In the noughties, we all became connoisseurs of pathos thanks to reality television singing competitions. It was a very specific cultural moment. Realising that the music industry hadn’t managed to kill music off completely, the television industry decided to give it a go. They figured that because singing was free and brought many people joy, it would probably be best if they injected it with false hope and dreams of avarice.
And so it was that underpaid researchers were given nets and sent like folklore collectors to the fringes of Britain’s desiccated towns. Their brief was to capture the most delicious freaks with the saddest stories and make them sing. And then whole families would watch as millionaire panellists – bloated by whatever the rich were injecting into their heads at that point in history, and high on the lead in their makeup and their own smug secretions – pointed at them and uttered aphasic stream-of-consciousness slam poetry and slapped their flailing, boneless limbs on to big red buttons.
This was the golden age of free speech, when Simon Cowell, a large thumb with a black sticklebrick for hair, wouldn't balk at telling a young woman she was overweight or desist from crushing the dreams of someone whose resting face could already be described as "in great pain". These brave truth-tellers told it like it was, unconcerned with "cancel culture" or "kindness" or "human dignity" or any of the other fads kids are obsessed with today.
As for us at home, we learned that there were loads of different kinds of television-crying. There was the crying that occurred when a tune-warbler recounted the hardships experienced by an elderly family member and explained that they had decided to honour them, not by violently upending the hierarchies of their oppression, but by entering a singing competition.
And then there was the weeping of joy that happened when someone with a modicum of talent was told they would be spared the indignities of late capitalism by signing some documents without a lawyer present.
And there were, of course, the wails of despair that emerged after someone realised that hell was here on Earth and hope was dead. This was our favourite. We would clutch each other with glee and try and lick their tears from our television screens. I even patented a special TV that secreted actual tears but no one bought it because they were too busy entering singing competitions.
Look, it was a more innocent time. We didn't yet know that television companies bullying vulnerable people and then putting clips of that bullying up on YouTube and us circulating the bullying on social media and then re-enacting the same bullying techniques upon our nephews and filming that and putting that on YouTube – was a bad thing. It's very easy to judge us now but you weren't there. You were off reading books or commenting "why is this news?" under articles like this one.
Deathless music moguls
A lot has changed. Firstly, young people barely know what music is. They call it “TikTok lipsync audio” and if it’s longer than 15 seconds they call it “classical music” and if it’s longer than a minute they call it “a book”. And secondly, being good is suddenly “cool” and they’ve got it into their heads that if we’re really to save the planet it probably doesn’t start with collective bullying for lols.
Pop music is a solidly middle-aged interest now. The Last Singer Standing (Saturday, RTÉ One) is a reality television singing show that makes me think of phrases like "good corporate governance" and "best practice". It's overseen by smiley Nicky Byrne who, in his suit, runners and open-necked shirt, has the demeanour of a tech entrepreneur. I keep expecting him to show me a PowerPoint presentation about Dogecoin. Instead he shows me a young person who is going to sing.
The panel of judges is, furthermore, not peopled by deathless music moguls who have crawled from their crypts lured by the scent of human suffering. No, it's filled out with no-nonsense song-wranglers from pop music's middle management tier. There's Nadine Coyle from feminine noise-burblers Girls Aloud; Joey Fatone from ancient misspelled boyband NSYNC; and Samantha Mumba who is wearing an excellent dress made out of bin bags. They're all sweet and make comments about singing and performance and not people's head-shapes or how they are destined to die alone. Meanwhile, all of the contestants are polite young people with the correct skillsets for the job (singing) and good manners. It reminds me of interview panels I've experienced in the past. If these kids play their cards right they could find themselves singing in a cubicle in an open plan office at PopMusic Inc.
“Why can’t you get a nice, unionised pop music job?” I can see myself saying to my worst nephew.
“No way, Daddyo! I’m no square! I want to stick garlic up my nose on TikTok and make my way in the world narrating video games in a silly voice. Are you hip to my jive?” I imagine him responding (This is how young people talk).
Another thing: nobody has any illusions anymore that winning a reality show is going to be the key to all of their best tomorrows. Youthful ambitions are pretty meagre nowadays. One contestant says he hopes to use the prize money to buy a mobile home. He doesn’t add “and please put it on defendable high ground and fill it with canned goods” but this is understood. They’re a very practical generation.
Surprisingly, despite the business-like way in which everyone is concerned with actual singing, as opposed to eviscerating someone’s hopes for their uncanny erotic pleasure, The Last Singer Standing is very watchable. This could be because of its premise (each singer buzzes in to compete with an already singing contestant) but is probably just because everyone on it can sing well. Some of them can sing very well. It’s an interesting twist. Who knows, TV producers might eventually do something crazy like create a weekly television show that features live performances from professional musicians? Or “bards” as we used to call them back in my day.