Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Column #21: Is 'Top Chef' a microcosm of our cultural biases?

“I worry about his taste level.”

This is a phrase used often on reality TV shows. It’s not as popular as “I didn’t come here to make friends,” but that’s because nothing feels better to say in the heat of battle and yet means as little to the outside world.

Though the concept of “taste” is clearly offensive to anyone-can-do-it competitions like “American Idol” and “America’s Got Talent,” the "taste level" of contestants is often invoked on competitions between professionals who already have actual skills, like “Project Runway,” “HGTV Design Star” and “Work of Art.” The judges debate it, and the contestants use it to belittle each other.

However, the definition of “taste” can vary between different people, whether because of class, race or other cultural influencers. When we can’t agree with each other about the merits of a movie, or a dress, “We can agree to disagree,” because “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

But in a competition, where people of varying backgrounds are asked to make “the best” cake or dress or to be “the best” singer, is it more like apples and oranges? Who’s a "better" singer, Kelly Clarkson or Ruben Studdard, Carrie Underwood or Adam Lambert?

Ask anyone involved in making comedy movies whether they get the respect they feel they deserve, come awards season. I don’t think “Airplane!” or “Office Space” were considered important by judges, but I think more movie aficionados would consider them classics above serious sludge like “A Beautiful Mind” or “Scent of a Woman.”

A lot of rich Hollywood producers didn’t see Tyler Perry coming, or expect that Ice Cube could become a media mogul, too. Perhaps their works aren’t up to the “taste level” of Oscar-winner Sandra Bullock’s “All About Steve” or that brilliant Mike Meyers’ “The Love Guru.”

Similarly, when I tune in to our public radio station, I often wonder why I never seem to hear music by exciting new talents like Janelle Monae or proven favorites like Jill Scott, Maxwell or Mary J. Blige.

A station known for playing artists like k.d. lang, Natalie Merchant and The Dave Matthews Band would seem ideal for such talents, but as the very tasteful music writer Jeffrey Lee Puckett, wrote recently, they are perceived as playing “music that white, 25- to 54-year-old professionals want to hear.”

No one’s saying that Schoolly D’s hip hop classic “Am I Black Enough for You?” is compatible with this audience, but a demographic that can’t get enough Bob Marley and Michael Franti would also enjoy Alicia Keys.

For a legend like Mavis Staples, I guess it takes Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy producing your record to get you played on public radio.

It took four seasons for a woman to claim the title of “Top Chef,” and even that season’s winner, Stephanie Izard of Chicago, would agree that she only won on a technicality. By setting this season in Washington, D.C., one might even
assume that the producers were working overtime to find their first African-American winner.

In the first half of the season, the battle appeared to be obvious: Kenny, an African-American whose bio declares him to be, “An intense and no-nonsense chef, Kenny once split his pants open while cooking a 10-course meal and didn’t even blink an eye,” versus the Latino Angelo, a creepily nervous but talented chef.

By the finale, Angelo seemed to be imploding, making victory easier for average white man Ed, while the inconsistent Kevin, an African-American, looked like the longshot.

So, spoiler alert, yes, Kevin won, and he shared how proud he was to be the first African-American winner. Did he deserve the title? In this case, it’s impossible to say, as we viewers can’t taste their food. But who’s a better comedian, Chris Rock or Sarah Silverman? Is Jonathan Franzen a better writer than Z.Z. Packer? Can we all agree on what’s tasteful?

Or is our country doomed to be forever equal, but separate?

c. 2010 Velocity Weekly

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