The credits have just rolled on the opening episode of the latest series of The Voice, and I’ve already forgotten what happened. My only real enduring memory is feeling a sense of surprise and fascination with this tired format’s Lazarus-like refusal to die and stay dead. It is twelve years since Pop Idol first took to the airwaves, spawning a cornucopia of sequels and imitations. Yet, as audiences, we keep returning for more, year on year to see the hopes and dreams of a tiny minority made true at the expense of the mass disillusionment of the rejected majority. But what is the opiate at the heart of TV talent shows that keeps us looking for our next fix? And what does the prevalence and popularity of these programmes say about our cultural moment?
As P T Barnum probably did not say, ‘there’s a sucker born every minute’. Undoubtedly, part of our pleasure as the viewing audience is classic schadenfreude – a warming sense of smug self-validation that accompanies watching the trauma of people like us experiencing embarrassing and humiliating failures in the most public of all arenas. The mass rejection that these hopefuls face for our entertainment acts to confirm our sense of our own uniqueness. It plays to the conviction that we all secretly maintain: that we are special, that we are somehow set apart (or above) an ill-defined, mutable and ever-adaptable group of ‘others’.
It goes without saying, of course, that if we are all special, then none of us really are. Yet the TV talent show speaks pleasingly to our basic sense of justice. After all, if you’re especially talented, then you deserve fame. The nefarious trick of the talent show is to remove the requisite of hard work from the garnering of acclaim. While many artists of the past toiled in obscurity or else grew organically outside of the glare of the prime time spotlight, the talent show contestant is made famous overnight. As the maxim goes: things that are worth doing seldom come easy, and the “quick fix” offered to the contestant has produced few abiding stars and many pub singers. The talent show is little more than a meritocratic pantomime, enforcing the idea that the cream will always rise to the top and deceiving us into turning a blind eye to the wider economic and social forces that too often deprive the many of opportunities to succeed. It is also worth noting that none of the judges on The Voice achieved their success through passing through a TV talent show, even if it is now serving to maximise their own brand recognition.
The talent show derives its sense of fairness by appropriating the apparatus of democracy. We vote for our favourite singer (or at least the one with the most sympathetic cancer-related anecdote) and they are duly elevated to the plutocratic realm of celebrity, however transitory their tenure. Aside from raising large revenues, this process also raises unsettling equivalences with our political process. If we elect our stars, then do they not claim their legitimacy from the same source as our politicians? How can we then complain when the latter indulge in the same artifice and vacuity as the former?
Perhaps the most depressing aspect of The Voice and its kindred programmes is the amnesia I was left with after it. We’re now at least half an hour into whatever horrific quiz it is that accompanies the Lottery, and I cannot honestly remember any one of the contestants that I just saw passed in front on me as if on the conveyor belt in a human Generation Game. They were instead mere commodities, interchangable and insignificant. It was impossible to form any kind of human attachment to any of them. Instead, as in other non-scripted ‘reality’ television, the focus is trained on the viewer. The show, with its perfectible life narrative comprises a parade of narcissists that look much like ourselves, and thus concentrates our attention on our wants and consumerist desires, much like the photos of celebrities doing banal things in newspapers that have pushed aside an outward looking news agenda. This is fitting, of course, when you remember that The Voice and shows like it are arguably the piece de resistance of late capitalism: essentially an extended advert that you pay to produce for a product that you are compelled to buy at the end.
The TV talent show is a hollow performance of meritocracy that casually commodifies the contestants involved, treating them as two-dimensional actors in an extended marketing exercise. It is inspiration to consume masquerading as aspiration to succeed, replacing honest ambition and striving with an unhealthy focus on our own ‘special’ wants within a consumeristic framework of instantaneous gratification. See you all next Saturday night for another dose.
Originally published in The Huffington Post.