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.

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