. The last thing I wanted to do was disavow a faith and then adopt the very intolerance toward it’s practitioners that I so disliked. As an artist and as a person, I live in a rarified world whose foundation is not rancor toward consensus reality, but just a different option.

Further, as a performer of avant, experimental, improvised music, I have always been interested in reaching out to a larger audience. What artist isn’t? I enjoy presenting my work to the uninitiated and find a genuine enthusiasm that is sometimes lacking in the response of the informed. Throughout years of touring, I have steered toward performing for people who never listen to experimental music and are surprised by how truly moved they are by it, despite their preconceptions. Maybe they don’t want to go home and listen to it regularly but just knowing I might have flipped a little gestalt switch in the mind of a septigenarian housewife from Phoenix, is rewarding. It doesn’t happen all the time and I have family and friends that think what I do is just noise. And that’s OK, I still like them and don’t diminish their values.

It was in that spirit that I accepted the invitation. I certainly didn’t consider ever winning the million, but I figured, if I made it to air somehow, no matter what, millions of US citizens would see/hear 90 glorious seconds of prepared guitar abstraction. That’s right, 90 seconds. Herein laid my biggest challenge.

Of those of you that are familiar with my prepared guitar act (I’ll call it act here on out – sounds so Hollywood!), you know my sets usually last forty minutes and involve slow smears of weird sounds, one into the other. I listen to and play a lot of music among which a piece that clocks in under ten minutes is short. I figured I wouldn’t have time to do anything close to a full set but 90 seconds?? But this was the part where I would get some practical experience, regardless of how the audition turned out. I took it as a challenge. Can I say something with this language in a minute and a half? This possibility could be valuable in a number of circumstances that are relevant to me. Whether it’s soliciting a label, gig or applying for a grant, the ability to capture a listener’s attention within that amount of time would be worth the exercise.
There were other logistics to consider. Pedals, backline etc. My setup time was a minute. So in addition to the severely limited performance time, I needed a stripped down rig and some practice setting up.

I set to work. I compressed what I do into a sonic nugget that complied with the time constraint. Insert knife, loop, bounce guitar on lap to get the hemostats yawing, loop, add fretted bass line, loop, play short melody with e-bow and glass slide and end with a fat, distorted chord – Horist out! The nice thing about a short piece is that I can run it twenty times in an hour!

It felt good. To my mind it wasn’t super outside and had rhythmic and harmonic elements that 21st century Americans wouldn’t find too challenging. I’ve always liked to include elements of accessibility into my work. This wasn’t a compromise.

I went to the audition in early November. They were being held at the Convention Center downtown Seattle. As I had an appointment, my audition was separate but I did get a taste of the hundreds of people who turned out for a chance to showcase their talents. There were musicians, comics, jugglers, dancers, a variety of circus acts and tons of young people from 8 to 18. My audition seemed to go ok except for a technical snafu that was remedied quickly. Afterward, the judge, said I should look up more and smile – “remember, this is national TV and you want to present yourself as an entertainer.” Which was true. I am an entertainer. I’ve had this conversation with many performers who see that word with disdain, due to it’s connotations. I consider my art to be entertainment. Just because I don’t contrive it to fit a commercially digestible model, or that I seek a deeper reaction in my audience, doesn’t negate it’s entertainment value. He had some other advice about making more of an impact in a short amount of time and I found it valuable. He asked if I could stay a little longer to do another audition for the executive producers and I said yes.

I waited for three hours before my next audition, which was recorded. The second one went better and I was asked if I could stay longer, do an interview and get recorded hanging out in the holding area with other contestants. Again I said yes. All told, my short audition turned into a sprawling 7 hour period of mostly waiting.

I really developed a sympathy for people’s whose professional lives are characterized by these types of auditions – actors, dancers, classical musicians etc. The auditions I’ve typically done involve going to someone’s practice space and playing some music. This other method is really hard. I found myself in lines and holding rooms with other hopefuls, getting butterflies that wax and wane as the hours sluggishly pass by. Kudos to all of you for which formal auditions are a way of life!

