Note: If you’re just here for my take on the strange involvement of Grand Canyon University in Joseph Allen’s audition, scroll down to ‘The unnamed school “the whole world should go to”‘
Joseph Allen is talented. Joseph Allen is an optimist who has no issues following his heart to success (have you seen a successful Black motocross racer? Me neither). Joseph Allen took a risk most people aren’t brave enough to take and got in front of a packed venue on live television to perform an original song. He leaves a hell of a first impression and on the night of his America’s Got Talent audition, fortune clearly favored the bold.
The fact that I need to explicitly state that before getting into the meat of this article is part of my larger point: no one can come out and say Joseph’s talent was unworthy of a Golden Buzzer without seeming like the most pathetic of haters.
AGT’s Golden Buzzer is a feature that each judge is allowed to use just once during the first round if they feel an act is worthy of being sent straight to the live rounds—skipping the second round and starting in the quarterfinals—regardless of the other judges’ evaluations. Ideally, the Golden Buzzer should be used on an exceptional talent, or a great talent with a remarkable story. Kodi Lee, Season 14’s first Golden Buzzer recipient, was extraordinary in all the relevant ways. Save for a beautiful personality, Joseph Allen simply wasn’t in his audition.
If we look at Allen’s performance as just that, a musical performance, there isn’t much to say. It wasn’t a vocal tour de force, the hook wasn’t unique (or coherent, if you really want to discuss the lyrics), and the rapping was middling despite some decent punchlines that distracted from the song’s vague messaging—a whole ‘nother conversation, by the way.
“Leaving a mark” defines Allen’s audition. He wants to do something incredible so badly. I feel that. Everyone feels that. But why? Just ’cause? We never get an answer to the question of what exactly Allen wants to achieve. He mentions toward the end of his audition intro that he made a song for his mom one day which got good feedback, driving him to self-teach music production and engineering, and…bloop, here he is ready to be great. Lost in all of this is, well, Joseph. He loves his family, he wants to be huge, and…?
It is completely okay to have wild ambition for yourself and not quite know how your impact on the world will be unique to you. Allen is a 21-year-old college student, after all. But if you want to be a massive musical phenomenon, your art should be about something. Asking us to remember your name in the chorus, rapping about how badly you want us to remember your name (and how hard he worked, of course), and bringing it home with a chorus that essentially says, “We all struggle in life, remember me though,” doesn’t give listeners anything.
When it storms, when it rains, it falls on all of us the same/But after today, the world’s gonna know my name
From his intro to his song to his banter with the judges, we never know why he has this exceptional desire to leave as big of a footprint as possible, or why music is his craft of choice beyond getting likes and shares on this video originally posted to Facebook.
I’m not saying every great artist needs a revolutionary motive to be taken seriously. But Joseph Allen’s story, as presented on AGT, is a thin coat of gold paint so shiny that we can’t even begin to talk about how there’s nothing underneath it. Why is this thin coat of paint just floating around? What is it meant to add color to?
As far as we know, Joseph is doing what feels right and giving it his all. It’s not his job to judge himself or make sure he earns the opportunity of a lifetime “the right way.” That is up to the judges. And the judges, who only once commented on Joseph’s musical ability between the four of them (a forced comment by Simon toward the end of his review that was quickly disregarded), opted instead to marvel at his “energy.” They were blinded by the LED lights of attention people shone on that reflective coat of gold paint. Perhaps the biggest of all these light fixtures was a mysteriously huge presence lurking in the back during Allen’s audition: that unidentified school in Phoenix he goes to.
The unnamed school “the whole world should go to”
Just a simple search of Joseph Allen’s social media accounts will tell you he’s a student at Grand Canyon University, a private non-profit school that is currently the largest Christian university in the world in terms of enrollment. While “GCU” or “Grand Canyon” were never uttered by the judges or Allen in the audition, GCU was loud.
First, the very vocal section of the audience comprised of GCU students right behind the judges table cheering on Allen. The students throw up hand signs we take to be some school spirit-type gesture that look like the Rock On emoji.
