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10 June 2010

Britain’s got talent show overload

By Mark Watson

This means so much to me. I’ve dreamed about this all my life. Doing this is the only thing that makes me feel alive. I don’t know what I’m going to do if this doesn’t work out. I don’t want to go back to my old life. I know at my age this could be my last chance. I just really, really hope that people pick up the phone and vote for me.

That’s right, it’s the final of Britain’s Got Talent – a notion that may have taken something of a battering after our desperate, early-Nineties Eurovision song was mauled by the Germans, but which continues to inspire a considerable swath of the nation. Over the next days and weeks, millions of us will marvel at the definitions of “talent” embraced by this most peculiar of television shows. In a recent episode, a woman with a dancing dog went up against a 35-strong teenage dance ensemble dressed as lollipops, a man pretending to be Armenian and a security guard doing Frank Sinatra songs. (The dog won.) Other contestants have included a chap who swallows billiard balls, a male Lady Gaga tribute act and a man who chops firewood to music. And these are some of the more successful ones.

Dead end
Simon Cowell, who presides over these parades of deluded endeavour with the increasingly dead-eyed expression of someone who has everything he wants or will want for the next 1,000 years, has created not just an empire of hugely popular TV shows, not just a whole new level of engineered pop music, but an entire new culture and a lexicon to go with it. Where once the public demanded that stars be mysterious, fiery creatures who sprang from nowhere, powered by desire alone, we are increasingly not interested in people unless we’ve seen every detail of their “story”: the dead-end job, the supportive relatives cajoling them into having a go, the triumphant first audition, the overnight success story. As talent shows have become more advanced and self-aware, contestants have positioned themselves more and more knowingly to fit this mould.

These days when X Factor singers say that they “want it so much” and “are desperate for the public to back” them, they are consciously echoing what they’ve heard people say on previous series. In the same way, Big Brother – which ends this summer after what seems like 100 or so series – has evolved from an interesting television experiment into an audition for a place in the gossip columns. Contestants chat about the “exposure” they’ll get from their time on the show, and compare notes about the agents they’re hoping to sign up with when it’s over. Although reality-show entrants are always derided for being naive, they’re more cynical than ever. Where the country’s bathrooms used to be full of girls singing into their hairbrushes in front of the mirror, they’re now full of girls practising saying: “I know I have to raise my game this week or I could be going home.”

But the party can’t last for ever. Cowell and co have done an excellent job of convincing us that anyone can be a star, and for all the lunatics this may have unleashed on us, it has undoubtedly given hope to a talented few as well. The problem is not that most people can’t be stars: we’ve been aware of that for a long time, even though they keep arriving at the auditions with their unicycles, penny whistles and wood to chop (I swear I’m not making it up about the man with the firewood). The problem is more that, after all these years of reality shows, not even all the people who win them can be stars. Society simply doesn’t need as many stars as TV is producing for us.

Idol promise
When Will Young won the first Pop Idol, it was quite legitimate for everyone to act as if it was Charlie Bucket winning Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory and Barack Obama winning the presidency rolled into one. Now the most they can say with confidence is, “Well, you’ve won – your single will definitely be on sale in Tesco.”

In the end, pop stars created before our very eyes will never take over from the ones who seem to appear from midair, like the aforementioned Gaga. We may be addicted to watching careers being made, but if you’ve seen something being made cheaply, it’s no great strain to watch it being broken – as anyone who tramples on an annoying child’s sandcastle this summer will confirm. Familiarity breeds contempt, and by relentlessly showing us how it works, the entertainment industry will eventually make us regard it with contempt, like an office colleague who “accidentally” gets naked at one too many Christmas parties. Now, I’m off to teach my cat to play the kazoo while jumping through hoops of fire.

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