The fact that I was asked to do more than I had planned on gave me some inkling that I was, at least for the moment, in the running for the next stage. I was told that they would let me know in January. I went home. But not without an inkling that this might actually happen. I availed myself of more kool-aid.

January came and went without a word. I figured it was over. In the first week of February, I wrote the producer who initially contact me and thanked him for seeking me out. He responded quickly to say that I had, in fact, been selected for the live taping. From there I had a bunch of paperwork to fill out and I was assigned my very own producer.

There would be several tapings in select US cities – New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Chicago and others. In order to ensure my participation, I needed to be available for as many of those that I could. Then they would place me in one, I would fly to that city, courtesy of NBC, and do my thing. As I already had a busy schedule with tours and other out-of-town obligations, I was only available for two of the tapings. From February to April I went back and forth with my producer, who said he’d tell me if this will pan out and where I would be going. My choices were LA and Chicago. I vied heavily for Chicago as the bulk of my family is there as are my dear friends Eric and Lena.

By the first week of April I got the call. Turns out they weren’t going to be able to place me after all. My limited availability has cut me out of the running. So I moved on and began work on things that were being held back to accommodate this strange opportunity.

Then I got another call from my producer. It was a Friday and he called to announce that they were able to place me, after all, in the Chicago show and would I be able to fly out the following Wednesday. I said yes. I hurriedly rearranged other commitments and began work anew on my micro-opus. As this was hometown for me I had my return flight delayed for a few days. Might as well take advantage of my free trip to visit family and friends. As luck would have it, my father, who lives in Florida, was going to be there the same week. Horist reunion – brought to you by NBC!

I flew into Chicago Wednesday evening and checked into my hotel. This was one of those bland low-rent convention hotels that is perfectly at home in the cultural void that surrounds most airports like a vapid donut. Want some culture? Try the nearby Outback Steak House. The hotel was jam-packed with tween girls. They were running though lobbies, in and out of various rooms like a Beatles movie and checking their mobiles while crouched in the corners of every hall. Felt like a girls’ prep school. This, apparently, was my competition. I do a lot of touring solo but I don’t think I’ve ever felt so lonely, out of place, and an a little emasculated somehow. Where does one in such straits go to quell his tribulations? The ill-attended hotel bar, of course! It didn’t help.

The next morning I was up early to make my 8am soundcheck at the Rosemont Theater. It was mobbed with a similar crowd as the initial audition. This was a different level though – stresses, crew-inspired obnoxiousness with a threat level of orange and road weary parents trying to corral innumerable children were at a premium. I set my gear up on a riser so it would be ready to go that evening.

As I did my soundcheck, I noticed many among the production crew stop what they were doing to watch me. When I was though I even got a smattering of applause, which I found reassuring. Afterward, several of the crew were keen to talk with me about what I was doing and many were well-informed about exerimental/avant music. One fellow said “that was really cool man but, honestly, I don’t think the judges are gonna dig it – maybe Howie but not the rest.”

Which brings me to another item I forgot to mention. Who are the celebrity judges for this, the eighth season of AGT? There are four judges, culled from various fields of popular entertainment: Howie Mandell (an eighties comic who made a name for himself by putting a rubber glove over his head and inflating it with his nose – this afforded him a character on Reagan era soap opera “Saint Elsewhere”, the rest is game show host history), Mell B (who? Yeah I had to google her – she was a vocalist in the corporately construed revenue juggernaut the Spice Girls and is apparently the mother of Eddie Murphy’s child – remember this information is important), Heidie Klum (seemingly the world’s preeminent super model and host of “Project Runway” another of the reality shows – as a buddy observed, “dude, she’s not just a model, she’s a SUPER model!” [I can hear the cartoon voice over now “Meanwhile… In the Fortress of Vanity… the super models convene…”]) and Howard Stern (pioneering syndicated shock jock and all around bad boy – Despite his looks, I have confirmed that he was NOT a member of the Ramones).

