There has been a fly buzzing in my ear for two decades, and its name is reality TV.
My efforts to swat it away have attracted charges of snobbery, caused friction with ones I love and courted such conflict with the culture that it suggests one’s obsolescence. I have become the curmudgeon shouting into a mighty wind: Why do they refuse to understand? Why spend a single precious second guessing the identity of the eggplant?
Sensing something deeper than mere dislike, I set out on a quest to explore my feelings. My hope was that in this era of heightened sensitivities, a presentation based on emotion might draw more sympathy than scorn.
It was critical to understand the course and timetable of the struggle.
It started for me around the turn of the millennium with something innocently called “Survivor.” As a young parent concerned for what the culture was teaching my impressionable first-born, I watched an installment with suspicion. The unapologetic voyeurism, the manipulative gaming, the sculpted pretty people clinging to cartoon cliffs — it was plainly engineered for feeble-minded lovers of shiny things. My inner elitist recoiled; but the outer guy, a person capable of being a lifelong Eagles fan, was forced to stick around to see who’d be voted off the show.
Survivor may have been addictive, but it was silly enough to lack the faux respectability that is the true driver of my maximal offense. 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. The genre had more variants than a coronavirus, all designed by evil geniuses to glue viewers to the screen for thousands of hours of zombie passivity.
After that, a deluge. Awkward actors, dancing; flamboyant fixer-uppers, home-improving; entrepreneurs with patent in hand before snooty investors, groveling. Celebrity chefs berating amateur cooks for a poorly conceived gazpacho. Innocents desperate for fame rappelling over snapping alligators, roaring lions, and leering hosts. Civilizational decline in its purest, meanest form.
Ironically this coincided with the rise of Peak TV. This troubled me. How could normative people who are not deranged prefer such nonsense to Curb Your Enthusiasm, Black Mirror, Master of None, Ozark, Mad Men, Better Call Saul, Better Things, anything from Ricky Gervais or even reruns of Seinfeld?
This poor decision-making seemed connected to other bad choices the masses might make. It was enough to inspire doubts about free markets and even democracy. Pints were consumed, as will happen in England when hope is close to being abandoned.
Horrible though the entire genre is, my special vitriol has been reserved for the singing contests that still proliferate like mushrooms after rain. Why do I oppose them so? After all, I do like music and used to purchase it very often, when that was still a thing. I tried to figure this out. I tried to devise an argument for my family.
My original reasoning, in the early years of the catastrophe, touched on the manhandling of contestants. Self-satisfied judges verbally ripping hopefuls to shreds, reducing them to tears in high definition and tight zoom. I called it vicious and exploitative, essentially clickbait at its worst.
This had some resonance, but my wife and daughters were not convinced. They sensed a sleight of hand, and they were right. While heinous, this aspect of the “shows” was not in my view truly the worst thing. But I wasn’t sure what was. My contemplations continued.
Perhaps what irked me so was manipulation of the viewers. The endless rounds, the drawn-out interviews, the fake alliances with mentors, the just-one-more vote after just-one-last-chance at a redeeming performance with high notes hit and sob stories told. Transparently calculated to keep the circus going, month after excruciating month, at low production costs. Creating the Sopranos is expensive and hard; scrambling viewers’ brains with bullshit is easy and cheap. It is scalable, to be sure, but culture it is not.
Millennials eyed me quizzically, put off by my fervor. The failure in this battle has been utter and abject.
My girls now are basically grown up. They still watch this rubbish all the time, without shame or hesitation. It is late in the day, but I have hit upon an argument that may just have a shot: these music reality contests celebrate performance above all else, and this cannot be right.
Singing voice, presence and stage gimmickry are their pedestrian stock-in-trade. There’s nothing wrong with those things, but they are not the essence of the world, of life or of music. If I love the Beatles, Springsteen or Dire Straits, it is essentially for their creation; but on reality TV they would be summarily laughed off the stage.
The mammoth footprint this genre achieved has told the new generation that presentation rules, appearance is the essence, impression is the key, celebrity is the goal and winning’s all that counts.
It was always going to be a short journey from there to the current epidemic of preening selfies, teen Insta-models, and pointless food pornography.
Down this road lies a world in which there is almost no new music of worth. Down this road lies a world in which facts don’t matter, only style.
Down this … Wait! Oh, never mind. I will have another pint.