This past July, I had to take a JetBlue flight from Boston to get to a family wedding. I hadn’t been on a plane in years, so I was genuinely surprised by the miniature television glued into the back of the seat in front of me. I left it off for the entire flight, deciding against watching a movie or music video, but it turned by itself as the plane landed and docked itself at the airport. A muted music video promotion was playing, featuring three boys I had never seen before – all with dark hair, on the shorter side, definitely younger than me. They were singing something, but what, I wasn’t sure. Pop music? It looked dramatic, whatever it was: wide-angle slow motion footage of them singing was accompanied by tracking shots of beautiful European vistas and vast spotlighted stages. Such earnest attempts at sweeping and romantic feeling all felt decidedly Andrea Bocelli-esque. And as it happened, my Italian connection was spot-on: these three boys made up an Italian singing group named “Il Volo.” By the time I had figured out the name of their group – and the fact that they were all 18 or younger – I had to grab my carry-on and leave the plane. I did so, and with that, my random encounter with Il Volo was forgotten.
Forgotten until this morning, that is. Browsing the New York Times’ online Arts page, I came across a headline that read “They’re, Like, Awesome Opera Singers.” Placed with the headline was a picture of the three of them – those same boys that I had seen on that plane! Those same boys that I had thought I had forgotten about! Those same boys that sang like Andrea Bocelli but looked like they were characters on “Glee.” Zarachy Woolfe’s accompanying article on Il Volo, a lengthy profile of group members Gianluca, Piero and Ignazio on tour, even appeared in print in yesterdays’ Sunday Times. The three teenagers, aged between 16 and 18, are apparently poised to become popular music’s next teen heartthrob supergroup, but plan on doing it with a traditional operatic sound. Indeed, their first singles are “O Sole Mio” and the strangely mature “Un Amore Cosi Grande.” You can read more about the three of them in Woolfe’s article here, and check out their very own website here.
Needless to say, after reading their Times profile, looking at their website, and listening to more of their singles, I was a little bit surprised. Surprised that these boys sound like they do, being and looking like babies to me. But surprised isn’t quite all of what I feel about Il Volo. How about off-put? Skeeved out? Those unsettling adjectives more accurately describe my reaction, especially given the way their Times profile admitted they were seen by their managers and handlers: which is to say, cash cows. Adorably dimpled cash cows, but cash cows nonetheless. The adults that are with them on tour speak of the boys as if they are caricatures with voices and little more. Several parts of Woolfe’s article record this money-focused mindset of the adults behind Il Volo. These include (but aren’t limited to) the origins of the group in a reality show singing competition, managers buying Dolce & Gabbana suits for the boys tailored to the stage image each one is meant to represent to the world, and this excerpt that closes the entire profile: “Earlier in the day Ignazio was sound-checking onstage with the band as [manager] Steve Leber watched from the seats…Mr. Leber smiled. ‘Our game plan is working,’ he said.”
It isn’t as if these boys are the first child stars ever to break into the entertainment industry – so why do I feel so unsettled by their story? And by the way their handlers look at them? I can’t help but feel they’re being taken advantage of, as if starting the struggle for fame at such a sensitive age as theirs can lead to nothing but disaster. Given what we know about American arts and culture alone, this statement unfortunately doesn’t feel like hyperbole. So, is this disturbing fixation on youth in modern art and entertainment, of which Il Volo is clearly a new example, a given in our culture? Is it something we should continue to question and protect those younger than us from? And should this even disturbing at all? Based on their talent alone, Ignazio, Gianluca and Piero deserve to be stars – but, for the sake of their future sanity, I can’t help but feel they should spend a few more years in school.