I spent the rest of the day chatting with other contestants: the hard rock tango group, the bus driver who sings opera, the air guitarist from Cleveland, the circus duo from which the woman was showing everyone photos of her vagina because she’d had her pubic hair done up into a respectable handlebar mustache (not for the show) and the like. I also did an interview and some B-roll (incidental shots that accompany various voice over’s). I was surprised and dismayed when, during the interview, I learned that I couldn’t answer the questions in any way that the interviewer doesn’t suggest. He literally guided me into such a limited responses that I pretty much just repeated what he said He would ask “why are you auditioning for AGT?”. I would respond that I was contacted by a producer – He’d stop me there. “That wont work, say something like ‘I want to audition because I wanna show America what I’ve got!” Despite some thoughtful answers and a keen interest to promote the idea of experimental music, each response was whittled down to the tripe similar to above and re-shot. I found myself thinking in advance of how embarrassing this interview will be should it make the air. If that wasn’t ludicrous enough, they had me doing all sorts of things for the camera. “Bill, go look in that mirror, preen yourself and think about how nervous you are.” But I’m not nervous and I don’t preen so I hammed it up wherever possible. I found myself souring over these auxillary components to my audition. In retrospect, I sort of wished I simply refused to answer and preen as they had me do. What the hell, I have a constitution that enables me to roll with being looked upon as a buffoon.

The show started. A sold-out theater of 4,000, my family and friends among them. Afterward, they told me about how an MC gets the crowd to cheer, jeer or boo on command. These are being taped so they can be inserted as reactions to any given act, regardless of the actual reaction (remember, this is reality TV). It took my family and friends about 30 seconds of being there for them to firmly believe I was set up from the get-go. They refused to do any of the requested cheering and jeering. My sister, pointed out that, with my luck, they’ll use the b-roll of my family booing and jeering for when I’m performing.

Around this time, the executive producer for the show addressed the hopefuls in holding. He explained how lucky we were and then talked about how the show works. This was a lifesaver for me as I have never seen the show, had no idea what would/could happen during my audition, and would’ve been completely lost when it went down. Basically it’s just a gong show. I perform, and if a judge doesn’t like (s)he depresses a plunger, a loud buzzing occurs and a big red “X” is illuminated in various places. I should continue to perform though all this unless all four judges press their little red buttons. After which I await their sagacious judgement.

I waited backstage for my turn. When it was time, I approached the wing on stage right. There I met a camera operator and a gentleman in a stunning purple suit. He asked me my name. I told him and I asked his. He looked slightly taken aback and said his name was Nick. My celebrity knowledge has failed me again. This guy is Nick Cannon. Apparently, he is the husband of Mariah Carey and maybe he’s an actor too? I am continually surprised by how many people know who he is, even several practitioners of the underground arts. Anyhow, he seemed nice enough and we complimented each other’s suits. After the niceties, he sent me out to the lions.

I walked out on stage to an enthusiastic crowd response. I confidently strutted to my mark, waving the whole time like, I don’t know, maybe Nick Cannon or something. Howie Mandel asks me to introduce myself and we have a short conversation. He asked what I’d be doing and I said that I play guitar “in unspeakable ways” or something dumb like that. With that I take my place on the riser and begin.

Within the first five seconds, I hear my first buzz. This was followed in short order by two more and after a short pause, the final one. I was pretty close to being done with my 90 seconds of glory so I elected to finish anyway, which I did.

I recall the crowd reaction to be pretty positive but can’t be sure. I returned to my mark and immediately commented on the cool sounds the judges added to my piece and that we were like a quintet for a second there. This elicited no reaction as I recall. Howie said “you play guitar in unspeakable ways… now prepared to be judged in SPEAKABLE ways!” The following is as best as I can recall it. Only viewing it will bear out the accuracy of my recollection. I know it’s close though:

Howie was first: “You are doing something different with guitar- you’re RUINING it!”

I recall the crowd having my back a bit on this one and Howie got some jeers.

Next up, Mell B, who looked me dead-on and said “You are annoying and your music is annoying!” I recall muttering under my breath “oh, coming from a Spice Girl” but I’m not sure if it was audible, or if I had, indeed, only thought it.

It was Heidie Klum’s turn next. She said “It seems like you just made all this up today.” By this time I was feeling a little snarky, as I’m apt to get when confronted in this manner. I said to her, “Has anyone ever told you that you’d make a great hand model?” I certainly meant it in jest but the judges and the crowd where aghast that I’d be so bold to “insult” a supermodel. This was where I lost the crowd. 3,992 audience members started booing me with great exuberance. Howie and Howard said something about my audacity. I have to say something here. I’m comfortable doing something that I know most people won’t dig. But getting actively booed by thousands of people, some of whom are peppering their wailing with “YOU SUCK” and the like? It was kind of hard. But, truth be told, it was also really cool.

Once order had been reestablished in the theater, it was Howard Stern’s turn. He asked me my age. I replied that I was 41. He said “no, really.” I said, “Really.” Then he fumbles out some comment to the effect that my dad should put me in counseling. Perhaps his eyesight isn’t so good and he thought I was a teenager but in any case, it didn’t make much sense and of all the judges, I was anticipating that Mr Stern would be the one with the quick wit.

I can’t really recall leaving the stage, whether the crowd was cheering, booing or if any of the judges had any departing words. Once back in the wing, Nick asked how it went. “I thought it went really well!!” There was a flash of surprise and confusion on his face and I think he said “Really??” Then he suggested I address the judges via the camera that was in my face. I peered into its limpid mystery and told Heidie I didn’t mean to hurt her feelings and I have tremendous respect for the judges yada, yada (this is reality TV remember? I think I’m getting the hang of it!).

When I was finally off camera and was breaking down my gear, I was approached by several angry crew members. Not angry with me, but rather with the judges. They were genuinely upset that a) the judges didn’t like what I did, b) they were meanspirited about it and c) that no one got that the comment directed toward Ms Klum was a good natured joke. I was surprised by this but appreciated their support. One crewmember offered me this consolation:

“Well, you’ll most likely make the TV show.”

“Why is that?”

“Because you insulted a supermodel. Not only will you make the show, but you’ll probably be in all the promos as well.”

With that I quietly exited via the loading dock, met my family and friends and left.
There was consensus among my family that I was set up from the beginning. I believe it is possible but I also believe that the judges just didn’t get it. 90 seconds is an incredibly short time in which to absorb what I’m doing and how I use objects to create strange unguitar-like sounds. When one is doing such strange and unfamiliar things to an instrument, it takes a few minutes for the uninitiated to connect the dots between what is seen and heard. Additionally, if an audience member is far enough away from performer that s/he can’t see what is happening, the effect is further diminished.

This concluded my experiment. Was it a failure? Definitely not. The only way an experiment can be a failure is if it isn’t completed. Do I believe I can effectively win someone over with my language in 90 seconds? I do not. It seems that I have built in attributes of my music that will prevent effective conveyance in short periods of time for large audiences. Unless I have ready access to a jumbotron!

As to whether America is “ready” for more abstract music, it’s hard to say. After all, it was only the judges that hated it. The bulk of the audience was seemingly receptive. It was only when things got heated did the audience turn. How America might respond to it will only be seen if my audition makes the air. It is just as likely that celebrity judges are as out of touch with mainstream America as those who live/work in it’s fringes.

I also don’t feel personally diminished by these people. They are doing their job. These shows are about the celebrities elevating, diminishing and generally riffing on what is presented to them. Us contestants are merely fodder for their wit and myopic expertise. Having done this at all, I feel equal measures of boldness, stupidity and naivete. But these are assessments that often creep into what I do. It is important for me to take chances, risk the threat of folly and push whatever envelopes I can. As such it was just another weird gig.

As of this moment, the verdict is still out as to whether my audition will make the air. I was promised a call by my producer to let me know when it will, if I don’t hit the cutting room floor. But you know Hollywood: once you’re washed up, the calls just don’t come in! The season just premiered on June 4 and is aired every Tuesday at 8pm.

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