I fear to watch, yet I cannot turn away

Actually I take back what I said about the X-Factor. Having watched the first show of the new series, I have reverted to the view that they expect us to laugh at the hopeless losers, especially when they burst into tears during the post-rejection interview. To be fair to the producers they do leaven the cruelty with some sentimentality, by featuring stories like that of the girl who only entered the competition to realise her late father’s dying wish. Luckily she had a good singing voice, and the judges were spared the embarrassment of having to crush her dream at the first audition. No doubt they’re saving that poignant moment for a future episode.

It makes for morbidly fascinating viewing for a while, though it is best enjoyed in small doses. I always end up wondering why people are willing to subject themselves to humiliation on national TV (and worldwide via YouTube), when a moment’s reflection would tell them that their chances of success were close to zero.

Is reality TV culture blunting our collective discernment and self-awareness, or merely giving a platform to people who are already suffering from delusions of talent? A clue that the latter is the case comes from the observation that winning a TV talent show is far from a guarantee of lasting fame. Most of the acts that have emerged have been briefly tolerated by the public before slipping back into the limbo of Z-list celebrity. (For some the backlash comes with frightening speed – Steve Brookstein, winner of the first series of X-Factor, was reportedly booed off the stage at his first concert. People weren’t just indifferent, they actually paid money to go to his show and give him abuse). To me this suggests that the audience for these shows is tuning in to see the drama of success and failure (especially failure), rather than to appreciate the artistry of the performers. The alternative – that the likes of Shayne Ward really do represent the musical taste of the UK population – is too horrible to contemplate.

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