'The Apprentice': Oh, How the Mighty Fall

Elizabeth Wiggins

In its 10th season, The Apprentice engages in a difficult task: it asks us to root for unlikable, not yet famous people who feel wronged by the loss of their six-figure salaries.

The Apprentice

Airtime: Thursdays, 10pm ET
Cast: Donald Trump, Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump, Jr.
Subtitle: Season 10 Premiere
Network: NBC
Producer: Mark Burnett
Air date: 2010-09-16

Since 2004, Donald Trump has been telling and retelling his own story on The Apprentice. At the same time, he invites players to relive his unlikely triumphs, to become rich and famous by acting as he might. The concept was self-serving, as it had to be. After two seasons of The Celebrity Apprentice introduced too many already rich and famous alter egos, he's brought back the original concept with a timely twist. This season, starting on 16 September, is about “second chances”: its contestants' careers and lives were significantly affected by the economic collapse of 2008.

While Trump says very little about his own ups and downs, he positions himself right away as the expert on re-launching. But as it turns back to its previous format, The Apprentice engages in a difficult task during these times that remain difficult for most viewers: it asks us to root for unlikable, not yet famous people who feel wronged by the loss of their six-figure salaries.

With a focus on success at all costs, The Apprentice is not exactly feel-good viewing, but it’s always compelling. And the heightened intensity this season’s contenders bring to the game may leave viewers feeling like it's both fascinating and troubling to watch people on television scramble in the name of money.

Referred to as “struggling,” “unemployed,” and “fledgling,” the new contenders all have stories of economic strife and personal downfall. Though they reportedly did everything right, now they're doing work that is decidedly below their skills, education, and income expectations. Unsurprisingly, their introductory interviews-- explaining these sad states -- offer displays of ego rather than generating sympathy. Through these interviews, the viewer is invited to latch on to the idea that the mighty have fallen, but Trump's next apprentice will rise again, through hard work and determination, not, you know, ruthlessness.

Like other reality shows, this one sets up parallels between their competitions and the "real world," suggesting that winning will catapult the players to immediate success, and that the challenges are somehow testing useful critical skills. Here those skills are all about Trump. Possibly because the prize is a job with Trump or because he's is so good at making himself and his brand larger than life, the skills required of the contestants seem designed to weed out people who are unwilling to give their lives over to the Trump Corporation.

In her introduction, Brandy says she went from making $200,000 annually to selling $2 cupcakes out of a truck on the street. While this situation doesn’t seem all that bad in general and even rosy in comparison to her colleagues, who cannot find work at all, her saga is framed in a way that implies working in the cupcake business is insulting for someone with Brandy’s skills and erstwhile earning ability.

As Brandy's situation and self- description remind us, The Apprentice, for all the talk about teamwork, rewards individual success. The rules of the game demand that everyone assumes a certain ferocity, or risk looking weak. And if the first episode is any indication, this season will be rife with tension and backstabbing. At the introductory boardroom meeting, Trump is quick to remind the wannabes that they are “not dealing with friends.” His advice hardly seems necessary, as the episode's final boardroom devolves into yelling and finger-pointing even before the losing team is announced.

Before this climax, the premiere sets up several conflicts among personalities that should make for trouble and buzz. Most of the contestants come with huge, bruised egos. A case in point is David, the focus of the premiere episode, who has endured the dissolution of his marriage, the stress of supporting five children, as well as deep humiliation at calling Michigan’s unemployment benefits agency. Here he shows effects of such strain, in angry outbursts at his project manger, Gene.

David's story is a vivid example of the impact of the financial crisis on the type of person whose self-worth is tied to the number of figures on his or her paycheck and the desperation of the contestants to restore their lives to a pre-2008 state. And, of course, even if David and his rivals haven't adapted to their recently shrunken lives, they are expected to adapt to Trump's demands on their talents and skills, even if the tasks are outside their frames of reference. In the first challenge, the teams are asked to design a “modern” office space. While some contestants, like James, discover latent talent, others struggle with diverse issues, from not understanding the term “modern design” to neglecting to tape down rugs and causing the camera operator to take a nasty spill while the Donald is judging the work spaces.

Aside from executing the basic demands of each task, the contestants must also learn to work collaboratively, despite their inclinations to resist others’ authority. While this tends to happen on every season of The Apprentice, if the premiere is any indication, this cast is particularly aggressive and scheming. Within minutes of working together, cast members are openly creating scenarios in which they can shift blame onto other team members and using Don Jr. and Ivanka’s visits as opportunities to tattle and to create conflicting narratives about team dynamics.

Especially ripe for controversy and maybe a few ratings points are the show's subtle gender tensions. As always, the teams on The Apprentice are divided into male and female teams, and certain men, like Clint, act out. He speculates to his teammates -- self-described “alpha males” -- that the women’s meeting probably includes “cat fighting” over a team name. When the men note that they're “supposed” to be good at interior design, it's not long before they're wondering how men might be working for female project managers and arguments about whether a man or a woman “deserves” to be the apprentice.

Before the episode's familiar opening soundtrack -- the O’Jays singing “For the Love of Money” -- Trump announces, “I hate what I’m seeing and I’m going to do something about it.” It's a promise he reiterates, the premise for this season. Both teams take it as motivation and individual players claim that this game as the only path back to their old lives. Based on early boardroom behavior and on-task performances, however, the viewer gets the feeling that Trump will repeat these words in a different context as the season progresses, as he fires and eventually hires someone willing to do anything to get back on top.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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