X Factor, Strictly Come Dancing and Sycophants

Simon Cowell at the National Television Awards...

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I must admit to something. I have been watching some “talent” shows on TV, namely X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing. ‘Why ever?’ you ask. To be honest I’m not really sure. It has something to do with watching it because others in my house are and partly because sometimes, just sometimes, genuine talent creeps in. It’s enjoyable watching Kara Tointon do the Argentinian tango to a professional standard or closing your eyes and listening to Rebecca Ferguson sound eerily like Aretha Franklin (a comparison that, unfortunately, has since lost its sparkle due to it being mentioned at least once every week).

The Problem

The problem, however, is not in the standard of karaoke performance that most of the performers limbo under. It is the post-performance comments and the Colosseum-esque reaction from the fans whose role seems not to simply enjoy the spectacle and performances but to judge the judges on their performance. This usually takes the form of hooping and hollering at a positive comment, regardless of how truthful that comment is, and baying for blood at a critical comment, again regardless of whether that comment is true or constructive.

Simon Cowell was the archetypal “evil bastard” as it were – he used to criticise everybody for everything. He couldn’t have got more cartoonishly evil if he strapped a woman to some train tracks and played maniacal piano music over the top. Recently, however, it seems that he has mellowed out. He now seems to relish earning millions of pounds, gaining notoriety and winning awards. Craig Revel Horwood, comparatively new on the TV judging circuit, has since filled Cowell’s boots as a tell-it-like-it-is, hard to please bastard and occupies a slot on the panel on Strictly.

What’s weird about these shows is that when a judge gives criticism, unless it is sparse and peppered with compliments, the crowd goes nuts. Boos, hissing and calling out (and all the other things you were told not to do at school) flood out. It’s like telling someone “how dare you, as an expert, criticise an amateur’s performance?” or “how dare you offer advice to someone who’s trying hard to learn a new skill?” It’s preposterous.

There’s an episode of You Have Been Watching, a Charlie Brooker vehicle, where something happens (forgive my memory gap) and the audience laugh, perhaps too politely, and Brooker quickly condemns his audience as sycophants. Almost ironically the audience laughs again – ‘ha, ha, ha – he called us sycophants, he’s so funny’. Regardless of what Brooker thought the audience were being sycophantic – they loved the celebrities, they loved Brooker and they loved being in on the jokes. Certainly, sometimes the adulation is warranted – who doesn’t like being reduced to tears in laughter or watching a spirited performance by a talented singer or dancer? The problem is that this adulation is often unconditional; regardless of what the celebrity or performer does, the crowd reacts positively as if they were proud parents watching their child in a school play.

Sycophancy can be relatively benign. Who wouldn’t want to meet their heroes, shower them with praise, get a photo and then go on their merry way? Better yet, who wouldn’t want the opportunity to spend an extended period of time with this person and have a genuine conversation with them? In fact, why not use the internet to stalk them, track them down in person and devote their life following them? Okay, it’s going a bit far. The first suggestion I can agree is relatively innocent, and even the second is as well, but the third suggestion is psychotic. It would be a serious sign of detachment from reality to treat someone like prey to be hunted, and praising them for things that do not deserve it, simply to please them, is wrong. If you believe the praise honestly then you are psychotic and if you do it for their sake then you are encouraging it.

Praise and Criticism
I honestly believe that praise and criticism should be delivered appropriately and tactfully. There is an insidious meme spreading amongst people that always speaking one’s mind is a good thing – something to be proud of. Since when was tact such a bad thing? There’s a classic rule for delivering criticism and that is to “sandwich” it between two pieces of praise and you do see it sometimes on talent shows. For instance, a judge might say “I really love the band and the production, it looks great but I thought there were moments of your performance when you didn’t quite hit the right notes but otherwise you look great and you look like a popstar!” Yes, there are a lot of conjunctions in that sentence. That’s the point. The point is to get the criticism out in such a way that it is quick and hard to detect. The problem with this is that the very nature of criticising someone constructively is that they are made aware of their mistakes and that they are able to learn from them. Hiding criticism does them no good.

An interesting thing is that when you notice a judge trying to do this but fails and the mob (audience) notice. There’s this weird effect where the fickleness of the audience can’t quite keep up. First there are these whooping cheers for the first bit of praise, then the criticism comes and they suddenly have to switch to booing, and then they’re caught out when the second slice of praise comes.

