There has been a fly buzzing in my ear for about two decades now, and its name is reality TV.
My efforts to beat back the scourge have brought charges of snobbery and caused me friction with some of those closest. Ultimately they confront me with one of the fundamental questions facing humanity itself: Why do so many people just refuse to understand?
I could sense this was bigger than a simple quixotic dislike and set out to investigate my feelings.
It started for me around the year 2000 with something called Survivor. You may remember it. I was a young parent concerned for what the culture was teaching my impressionable first-born, and watched an installment with suspicion. The voyeurism, merciless gaming and pretty people clinging to cliffs were clearly a recipe for success among the easily entertained. The elitist in me recoiled; but I waited anyway, to see who’d be kicked off the island.
Survivor, however addictive, was silly enough to lack the respectability that is the true driver of my current offence. That came about 15 years ago with the avalanche of singing contests.
I rue the day American Idol was imported to Britain where my family and I then lived. There soon followed British Idol and X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, the Voice and a seeming infinity of variants designed by evil geniuses to glue viewers to the screen for thousands of hours of zombie passivity masquerading as culture.
After that, the deluge. Dancing contests; cooking tournaments; exhibitionists in a room, provoking; flamboyant fixer-uppers injecting color into a house; innocents desperate for fame compelled to rappel over snapping alligators, roaring lions, and leering hosts. Accursed civilizational decline!
Ironically this coincided with the rise of Peak TV. How could people prefer such nonsense to Curb Your Enthusiasm, Extras, the Shield, Six Feet Under, the Thick of It, and award-winning AP videos of various news events? I found it disturbing yet sadly unsurprising. It seemed connected to other bad choices the masses might make, and enough to make one question free markets and democracy as well. Pints were drunk, as must be done in Britain when hope seems lost.
Horrible though the reality genre undoubtedly is, my special vitriol has been reserved for the singing contests that proliferate to this very day like mushrooms after the rain. Why do I so oppose them? After all, I do like music and indeed am an ideological purchaser of it in the styles of which I approve.
Consumed with the paradox of my predicament I have tried to work it out (some might say “unpack it” — but I shall not, since rejection of nouveau jargon is another of my foibles).
My original argumentation, in those naïve early years of the catastrophe, touched on a supposedly unfair treatment of contestants. You may recall, dear reader, that the dynamic in the mid-2000s involved self-satisfied judges dispensing unkind criticisms that occasionally reduced hopefuls to tears. I claimed it was vicious and exploitative. This had some resonance, but not nearly enough to hold back the tide. My audience (anyway never sympathetic) sensed the hypothesis was half-hearted, for while this aspect was heinous it was not truly the worst thing. While I felt certain such an even worse aspect existed I could not be sure what it was, and this was a problem: Instinct matters, but it cannot buy you lunch. One must be precise.
In my search for a winning argument I next focused on the manipulation of the viewers. The endless rounds, the drawn-out interviews, the complex dynamics and faux allegiances with mentors, the just one more vote after just one last chance at a redeeming performance with the high notes all hit and the sob stories well told. It was so transparently calculated to keep the circus going, month after excruciating month, at low production costs.
Creating the Sopranos is expensive and hard; messing with your mind this way was easy and cheap. Scalable even, as a technology might be. At any rate, culture it is not.
Millennials eyed me quizzically as I made such postulations with perhaps off-putting fervor. My failure in this battle has been utter and abject.
But of late, I feel I may have hit upon an argument that persuades, and may have a shot at a comeback to melt Simon Cowell’s icy heart: These singing contests celebrate performance above all, and this is just not right. Singing voice, stage presence and the occasional gimmickry are their Mickey Mouse stock-in-trade. There’s nothing wrong with those things, of course, and it’s important to perform well (some would say I myself am performing all the time). But they cannot be the main things in the world, the main things in life, or even the main things in music. And while few would actually argue that they are, the footprint that this genre has established is delivering that very message: Presentation rules, appearance is everything and impression is what counts.
It is a short journey from there to the epidemic of duck face selfies, teenage social media modeling, and pointless food pornography. Down the road lies a world in which facts themselves matter less than style. We might be there already.
I own hundreds of CDs and tens of thousands of digital songs, and most have earned that status through creation, not performance. I have annoyed many a classicist by claiming that if Mozart were active in the 1980s he would have produced Dire Straits’ “Telegraph Road.” Mark Knopfler’s guitar is virtuosic — but that’s not why I love the song. The Beatles, I recently told my younger daughter, would not have survived the months of scrutiny on these shows; they’d be made mincemeat of by Netta Barzilai.
I can only hope I hit the high notes and await one final vote. The jury is still out, but the signs are not so good.