Yestereve, as my husband and I sat reading Proust and Kafka side by side on our antique leather sofa, one of us happened to switch on the demonic gogglebox in the corner of the room, purely by accident of course. The programme which appeared on it was entitled something like ‘X-Idol All-Singing All-Dancing Contest Factor’ and it featured several people who were very (very!) young performing popular musical hits in front of a panel of judges.
I’m sure you know the type of show to which I am referring. Don’t pretend you don’t, because – frankly – nobody believes you.
I wasn’t paying full attention to the screen, because I was lost in a book (in fact, this is true, but I don’t expect you to believe it); however, after a while I put down what I was reading and started to focus on the TV. It wasn’t because I was so intrigued by the cutting-edge, brand-new, thrilling format of the show (zzzz….), but because I couldn’t believe the way these young, talented people were talking about themselves.
‘This is my last chance,’ some of them sobbed. ‘I’ll never be able to do this if I don’t get through today.’ ‘My whole life depends on this.’ ‘I don’t know how I’ll go home and face my family if I don’t succeed here today.’ ‘I want my family to be proud of me.’
I felt so sorry and sad to hear them talk like this, and I couldn’t understand why they were putting such pressure on themselves. I was horrified most of all by the fact that they were all so young.
I remember being sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. I remember how I was desperate for life to start, and how I felt like every second spent not doing what I wanted was a second wasted. I remember having dreams and ambitions and drive, and I remember more than anything wanting to make something of my life, to get away from everything I’d known up to that point and move to another place, begin a new existence, and meet new people. I can completely understand the urge, at that age, to get started, to stop wasting time, to break into the thick of life and immerse yourself in it. It’s an exciting time, for sure. But what you lack at that age is any way of knowing how much time you have, just waiting for you to turn it into something amazing.
I just wish someone would take those young people to one side and remind them that there are a million different ways to reach your goal, and not winning a TV show is not the death of your dream. I also wish they’d try to explain to them that, when you’re sixteen, you can literally do anything you want. Your life is barely begun, you have so much time, and you can shape your future whatever way you choose. I also wish that the young people concerned would listen, and understand – I know, when I was that age, the advice of anyone out of their teens was considered less than worthless. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth hearing, though.
All the contestants on this particular show wanted to be professional recording artists, and all of them were hoping that their individual skills would be good enough to see them advance through the competition to the ultimate prize of a record deal. I’m sure some of them also wanted to take advantage of the expert mentoring offered to them by the established artists who take part in the show, year after year, and – perhaps – some of them just wanted to be on TV. These contestants are not people who have been working for twenty or thirty years in the business, who have struggled to fill venues, who have played in bars to audiences of four or five, who have had to put up with catcalls and abuse, who have lost bookings, put every penny they have into their career, and live their lives on the road. They are not people who have been worn down by the industry, who have had every last drop of their youthful idealism ground into the dirt by the relentless effort of trying to make it, and who have given their music career every ounce of their devotion and effort. Those are the kind of people who might be able to say ‘This is my last chance’ or ‘If I don’t make it on this show, I know the dream is over,’ and from whose lips it might sound legitimate.
For a person of sixteen whose only prior experience is singing in their bedroom into their hairbrush, the concept of ‘last chance’ shouldn’t even come into play.
But then, these young contestants can hardly be blamed for thinking the way they do – all their lives, these shows have been the biggest thing on TV. It’s not surprising that they think entering one and winning it is the ‘only’ path to success. But if someone has every shred of their self-worth and self-belief wrapped up in winning a TV show – which, I’m sure they don’t realise, is primarily a vehicle to make money for its producers, not to make them into stars – and if they’re knocked out of the running, it’s clearly going to have a terrible effect on their mind and their mental health. I find that thought chilling, and very sad.
I know some contestants enter these shows year after year after year, and each time they ‘fail’ their confidence takes another knock. Eventually, they won’t have any self-belief left, because they’re trying to succeed in an environment which is not geared towards helping them to achieve what they want. Not winning a competition like this is not ‘failure.’ Instead of pouring their hearts into entering the same competition again and again, I wish some of these young people would just make music, if that’s what they want to do. Record yourself performing and upload it to YouTube. Set up an artist’s Facebook page, Twitter account, Tumblr blog, whatever it takes – and build an audience. Get gigs. Get paying gigs. Buy more equipment. Put a band together. Go on the road. Find a friend who’s good at computing, and ask them to make you a website. Find a friend who’s arty, and get them to design your merch. All of this can be done – and it’s amazing how much people want to help when they see you chasing your dream, and working for it. When I was a teenager, all of this could be achieved, too – but it was much, much harder. Nowadays, the internet makes all things possible.
Not winning a TV show which is designed to make money for everyone but the artists who pour their hearts into it is not, decidedly not, the only way to make it in the music business. Every single contestant on those shows has it within themselves to make a success of their career, if they’re willing to put in the effort and use a little imagination. It’s never ‘too late’. It’s never their ‘last chance.’ Their families are already proud of them.
All that pressure, all that stress, and all that incredible emotional pain they’re inflicting upon themselves is damaging, horrible to watch and utterly unnecessary. We’re in the middle of Mental Health Week, and so there’s no better time to remind people that there are lots of ways to get there, and they have plenty of time to make the journey.
Also, I’m never watching another TV talent show. I’ll happily stick to Proust and Kafka from now on, thank you very much.