One thing that annoys me about the comments from judges, despite their ostensive untruthfulness, is that they are often of a very poor quality. This tends to apply more to X-Factor than Strictly but often judges will come out and say something like, ‘I loved that song choice tonight! [Hollering] And I just want to say that you are getting better and better every week! [Hooping] The production looks great and this new look you have is really working, you seem more like a popstar every time we see you! [Hooping and hollering]’ That’s not praising the performer for what they’ve done. The first bit of praise was simply an expression of preference. The second is a platitude. The third simply praises the production staff, choreographer, music arranger and the stylists. The performers on X-Factor do not write their own lyrics or music, arrange any of the instrumentals, play any of the instruments (except the odd guitar) and they probably have little to no input over their appearance, the stage appearance or the backup dancers and singers. At most these performers are a totem and at the least they are a mere artefact, the product of consumerism created to satiate the baying masses’ desire for mediocrity and sanitation.

The Solution?
Constructive criticism and advice from an expert is an incredibly valuable tool to have. Having just started a new job I met with the person who did my job before me (but now works on a contract basis on other projects) and we spent an hour going through everything I needed to know about how to do the job. He said he had seen my work, my CV and read this blog. He praised me for the skills I displayed and my enthusiasm for the role. He told me how to be successful, how to play the games of the people I would be dealing with, how to improve my writing. If I were so inclined I could have taken this advice negatively; I could have construed it as a personal attack – but I didn’t.

The problem seems to be some people’s inability to take criticism, to understand the vital role it plays in improvement. A tired truism nowadays is to say that it is considered wrong to criticise children – that we praise, inappropriately, achievement when there is none. We give out “participation medals” and praise those who “take part” even if they didn’t win. I know it’s nice to be kind to people but let’s face it – the world doesn’t work like that. Competition in the real world only recognises the winners. When I was told that over 300 people applied for the job that I now have I felt incredibly good about myself. Certainly, if I were to meet one of these people, I would levy them with platitudes about how they did their best and wish them luck, but we’d both know that I was the “winner” – I was the one who was considered to be the best prospect for the job. This is a harsh truth (and you may consider me arrogant for even mentioning it) but it is still the truth. It is still the case that I was the one hired to do the job and that so many others were not.

Those who are good at things are worthy of praise and they should be allowed to hear it. Those who are not should be criticised, if appropriate, as it will help their performance. When kids are young they should find things they are good at and encouraged so that they might flourish and taste the sweetness of success. Teaching children then it does not matter if they perform well or not, or that they should pursue talents that they have no hope in improving in, is a disservice. If you are too afraid to criticise then you should at least encourage them to do something else.

Some singers simply won’t get any better, no matter how much praise or criticise you heap on them. Ann Widdecombe will never be a good dancer and Wagner will never be able to stay in tune and for them, criticising them makes no sense. But for others, those who aspire to improve and get better, they must receive criticism when they have done something bad and they must receive praise for when they have done good. The judges should know this and the audience should know this. The capriciousness of the audience is a good reason for fame-obsessed celebrities not to do anything the mob won’t like but they need to be stronger. For the sake of the children.


Muslim Extremists do the craziest things.

Muslims clash with police after burning poppy in anti-Armistice Day protest” screams the headline on this Daily Telegraph article to be found here, stoking the fires of hatred as they do so.

It’s arguable that whenever there is a protest of significance the press ought to cover it.  It makes sure that people throughout the locality, region, nation or world here about it and that there can be no argument about suppression.  Sometimes, however, I think there should be exceptions.

Vicious Cycle

The protesters identified themselves as being from a group called “Muslims Against Crusades”, an organisation believed to be a splinter group from Islam4UK.  Islam4UK is notorious Islamic extremist group that was proscribed recently, i.e. banned from existing.  Before this, however, they were a group that believed in a very fundamentalist interpretation of Islam believing in Sharia Law, for instance.

What’s funny about their organisation is the way they conducted themselves in public.  They were massive PR whores, feeding off the hatred that they stoked in a seemingly symbiotic relationship with the media.  The now famous Wootten Bassett non-incident is worth finding out about, especially if you look at how satirist Charlie Brooker reported on it (see the Newswipe with Charlie Brooker episode for this).

In short, they announced that they were going to stage a protest at a place where people publicly mourn the deaths of servicemen and women who have died on public duty.  Naturally, this caused public outrage with the usual vitriol of “it’s disgusting” and “it’s an outrage” spurting from whatever vox pop reporters could find on the streets.

