The X-Factor masquerades as a singing competition, but really it’s just a popularity contest. Strictly Come Dancing purports to be a dancing competition, but really it’s just a popularity contest. The X-Factor vs. Strictly, which gets more viewers? It’s a popularity contest. Our whole lives are just popularity contests.
Birth: Who’s baby is prettier? Infancy: Can your baby talk/walk/not poo itself? School. Who’s cool, who isn’t? Work. Who will network and brown nose and get promoted? Marriage. Who can I marry that has these pointless attributes? Unbeknown to me, there’s probably even a judging criteria for the residents of old people’s homes. Who has the best biscuit selection perhaps? Or who smells least of wee?
Everything in our fleeting lives involves us trying to steer the big popularity ship in our direction. We’re all narcissistic ego maniacs to some degree; it’s encoded in our DNA. Survival of the fittest—biting, clawing and fucking each other over behind a veneer of civility.
It’s horrible and base, but we love it. Unfortunately, however, due to the massive competition, not all of us 6 billion humans can rise to the upper tiers of popularity where we can use our high regard to influence others. So when we do get a chance to exert some control we grab hold of it. In this sense, it’s voting. Not in a general election or anything boring like that. After all, politicians aren’t popular. They’re just trying to force their way to the top to make up for a life of languishing at the bottom of the pile. But we’re smarter than that. You can’t make us vote for you, David Cameron! No, we vote for things that entertain us, like those that once filled the seats in the colossal amphitheatres, we take our seats and cheer and boo along with the plasma screen people in front of us; we listen to the ‘wise words’ of the judging emperors and then give the performers an electronic thumbs up with our phones (well, some of us do, apparently).
In fact, the only differences between watching modern day reality TV shows and ancient Greek gladiatorial contests are that: (1) Nobody dies (if you consider death in the traditional life ending sense of the word) and (2) the contests are there out of their own free will (if you consider free will to be non-deterministic and if indeed any of us proletariat wage slaves can ever truly be considered free, that is). So really it’s exactly the same. Apart from one other major difference that is.
From my in depth historical research of gladiatorial contests (watching Gladiator twice about 5 years ago), it would seem that performance is directly related to popularity. Maximus Decimus Meridius fought well, gained the public’s respect and was, therefore, allowed to live. However, as with everything, the media have destroyed the relationship between talent and reward to the extent that, when we now watch a show, we don’t pick the best person for their singing or dancing, we pick the person that seems nice and has a good back story (the more deaths in the family the better); we disobey all the rules and concepts of the show and follow our popularity meter based on the skewed ideals touted by the red top tabloids.
“What’s this, a dancing competition? . . . Bollocks! I’m voting for that fat ungainly clubfooted old bloke dragging his partner across the floor like a dead animal, because he is well spoken, jolly and, from what I’ve read, a fine political correspondent.”
“What’s this, a singing competition?” . . . Fuck that, I’m voting for those weird twins that dance like they are suffering from multiple dislocations and sing like a cat being opened with a rusty can opener, because they have been touted as the plucky underdogs and their winning might destroy Simon Cowell’s career.”
The results of this phenomenon are both humorous and dispiriting in equal measure. It is, of course, endlessly funny to watch the perpetually in control Simon Cowell, splutter and choke on his own rage at the irony of yet another brilliant singer being voted off because they didn’t register highly on the public’s popularometer, as a direct result of the media hype that he engendered in order to promote the ‘singing competition’ in the first place. But on the other hand, it is not so fun to watch talented people systematically crushed week in week out solely for the purposes of entertainment.
Unpleasant as it may seem at the time though, ultimately it’s a good lesson for the contestants. Talent contests such as the X-Factor give ordinary people a taste of what it’s like to be climb to the upper echelons and bask in the warm glow of popularity, and for the vast majority of contestants, it also offers the perspective from the gloomy depths of obscurity after the fast fall back down again. What’s more, the judges, with their increasingly pernicious back biting and derision of one another show the acerbic attitude you need to reach the top and stay there. To watch a contestant stood alone on stage post performance waiting for an honest appraisal, only to be greeted by a series of unconnected sideways snipes between judges is to watch the true narcissism of celebrity unfold. It is the type of behaviour we read about in celebrity magazines, that we remember from popular people at school and from bosses in jobs we left. It is the type of behaviour that makes this level of popularity, despite the vast riches it offers, still seem unappealing.