It’s easy to see TV talent shows as three-ring circuses of cheap emotion, empty promises and bitter tears – but they have their bad points, too. While I can appreciate a dancing dog or knife-throwing nutter as much as the next man, surely only a sadist could contemplate the new Saturday evening smorgasbord of stultifying mediocrity – Let It Shine (BBC1) followed by The Voice (ITV) – with anything but sorrow.
TV talent shows can be seen as a righteous reaction to the relentless tsunami of nepotism which now drenches the entertainment industry – traditionally one of the very few escape routes for sparky working-class kids too pretty for a life of crime. No wonder popular culture often seems so exhausted and uninspired, weighed down as it is by so much lucky sperm and celebrity afterbirth churning around in it. And while only 1 in 10 British children attends a fee-paying school, 60 per cent of those in the music charts did, compared with 1 per cent 20 years ago. We can see this somewhat sinister shift in the way Adele, for instance, is marvelled at for being so down-to-earth – or what Noel Coward would have called delightfully common. In the Sixties, girl singers routinely came from Liverpool and Essex and, thrillingly, the actual Gorbals in the case of Lulu. Marianne Faithfull’s solitary poshness was pushed as a gimmick; these days, there are so many Bedales brats clogging up Spotify that her mum being a baroness wouldn’t raise an eyebrow.
With social mobility slowed to an all-time post-war low, the sense of entitlement for the few and the promise of jam tomorrow for the many hanging over this country like a suffocating smog slips away for a few hours on a Saturday night. We glimpse a possible escape hatch for a handful of pretty proles otherwise condemned to a lifetime of dreary jobs and trampled aspirations. In light of this, tut-tutting about the lack of authenticity of TV talent shows seems naive and reactionary to say the least – you would have to be a real lemon-sucking killjoy (or else the spawn of a useless mob of freeloading no-marks with a famous name) not to get that. But the latest brace of creaking franchises is surely enough to make lemon-sucking killjoys out of the most open-hearted cheerleaders.
What went wrong? The early years of the current crop of cathode ray crooning competitions (of course they had their roots in such shows as Opportunity Knocks and New Faces, but these now seem as sepia-tinged as vaudeville) gave us Girls Aloud – one of THE great pop groups of all time, up there with The Beatles and The Monkees – who bestrode Noughties pop like five lip-glossed, hair-tossing colossi. These days, the X Factor winner can be casually robbed of the once-mandatory Christmas number one by an NHS choir (last year) or this year – really rubbing in how posh pop has become – by Clean Bandit, alumni of Westminster and Latymer who met while undergraduates at Cambridge, singing a song about an impoverished single mother trying to make a better life for her baby: Marie Antoinette with a Moog.
It was probably when Alexandra Burke – a perfectly serviceable singer and a stand-up broad, I’m sure – topped the Christmas 2008 chart with Hallelujah (the fastest selling single by a solo female artist, to give her credit) that I began to see the flaws in my own argument that TV singing competitions were unreservedly A Good Thing. To hear the ultimate song of spiritual turmoil being marketed as a silky seasonal balm seemed a bit…Stepford; it made perfect sense that Simon Cowell, previously the touter of the Power Rangers, Zig and Zag and Sinitta, might not really care for music, just like the subject of Cohen’s song, and was only really in his comfort zone when actively robbing it of its mystery and majesty.
For many people, popular songs are as near as they come to spiritual experiences. They are everyday magic easily accessed by anyone, even the semi-detached. ‘You act as if emotions didn’t exist,’ the baffled Camille says as she tries to pin down the cold-hearted object of her affection in En Couer En Hiver, ‘yet you love music.’ ‘Music is the stuff of dreams,’ Stephane stonewalls.
Popular songs are our touchstones and talismans in times of trouble and fun alike; the overused phrase ‘the soundtrack to our lives’, which is always wheeled out when some crooner finally falls off his perch, is a solipsistic and pompous one, but it has real resonance. The death of a singer we love touches us in a way that the death of an admired actor or a worshipped writer generally doesn’t; they speak to us directly, bypassing the intellect and keeping us young in a way that other artists cannot – we are forever innocent in the face of their confession. It’s all mixed up with sex, and with religious feeling (singers themselves are often torn between the sensual and the spiritual to an unusual degree) and makes them both our idols and our holy fools in a way that jugglers can never be, no matter how many balls they keep in the air.
Telling jokes, doing card tricks and dancing (especially if you have four legs) aren’t in any way degraded by prime-time shilling, but precious songs bring out the possessive lover in us and if we are still fully alive, something elemental in us recoils at seeing songs which have thrilled or comforted us used as filling to fluff up the Saturday night schedule. Dreams cannot be domesticated, desiccated or doled out in manageable slices. Watching Let It Shine and The Voice is like coming upon The Lord Of Misrule acting as a parking attendant. As the Sunday People once wrote of my alma mater the New Musical Express, must we fling this filth at our pop kids?