The Voice lacks that X Factor

BBC1’s response to Simon Cowell’s talent-show hegemony is just too damned nice to be much fun.

David Bowden

Topics Culture

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It seems like it’s all been going a bit ‘Pete Tong’ for music programming at the BBC. In fact, if the Beeb’s finger is as off the cultural zeitgeist as is claimed, they probably think rhyming ‘wrong’ with the name of the fiftysomething house-music DJ is probably the latest slang. They probably don’t think there’s anything ‘Pete Tong’ with Pete Tong, given he’s still hosting a show on premier youth-orientated Radio 1.

Whether it’ll be a swansong for tooth-long crooner Engelbert Humperdinck is another matter, after the disappointment of last Saturday’s Eurovision. After a second-to-last finish from the 76-year-old star – specially chosen for his apparent popularity among Eastern European grannies – there has been much grumbling about whether the BBC should continue its not inconsiderable financial support for the competition.

Yet the ailing fortunes of the BBC’s other grand foray into pop music, The Voice, should offer some warning signs before the corporation starts shedding such a well-loved, and oft-mocked, tradition as Eurovision. The Voice, for those who follow this sort of thing, is the lavishly funded and heavily advertised rival to Simon Cowell’s Britain’s Got Talent and The X Factor. The BBC’s uppity newcomer started off with booming ratings, but has been shedding viewers at an alarming rate ever since. It stumbles into its second semi-final this weekend, with even its creator admitting it has been ‘disappointing.’ When quizzed about it on Radio 4’s Today programme recently, Cowell himself simply burst out laughing.

That the failure of The Voice, as predicted by many in advance, so closely resembles the similar fate of Fame Academy a decade ago is particularly bruising. Both shows aimed to be highbrow and serious artistic takes on finding a modern pop star rather than the ‘karaoke’ contests of The X Factor, and its predecessors, Pop Idol and Popstars. They did this by placing an emphasis on the wannabes’ training and development under the watchful eye of expert judges, encouraging the audience to make informed choices about quality.

The various incarnations of ITV’s talent shows have, of course, produced one of the most thrilling girl bands of the decade (Girls Aloud), one of the most successful British acts of the millennium (Leona Lewis), a genuinely interesting adult-orientated star (Will Young) and recently a smattering of potentially intriguing artists (Rebecca Ferguson, Aiden Grimshaw) alongside the one-hit wonders and lucrative-if-bland boybands such as JLS and One Direction. Fame Academy’s David Sneddon has actually gone on to have a successful songwriting career, co-penning several songs with ultra-hyped starlet Lana Del Rey, but I bet you didn’t know that until I just said it, did you?

This time around, The Voice took the same concept – performers are signed up, Dragons Den-style by pop stars such as Tom Jones, Jessie J and (at considerable expense) – and added some politically correct snootiness just for added Saturday evening fun by making a big deal about how contestants initially weren’t visible to stop them being judged on appearances. The judges would be nice and supportive, too, unlike those uncouth types over on ITV.

Despite initial interest, it would appear that hoping to attract the British viewing public by informing them that everything they like about current shows makes them shallow, superficial and nasty has had surprisingly limited appeal. In truth, the BBC – hamstrung by various guidelines and broadcasting restrictions which befit their publically funded status – will always struggle to compete in such an outright commercial field, unlike commercial broadcasters such as ITV, and it is therefore baffling that they invest so much time and effort in doing so. Christ knows, if the BBC were allowed to lend its considerable resources to advertising popstars to the same extent it advertises itself, we’d be left with a horrifyingly drab cultural landscape, obsessed with sending the right message about contemporary Britain. Or we’d be having a Shared National Experience every five minutes simply because Auntie jumped up and down and kept telling us we were.

Which is roughly what we end up with in Eurovision each year. My advice to the BBC would be simple: stop trying to compete in areas you shouldn’t (and can’t) compete in, and instead do something different and challenging. Given the popularity of the contest partly has traditionally lain in giving its presenters (famously Terry Wogan, now Graham Norton) an unusually free rein to be bitchy, snide and generally maverick, they should extend the same logic to the performers.

The possibilities could be thrilling. Instead of the non-threatening camp innuendo of Scooch in 2007, why not try stars with an air of genuine sexual menace or possessing some kind intriguing perversion? Rather than the frankly creepy schoolgirl-fantasising rap of Daz Sampson’s Teenage Life, why not a Tinie Tempah singing about the virtues of getting rowdy drunk until you pass out?

Sadly, the dulling demands of cultural diplomacy might prevent anything genuinely interesting or creative appearing. Then again, last year there was something of a serious campaign to get Morrissey to perform. If the UK really cares about having someone who represents our national interests on the European stage, perhaps the backwards-looking, reactionary and masses-despising old grump of pop may be just the man for the coalition-era of austerity politics. The handsome devil probably wouldn’t get far in The Voice but he can at least turn a good tune, and his failure may well be the best form of entertainment available.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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