A Tale of Two Talents:
The Hierarchies of Cultural Adoption in the “Got Talent” franchise
Jennifer Grout is having a good month. Her startling and beautiful performances on Arab’s Got Talent have gone viral with accolades from the judges and many Arab musicians, and she has recently been the subject of an article in the New York Times about her “courageous” venture into Arabic music. Xiao Wang, on the other hand, a Chinese contestant on “Holland’s Got Talent” received a very different reaction for his masterful performance of Verdi last month. After his rendition of the classic opera piece, he was told by the judge Gordon Heuckeroth that it was “the best Chinese I’ve had in weeks, and it wasn’t even takeaway!” Both Wang and Grout transcended cultural lines through music in a way that affirms beauty of the art form, but with soberingly different reactions. That Jennifer Grout is heralded for her extraordinary ability to learn Arabic and bring Arabic music to a wider audience, while Xiao Wang is mocked for his equally extraordinary performance of opera, highlights our very uneven notion of cultural adoption.
The judge’s on Arabs Got Talent immediately remarked how surprised and awe-struck they were at Jessica’s nearly-perfect Arabic accent. “We have for so long imitated the West, and this is the first time that a person who has no link whatsoever to the Arab world, an American girl who does not speak Arabic, sings Arabic songs,” said Najwa Karam, a Lebanese pop icon and one of the judges on the show. Karam’s gratitude towards Grout seems almost humiliating when compared to the reactions of the Dutch judges to Xiao Wang’s performance, after which Gordon shouted, “suplise!” Both Gordon and Karam were surprised by these performances of cultural exchange, but their reactionse—one of gratitude and one of condescending skepticism– couldn’t be farther from each other. Grout, a Western woman “deigning” (as written by Mariam Bazeed) to imitate an Eastern culture is heralded, while Wang, an Eastern man imitating a Western culture, is ridiculed.
The notions of the way culture flows is deeply set in the western imagination. Western societies such as France, Great Britain, and the Netherlands colonized most of the world, and an important part of this economic and military enterprise was to devalue the cultures of the indigenous people. As a young Palestinian attending a French Catholic school in Jerusalem, for example, my father was punished by nuns if he spoke Arabic. My mother knows more American songs from her days as a girl scout in Lebanon than I learned growing up in Washington DC. We do not blink an eye at this cultural adoption, and even think of it as “right” and is part of a good education for a non-westerner. Thus there is no gratitude by the Dutch judges that Wang chose a Western song to sing, or that he speaks English fluently. Instead of the judges feeling appreciative or intrigued that he spent the time learning opera, he is belittled by racist Chinese stereotypes. The saddest part of this exchange is that Wang brushes off the comments, brushes off being told he “looks like a scientist” (and what does that mean?) because such responses are less surprising than his mastery of opera.
This is not the fate of Jennifer Grout. Because the West has traditionally only been able to see the East through its own eyes, her embodiment of Arab music has become a source of intrigue by artists everywhere, and even a way to legitimate it as an art form. Her performance has given her exposure, an article in the New York Times, and respect from many notable Arab musicians. While there are some viewers who have told her to “go back to America,” by and large she is being received as a talented singer who has been able to conquer an unconquerable language; nevermind that this feat has been happening in reverse for centuries.
These two artists are both talented, courageous, and treated differently because of the judge’s perceptions of their race. The way these two performers are received in the nations/cultures in which they perform is telling of the ways we accept and view cultural adoption. On both shows, the “foreignness” is something to be addressed, but addressed very differently. The gratitude that is given to Grout, and the gratitude that is expected of Wang, are the real cultural performances worth noting on these two shows.
Tags: Arabs Got Talent, Jennifer Grout, Xao Wang, Holland’s Got Talent, music
“While there are certainly some viewers who have told her to “go back to America,” by and large she is being received as an incredibly talented singer who has been able to conquer an unconquerable language; nevermind that this feat has been happening in reverse for centuries.”
“Both these artists transcended cultural lines through music in a way that affirms the truth and beauty of the art form, but with soberingly different results. That Jennifer Grout is heralded for her extraordinary ability to learn Arabic and bring Arabic music to a wider audience, while Xiao Wang was mocked for his equally extraordinary performance of opera, highlights our very uneven notion of cultural adoption.”
Randa Tawil is a writer based in Chicago, Illinois, with work previously published on The Busy Signal. She worked as an innovation consultant in Copenhagen for three years, and now is studying Arabic at University of Chicago,and researches Arab American racial formation in the US.