Last night Oxygen network’s reality series Fix My Choir featured the Sweet Adelines International chorus Sirens of Gotham on the episode, “A Choir with Two Heads.” Fix My Choir‘s premise is Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child, and gospel musician Deitrick Haddon meeting with choirs across the country to help solve administrative and musical problems each group may have—basically making each choir more meaningful and enjoyable for its members. The episode featuring the Sirens of Gotham is perhaps the most public, non-comedic exposure for barbershop music in recent memory, and as someone who was peripherally involved in the creation of the show, it was also an interesting lesson in reality television.
The conceit of “A Choir with Two Heads” is that Sarah, the director of Sirens, wants to modernize the chorus and Alexis, Siren’s Team Coordinator, wants to succeed in competition. All barbershoppers* know about the restrictions of competitions, and likewise, we’re all aware about the endless debate between preservation and innovation that occurs within the barbershop community; however, rather than delve too deeply into the particulars of this debate, Fix My Choir focused instead on the conflict between Alexis and Sarah, and how that conflict threatened the Sirens of Gotham organization.
Before I go on, let’s acknowledge that reality television is not reality. More appropriately it should be called unscripted television. Scenes are regularly set up and directed for the sake of getting the best shot, and second and third takes are made if someone flubs a line or for any reason that might make a better show. From my own experience this was evident when I sang a tag with Deitrick Haddon during a filmed afterglow that both Sirens and Voices of Gotham have each Thursday night after rehearsal.
The moment began with us singing the tag, “Back in my home town” with Deitrick, and immediately after we finished the producer directing the scene asked us to switch positions for a better camera shot. We even shot a few more tags, and neither the later tags where Deitrick fared much better, nor Michelle’s participation in singing tags (who by the way is pretty good at singing tags) were broadcast.
The producers are more concerned with creating an entertaining show than being honest. If those things can align, then fantastic, but fudging reality often makes for better television. Focusing on a conflict between two leaders of a chorus, and then connecting it to simmering family issues, is much more interesting than an esoteric debate about the future of the barbershop style.
As another example of the producers trying to make a more exciting and entertaining show, Brian (Sarah’s boyfriend, and one of the guys singing “Hello Ma Baby” in the pub scene) told me that one of the producers called him before the taping to ask him if he was planning on proposing to Sarah anytime soon. Brian’s response to the question was, “Not on your show,” demonstrating that reality television’s job is to entertain more so than to present reality.
How important is the reality of reality television? In the the case of “A Choir with Two Heads,” there has been some concern over the portrayal of barbershop to wider audiences. I contend however, that Fix My Choir doesn’t address much about barbershop at all (besides mentioning strict contest rules and some brief allusions to the debate about preservation and innovation within the genre). The only major inaccuracy presented were the comments about choreography not being allowed in contest. The show, for the sake of entertainment, instead focuses upon the conflict between Sarah and Alexis, and how they eventually resolve their differences.
As someone who participated in a bit of the taping, and as someone who knows and works with both Sarah and Alexis, I should say that those who might be bothered by the episode should remember my previous statement: “reality television is not reality,” and to not take the show too seriously.
Finally, for those concerned by the inaccurate comments about choreography being against the rules, feast your eyes and ears upon the Rich-Tone Chorus, the current Sweet Adelines International Silver Medal Chorus: