The history of television talent shows can be seen as a battle for the means of production of fame.
Opportunity Knocks taught us that TV was the gatekeeper, a chink in the fire curtains letting out a shard of light and illuminating the dancing dust. ITV’s New Faces was similar, TV in the 70’s had killed the radio star and the variety bill, the only way to attain fame was to cross that glass fourth wall.
Stars in Their Eyes offered a different route. Before it hit the UK’s Saturday night consciousness in mid 1990 there really wasn’t such a thing a a tribute act: in clubs around the country there were turns doing songs made popular by popular artists, they would do a variety and they wouldn’t pretend to. They could make a living — the petite bourgeoisie of singers — but they didn’t have access to fame.
Matthew Kelly’s original incarnation gave those artists access to the means of production of fame. We can understand Stars in Their Eyes in dialectical materialism terms as allowing a division of fame as if it were any other labour: the tribute artist could do the work that the real stars did not have the time or the inclination to do. ’As seen on Stars in Their Eyes’ became a phrase on a poster and a way to transfer labour into a form of notoriety without gatekeepers.
Eventually the format was co-opted, for a while it also allowed TV to continue as it was offering a new vehicle for the already famous. But most of all it proved that the TV audience — the lumpenproletariat — didn’t need variety: two hours of singing and then a vote on a Saturday night was enough. As long as there was enough dry ice.
Post-X-Factor’s cultural hegemony it would seem that Stars has no longer the ability to allow the proletariat to sell their labour power for fame. A procession of double glazing fitters and local government administrators get to stride through the famous door dressed as a pop singer that they can sing a bit like, but now not before they are partially-willing participants in some of Harry Hill’s trademark whimsy.
Hill appeared on the co-opted Stars as Morrissey, and his stock in trade is the sly look to camera — he treats the whole experience as an in-joke. A reification of the ironic enjoyment: tonight Matthew I’m going to have my cake and eat it.
A pub-singer does Jessie J, but frankly we have no idea what Jessie J sounds like. We get a social worker doing skits with a faintly racist Mother Theresa lookalike before revealing herself as Tina Turner. She’s a terrible singer, but the best comic actor of the contestants: a struggle against classes of talent.
A van driver from the north east wins, as Frankie Valli, and he won’t — even if he triumphs in the “not-live final” — become a household name. Stars’ winners suffer from immiseration, that is a reduction in the wages of performance as another on the TV. We can hope that they have no illusions to the contrary.
Habermas, of the Frankfurt School, in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere details development of the bourgeois public sphere and its decline — taking the democratisation of the talent show as a allegory for this we can read that Harry Hill’s Stars is an attempt to reafirm the bourgeois liberal order. With funny wigs.
Hill’s ironic take on hosting is a form of creative destruction, the format cannot survive him and return. But while he’s at the reigns there is a surplus value in the programme.