Andrew Calcutt raises two cheers for TV talent shows
In mid-October, after the first outing of the expensively-hyped Fame Academy, the Guardian announced that the "BBC's latest talent show proves to be a turn-off." Meanwhile, the New Statesman came up with the cover line: "Fame why celebrity is the only show in town."A Sex Pistol They may appear contradictory. But both authors have judged the public mood correctly. Both responses to manufactured celebrity are both derived from the same underlying sensibility.
In Version One, manufactured pop acts are already passé. Popstars, Pop Idol and the rest were no more than a fad; a passing, peripheral fancy, swiftly satiated. From false to fallen idols in less than a year.
In Version Two, as outlined by John Gray in the New Statesman cover story, manufactured celebrity is here to stay. It is central to our current mode of existence. Will, Gareth and their ilk are the inevitable realisation of Andy Warhol's infamous declaration of short-lived fame for all. They represent the relentless democratisation of public life at a time when we have all the material goods we want, and the economy is increasingly oriented towards alleviating not our hunger but our continuously recurring boredom.
The assumption behind Version One is that pop music and its protagonists used to be so much more real, and, by implication, will soon be so again.
But unfortunately for this view, the self-conscious manufacture of pop is as old as youth culture itself. Here's pop chronicler Nik Cohn, back in 1969, describing the rise of the Highschool genre a decade earlier, when the teenager was newborn:
"Highschool is where the middle-aged businessman happened. He was a manager, agent, producer, disc jockey or general hustler. He found the act he wanted and also made a record. This record was then released and it either sold or it was hyped. Hype is a crucial word. In theory, it is simply short for hyperbole. In practice, though, it means to promote by hustle, pressure, even honest effort if necessary, and the idea is that you leave nothing to chance .Hype has become such an integral part of pop that one hardly notices it any more."
Highschool was white. Its black counterpart was Tamla Motown, the Detroit record label set up and run by Berry Gordy Jr. Gordy was the music industry's Henry Ford. An ex-auto worker, he used a Fordist division of labour to produce a well-oiled hit machine.
"I worked in the Ford factory before I came to the record business," he later recalled, "and I saw how each person did a different thing. And I said 'why can't we do that with the creative process?' It was just an idea of coming in one door and going out another door and having all these things done: the writing, the producing, the artist development .It was just that assembly-line approach to things."
According to its founding father, the record label most closely associated with the flowering of black musical creativity in the early to mid-sixties was built on the same lines as the Dearborn car plant nearby. Prototype cars, I mean, stars, were even sent to a finishing school where they received the equivalent of a wax and polish: "Here, an artist learned how to sit, walk and talk and how to smoke a cigarette with grace and elegance."
Far from being 'the end of creativity', as many have bemoaned, the manufactured pop star has frequently been the prime location for genre-bending innovation.
Even iconoclasm bears the marks of such artifice: the Sex Pistols, however much John Lydon denies it, were mostly made to measure by former clothing retailer Malcolm McLaren, who set out not only to assemble a gang of outlaws (even the Eagles were once desperadoes), but, more importantly, to make a spectacle of the packaging and selling commodification of pop, aka The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle.
The same might be said of Popstars, which made the manufacture of Hear'Say as clear as day (the only remaining mystery is that bloody apostrophe!). In their revelation of the pop process, Popstars, Pop Idol and their derivatives are less the antithesis of punk and more like its apotheosis. The key difference is that Popstars etc have been genuinely popular, whereas punk was always more art school than dole queue, and elitist down to its Dr Martens boots.
But such awkward historical details are simply overlooked by those who talk about getting back to the time when popular music was somehow more genuine: world music instead of Western pop; hessian rather than vinyl wall coverings; mung beans, not McDonald's; the Zapatistas' subcomandante Marcos in preference to the Fire Brigade Union's Andy Gilchrist. In advanced capitalist countries there is a strong and widespread desire to be associated with the real, the exotic and the unmediated. Derived from disillusion with the modern, this desire takes the form of religious awe for the ancient. But there are limits. For example, the hatred of hamburgers does not stretch all the way to halal meat, suggesting that the quest for authenticity is more like a construction of the raw on the part of the overcooked.
Never mind that complaining about pubescent 'teenyboppers' and their saccharine musical diet has been the staple of adolescent cultural climbers since the Archies sang 'Sugar Sugar'; regardless of the extent to which Popstars producers showed their own regard for authenticity by devising a format which drew heavily on 'reality tv'; manufactured celebrities are an offence against the current cult of authenticity sacrilege in an age where artifice is the anti-Christ and its apparent absence is itself a sacrament.
If the artificial is the demon of Version One (the quest for authenticity), superficiality is the spectre haunting Version Two, in which today's society has been deprived of significance and we are not only destined for dilettantism but increasingly determined by it.
Faced with a population that was more inclined to vote for Will or Gareth than in political elections, and which now seems to be turning away from Pop Idol derivatives as quickly as a year-or-so ago it turned towards them, the words 'fickle' and 'public' spring into spontaneous embrace. But in rationalising the spontaneous, Version Two fails to see that manufactured celebrity is not only the opium of an individuated people, it is also the cry of the ideologically depressed.
Celebrity today is true to a time in which ambition has been privatised. Whereas previous generations which aspired to become social reformers or scientists showed a desire to add to society's well-being through their personal efforts, today's sought-after celebrity-status creates only itself; and personality is not only the means but also the end of this narrowed ambition.
However, the chief appeal of celebrity is neither money nor luxury but recognition. It holds out the prospect of transcending the limits of privatised existence, of being known to the general public and of becoming part of society's collective experience. A generation that has lost faith in science and cannot bring itself to engage with politics is knocking on the door of the public sphere by identifying with celebrities and sharing the desire to become one.
Only a generation ago, transcendence through singing was widely available at Saturday night 'free and easy' sessions in working class pubs, where 'singers from the floor' would typically include a man who had never made an autonomous decision in his life giving a heartfelt rendition of 'My Way'. Popstars and its clones are a continuation of this popular tradition, which has always valued familiarity above originality. But now that politics and other forms of social endeavour matter less, this kind of cultural activity, even when experienced vicariously by television audiences, counts for so much more. Hence the transposition of deep-rooted, real ambition on to something as superficial and 'false' as the manufactured celebrity.
While Version One shows a naive faith in authenticity, Version Two is cynical about the communal high which many seek from celebrity. But for all their criticisms, both these responses are profoundly uncritical of the widespread assumption that the man-made world is intolerable and unalterable. In short, they reject the superficial and the artificial for being human, all too human.