Cute, right? People really like this guy.
Allen then finishes his audition to overwhelming applause, and Julianne Hough is sold on the whole Lopes gesture (as I learned it’s called by GCU students) and throws it up in unity with the student section.
Then Simon Cowell not only accurately assesses that Allen got, “the best reaction for doing nothing we’ve ever had on this show,” but he also gives a confident endorsement for this mysterious-ass school he says “the whole world should go to.” Meanwhile, no one calls the school by name or bothers to ask about it. The video below is the same as the first one posted, but cued to start at the judges’ comments.
This Twitter thread by GCU undergraduate student Courtney Logan captures the suspiciousness well, even adding the fact that a GCU commercial came on immediately after Allen’s audition:
This guy does have some talent! But was it enough for a golden buzzer?🤔
Why I think Joseph Allen getting the golden buzzer was a publicity stunt for GCU-A thread: https://t.co/SzoSe2IsOe
— Courtney Logan (@logancourtney5) June 5, 2019
(6/9)Do we not think it’s weird how much the school is mentioned??I mean if it was a big school where everyone knew the hand gesture for it wouldn’t be that noticeable but for a lopes up to get thrown out on a big national program?? You gotta admit it’s odd-neat,but odd …
— Courtney Logan (@logancourtney5) June 5, 2019
(7/9)imma put the cherry on top of this and point out that a GCU commercial came on right after the show ended-coincidence? 🤔I think not😂
Also,even though GCU is never mentioned, his insta handle is shown and he has multiple videos filmed on GCU campus on his profile.
— Courtney Logan (@logancourtney5) June 5, 2019
This audition was so bizarre it just might accomplish what Joseph Allen said he was trying to accomplish: leaving a stupid big footprint with no concrete motive.
For one, it says a lot about our collective fear of being insignificant that someone with such a cliché-filled song and the right personality can move people to tears worldwide by just pleading to be famous. Perhaps Joseph really has struck gold and can break into stardom with one-dimensional I-wanna-be-great songs with little to no digging into his persona or backstory. While his charisma and aptitude are gifts that give him a high ceiling, how seriously will he take music as a craft? Since it seems like he just stopped motocross riding after being an apparent natural, I don’t know what to think of him as an artist.
Secondly, if the truth of this story is revealed to be a massive Grand Canyon University marketing ploy…that’s just fucked up.
Hiding a massive non-profit operation behind a jovial young Black kid with an afro singing sweet nothings about his work ethic is the Apple-level version of throwing a smiling student of color’s image all over brochures and the school website’s homepage. Who can possibly hate that? Exactly.
In fact, Joseph Allen recorded a song for and starred in a GCU video ad released last year:
Not to mention any acknowledgement of GCU’s presence, good or bad, is just more free promo. I’m probably playing myself to their benefit as I type this unless my skeptical view of this story catches on.
In a playing field of superficial identity politics and sugar-coated exploitation, Joseph Allen could very well be the face of an all-time great ad campaign. Considering influencer marketing is morally hollow as a rule, this apparent effort from GCU isn’t quite vain enough to be singled out for cheap, clout-chasing capitalism. That does not mean it isn’t cheap, clout-chasing capitalism, but in fairness, it’s pretty damn clever.
Joseph Allen’s AGT audition baffled me from start to finish. Frankly, I think the young man has a very interesting story and set of qualities that deserve limelight: a jigsaw family that has come together to support him, undeniable optimism, and a fearless pursuit of endeavors regardless of his familiarity or cultural norms. But in good faith, I can’t buy into his story as an artist as quickly as everyone else seemingly has.
Giving Allen the Golden Buzzer feels like plucking a fledgling YouTube music vlogger with 100 subscribers and a friendly following at school and throwing them into the mainstream solely because he gives us good vibes. Frankly, his motocross story appears more interesting, inspirational, and fleshed out. While I wish nothing but growth and happiness for Allen, I still have so many questions about the factors that rocket-launched him into fame.
Whatever becomes of Joseph Allen, I hope GCU cuts him a CHECK if he does, indeed, raise this school’s profile.