Road map on a one-way ticket to Palookaville
They do a lot of walking on The Voice of Ireland. Walking to the venue door (as filmed from outside). Walking to it (filmed from the inside). Walking up stairs. Walking back stage. Walking on the stage. Walking off the stage.
If you were to watch The Voice with the sound down, you might assume it was a competition in which people had to see if they had enough breath left to attract the attention of four people facing away from them.
Quite where the contestants are actually walking to is another matter, because it is not towards a path to stardom supposedly laid out for one of them. Instead, the show promises them a road map, before then ushering them on to a detour to nowhere.
The notion of these shows is that they will find hidden talent, waiting out there like a colony of emperor penguins tracked down after first going through all the excrement left behind. Yet, over the past decade, the Irish talent show format on RTÉ has developed a solid track record for three particular things: ratings, revenue and an impressive track record in finding no genuine stars whatsoever.
Mickey Harte, Chris Doran, Donna and Joe McCaul, Lucia Evans, David O’Connor, Leanne Moore. Each of these won a series of You’re A Star, only to find to some degree that their brief propulsion towards fame spluttered on the launching pad. The first three went to the Eurovision, where they became shrapnel in the explosion of our Eurovision reputation.
Winners of the All-Ireland Talent Show also flirt with life in the busy side-room of 15-minute famers, although writing off its most recent, 15-year-old winner would be as cruel as it would be premature. Yet, if you were to know nothing of these shows you might assume the chief objective is to identify an act the Irish public would rather not see again.
In the UK, the possibility of global fame teeters in balance with that of rapid obsolescence – but at least there’s a chance. For Irish contestants, there appears to be a greater chance of domestic fame through failure in British shows than there is of success in the home-grown versions.
Pat Byrne, last year’s winner of The Voice of Ireland, had success with his first single only for his second single to flop, exhausted, down the charts. Backed by Universal Records, who come as part of the show’s prize, he has an upcoming Vicar Street show to prove that Irish audiences are not delightfully fickle. Yet, they do seem to spend an inordinate amount of money and time on phone voting, tickets for the live shows, buying into campaigns for local favourites, before growing bored as soon as the credits roll.
So, the format survives and reinvents itself despite the emptiness of the programmes’ central promise. The appeal comes from their soapish qualities of back stories, unpopular characters, who will survive and who will not. The promise of fame is a shiny lure to contestants, and increases the drama, but this too has the believability factor of a daytime soap. Post-shows, the narrative becomes about shaking off the shackles of the talent-show past. The Irish band Kodaline appeared on the BBC’s influential tips for 2013, but only after shedding their past as You’re A Star runners-up 21 Demands.
Ultimately, the only characters with staying power are the judges, with Bressie the current star of The Voice and scourge of lesser-looking men.
(Observing him at an event recently, he so often stood up from his table to oblige someone’s request for a photograph that his knees must have only months left in them. He is, at a guess, more than seven foot tall and more triangular than the pyramids of Giza. And he sports a photo face that is as if Superman was shooting laser beams from his eyes in a most casual I-do-this-all-the-time fashion. Other than that, he’s no big deal.)
Bressie has become famous on The Voice for listening to each singer while contorting his face and wringing his hands. It is as if he is being asked to choose not between embracing mediocrity or ignoring it, but between €1 million and a night with Beyoncé. It’s the most enjoyable part of the show.
Even if the opening 600,000-strong audience for The Voice was 100,000 down on last year’s first episode, it’s still a solid figure. And while it is easy to be sniffy about the talent shows, and to accuse them of the utter destruction of the supposed purity of the creative industries, they succeed despite not following up on what they promise to do because judges, programme-makers and the public now recognise and embrace that charade.
Popstars began the trend in Ireland 11 years ago and the fuel hasn’t run out. Just shovel a few more singers in the furnace.