Do clever people care about the X Factor?
I hope I may have persuaded Radio 4’s Moral Maze to make X Factor, and celebrity culture more generally, its focus this week. I have told the producer that I am happy to open by declaring: ‘I am an X Factor addict but I am ashamed of myself’ and then go on to attack the pernicious impact of the programme and its ilk on our moral fibre.
I want to argue that the series is only a little bit to do with music and much, much more a form of voyeuristic exploitation. Every single contestant, from the opening public auditions to the grand final, is required to say that winning and becoming famous is the most important thing in their life. The thrill we get is not from great performances but from seeing people’s hopes get shattered.
I intend to connect this to the wider celebrity culture, one which, for example, sees the best seller lists dominated by terrible autobiographies (John Harris is very good on this today in the Guardian). And because so many celebrities are famous for being famous, the worshipping of celebrity comes at the cost of valuing other attributes like effort, skill and virtue.
Finally, I hope to argue, celebrity culture is also responsible for the way the media (and the public) reduces everything – from sport to politics – to soap opera.
The problem is that, in order to try to convince the programme, I tried developing arguments against my attack and quickly came up with three:
It is elitist – middle class people have their own celebrities – e.g. Melvyn Bragg, Damien Hirst, Simon Schama – it’s just we call them public intellectuals
It is patronising – assuming less educated people don’t know this is all just a bit of frothy escapism
It fails to see the value – in our diverse, atomised society – of a programme like X factor which gives tens of millions of people something about which they can talk to workmates and strangers
I would love to know what my readers think. Having said which, I won’t be holding my breath.
Today, I have asked two audiences – one at a Parenting Institute conference and the other the Great Room audience for an event awarding the RSA Albert Medal to Jeremy Deller – to tell me whether they were ‘Rebecca’, ‘Matt’, or – option three – they didn’t care about X Factor. In both cases option three won hands down.
So, knowing the intellectual calibre of my readers I fear this topic may leave you cold.