Everyone loves it when a celebrity pulls back the PR curtain and reveals their vulnerable side. From Jennifer Lawrence’s almost nose-dive at the Oscars to Justin Bieber tearing up at the VMAs in 2015, being “real” has never been hotter.
Cue the success of shows like Lip Sync Battle, which continues to break records for Spike, Carpool Karaoke (James Corden’s viral clip with Adele has more than 150 million views on YouTube), and Dancing with the Stars, which is set to enter its 23rd season. Which leads to the question: What is it about watching a deaf star like Nyle DiMarco master the tango or seeing Channing Tatum channel his inner Beyoncé that compels us to tune in, share, and more importantly, applaud their efforts?
The answer may lie in the subconscious connection we have with vulnerability. Psychologists define vulnerability as the courage to put yourself out there when you can’t control the outcome. Falling in love, moving to a new city, or even finding a new job all fall under this umbrella. These days (when it can feel like everyone and everything is presented through a flawless Instagram filter) exposing your full self can be a terrifying experience. But by being vulnerable on the stage, psychologists say, you establish intimacy and trust—and become humanized to your audience.
Kevin Kay, president of Spike, agrees. “We all lip sync to our favorite songs in the car or in the shower. But when you step on stage dressed like Elton John or Beyoncé—with the crowd roaring and the lights beating down on you—that’s when it becomes real,” he explains. “I think every participant has the brief moment of panic when they ask themselves, ‘What did I sign up for?’ But you know what ends up happening? They always rise to the occasion and we are blessed with an amazing performance.”
The most memorable Lip Sync Battle moments do just that. It’s not about perfecting every dance move or getting every lyric right—it’s about how much the stars themselves are willing to let go and step outside of their comfort zone. When you think of white, muscled, twerking Channing Tatum, Beyoncé doesn’t automatically spring to mind.
“I think what hit home with the fans was seeing this tough-guy action hero dressed as the biggest star on the planet—and then having Queen Bey actually show up,” Kay says. “When the talent is willing to take risks and get out of their comfort zone, it shows in the performance.” It also shows in the numbers—Tatum’s performance became the most-watched episode of LSB of all time.
James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke episode with Adele was also highly engaging for similar reasons. The Grammy-winning pop star became just another London mom when she spilled tea on herself, shared her Spice Girls obsession, and admitted to getting drunk by herself at a restaurant. Corden’s own awkward, yet relatable exuberance comes across as sincere, which in turn, allows the stars he sings with to be vulnerable in the moment too.
According to famed vulnerability researcher, Brené Brown, Corden really takes the first step in achieving vulnerability. Another example: saying “I love you” first. In both instances, there’s risk, but also a reward.
“In order for connection to happen, we have to be seen. Really seen,” Brown says in her famous TED talk. “You need the courage to be imperfect. Vulnerability is the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”
And if today’s TV landscape is any indication, it’s also the birthplace of increased viewership and downloads.