After a media frenzy lasting only a week, Islam4UK called it off.  The police said that they never even received an application from them to hold a protest there.  The whole thing was a hoax.  Of course, this didn’t stop a 400,000 strong anti-Islam4UK Facebook group from being created and anti-Muslim sentiments being poured out across the nation in newspapers and the internet.

The media loved it.  It was controversial.  It riled up everybody.  It sold copy.  For them, this was a good news story as it meant that people would want to read their paper and people would be spending time talking about.  Fantastic.

The problem with this, of course, is that this is exactly what Islam4UK wanted.  It was a PR stunt.  Imagine T-Mobile shooting kittens on live TV or Simon Cowell literally flinging his turds at an X-Factor contestant.  This stuff would be all over the news.  AND EVERYBODY WOULD BE TALKING ABOUT IT.  Of course, for Cowell and T-Mobile it would damage their careers but for Islam4UK, who have no reputation, this was a gold mine.

Furthermore, Islam4UK are a group of Islamic extremists.  What they want is animosity towards Muslims.  There are many, many moderate Muslims in the world – ordinary people who are religious but are happy to live in the society that they do, enjoying their faith and letting others do the same.  What extremists want are people to join their side and the only way they can do this is by polarising people, by getting these moderate Muslims on their side.  Of course, the moderates aren’t going to be convinced that they should commit extreme acts without a good reason and the best reason of all seems to be “because non-Muslims hate you”.

By getting non-Muslims to attack Muslims it will make moderate Muslims feel threatened, make them feel that they don’t belong to the community as a whole and, instead, can only trust their Muslim brothers and sisters.  Such a move would galvanise all Muslims against anti-Muslim sentiments, thus creating the army that Islam4UK needs to seriously challenge the established laws and practices of the UK.

Thus, we find ourselves in an odd position.  The more extreme things Islam4UK do, the more the press reports it.  The more the press reports it, the more people make stupid generalised comments about Muslims.  The more Muslims feel threatened the more likely they are to join extremist organisations.  The more members extremist organisations have the more likely they are to do extremist activities.  The more they do these extremist activities the more likely they are to feature in the press.  Do you see the circle?

The Press Is Not Helping

The press want to sell copy.  People buying their paper is good for them and the way to get people to buy it is to either to make them angry or scare the shit out of them.  Extremist Muslims tick both of those boxes.  Good for them and the press, bad for us.

The weird thing about this story in particular is that they use the headline “Muslims clash with police after burning poppy in anti-Armistice Day protest” rather than using the term “Islamists” (usually used to denote the political side of Islam, i.e. those who believe in the establishment of Sharia Law) or “Muslim Extremists” (Muslims that typically hold ‘fundamental’ or otherwise unorthodox views about Islam).

Both of these terms seem far more accurate.  Andy Bloxham, the author of the article, probably didn’t write the headline (they seldom do) but he uses the phrase “Islamic protesters” in the first sentence of the article, thus clearly stating their views on Islam.  The headline writer, however, either didn’t see that bit or, and this is far more likely, believed that the generalised term “Muslims” would sell more copy than the more accurate alternatives.

And So?

Personally, I think the press coverage that these groups get in the press should be stopped.  One of my friends said to me that all protests should be covered by the press.  They have a right to protest and the world has a right to know that they did so.  But with groups like these, ones much like the ‘proscribed’ groups, the benefit of reporting their protest is surely greatly shadowed by the damage this does to Muslims and our society.

If the urge to cover these protests is too much then coverage should be short, concise and matter-of-fact.  There was a protest by some Islamist group, 35 people turned up and that’s it.  Headlines that seem to say “Muslims hate fallen soldiers” are no help to anybody and are merely inflammatory.  Those sorts of remarks exist simply to create controversy where it does not reside and create debate on topics that aren’t even worth debating.  There are people with strange and evil views but they don’t make the paper, why report this?  Because it sells copy.

On a side note, I am aware of the irony of this post.  I’m arguing that the press shouldn’t report on it because it brings it to people’s attention and yet here I am writing about it myself, thus joining it.  Perhaps, but if the Telegraph hadn’t done it in the first place I wouldn’t be writing about it now.  I’d be asleep, not worrying about what stupid thing the media was going to do next.