Saturday, August 18, 2007

Our most significant talent by far is for humiliation

Marina Hyde writes beautifully about the non-event known as The X-factor and the Prime Minister's delusional view of that phenomenon.

The great British dream, as espoused by shows like The X Factor, consists of a cavalcade of delusion and debasement

Marina Hyde

In the history of politicians' attempts to engage with popular culture, there have been some spectacular missings of points, though perhaps none quite as excruciating as Ronald Reagan's professed admiration for Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA. Most people who had given a single listen to Springsteen's bitter lament for his country's treatment of Vietnam veterans might not find its message desperately obscurantist. Bewilderingly, alas, the then US president was under the impression that the song was some kind of patriotic cheerleading anthem.

"America's future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts," he quavered during a 1984 stump speech in Springsteen's native New Jersey, even after a request to use the track as his campaign song had been delicately refused by the singer's camp. "It rests in the message of hope so many young Americans admire: New Jersey's own Bruce Springsteen."

Hard to beat in the misunderstanding charts, that one, though it would be nice to think there's a top 10 berth for Gordon Brown, who last year expressed his vision of "an X Factor Britain". He professed to admire the ITV show - whose latest series kicks off tonight - because it displayed "the value of aspiration, how anyone can achieve things".

Whether the prime minister has ever seen the programme is hard to say - these days it is customary to assume that some callow spin doctor has walked a politician through Coronation Street plotlines and the like 10 minutes before any key policy interview - but if he has, his assessment of what The X Factor embodies is ludicrously misjudged.

This isn't to further harrumph on the fakery-and-phonelines row, into which The X Factor has been dragged on diverse occasions. With its tedious staged spats and dementedly venal pursuit of viewers' cash, that was simply a wearying inevitability. Nor is it a moan about the endless product placement, the wretched support shows fanning practically all the way out to ITV9, the patronisingly mawkish backstories, or the Hallmark wisdom that dictates all voted-off contestants must spout something about it having been an "amazing journey", while the judges simper back platitudes that would be more at home on one of those cute animal posters that always seem to be peeling off the wall in dentists' surgeries.

It is not even an attempt to debunk the preposterous suggestion that a fairytale career lies at the end of the rainbow, when any statistical analysis of what happens to winners once their first single has gone to No 1 would attest that most hopefuls are effectively competing for the chance to be dropped by their record label inside of six months.

All of that adds up to excellent viewing figures. What seems faintly depressing, however, is the failure of Gordon Brown and others to grasp the mendacious, talent-show-macht-frei ethos that underpins these ratings.

Shows such as The X Factor are just a modern iteration of the American dream, which like everything else these days is a globalised phenomenon. From China to West Africa to Brazil variants of Pop Idol go out every week, imbuing young people with the seductive but insidious impression that fame is a basic human right.

Put plainly, the biggest lie upon which these programmes are built is that they are manufacturing dreams, when in fact they are selling you disappointment.

The first UK series of Popstars - the format that started it all - began with a couple of shows in which viewers watched the now notorious auditions process, featuring the humiliation of various talentless misfits in front of three judges, with the odd Mariah Carey manqué included to throw them into sharper relief. So successful were these trainwrecky humiliations that by the next series the number of audition shows had been doubled, and as the format mutated into Pop Idol, the temptation to beam one of these cavalcades of delusion and debasement back from every major city in the land seemed impossible to resist. And still they come to be sniggered at by the judges, with the aerial footage of queues snaking out of arenas and conference centres looking more biblical every year.

If grown men and women get off defining themselves against gauche teenagers, dispensing clunky putdowns to kids whose only real crime is a lack of self-awareness and a desire for something more in their lives, then that is a matter for them. It is not for us to speculate on the palpable insecurities or lack of alternative options that might drive someone to accept this kind of work.

But the idea that people are watching in millions because they are altruistic cheerleaders is almost without exception buried the second they are asked to put their hands in their pockets more than once after the show has ended.

Even Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, saw fit earlier this year to identify the "mocking culture" epitomised by these shows. It seems rather fanciful to hope that he might take advantage of his continuing close links with No 10 to pick up the telephone and explain this most luminous of truths to the prime minister. But really, if Britain has to be a TV show, can it not be one where the government of all the talents is presided over by Dermot O'Leary?

Here's a previous post dedicated to The X-factor...


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