THERE are people whose entire personality centres around lifting weights at the gym. These men, and they are almost all men, make it the meaning of their lives to sculpt a classical Greco physique on steroids. It’s pointless because these muscle-bound bros have no Herculean labour to do. Most will, after their intensive workouts, return to their workplace stacking tampons at Morrisons, taking calls at their recruitment job, or showing people around houses for an estate agency. There is less and less a need for a peak physique in our modern world, and those who devote themselves to achieving it tend to need it the least. Strong guys – I’m thinking roadworkers, farmers, bricklayers – are rarely seen without a bit of a belly giving the lie to the fact their strength is often far and away superior to the chiselled build. This is precisely the point, workers who interface with the world with their entire bodies are drained of the desire to squat with dumbbells for an hour after work, while eight hours in front of a screen leaves the bodybuilder wanting.
He is a symptom of one problem of the modern world of work. There’s the atomisation brought about by the decline of factory work, now finding its zenith in working from home. The spirit of camaraderie is in decay: the sons of miners who had their own colliery choirs might now be asking their supervisor at an Amazon warehouse for permission to use the toilet. Today, not even the Christmas party is a safe bet for the office calendar.
Another symptom is Simon Cowell and his talent shows. We’re all familiar with Britain’s Got Talent, The X Factor and the earlier Pop Idol. These shows, as had been well documented, go talent scouting, and more than half the acts participate by invitation. Each year it’s less British, and sometimes these two things intersect with absurd results. A 2016 BGT finalist, Moldovan Alex Magala, had previously made the finals of Italy’s Got Talent, America’s Got Talent, Ukraine’s Got Talent, won Russia’s Got Talent, and performed at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Despite knowing there’s nothing real about these reality TV programmes, we still watch them in our millions and pay to vote in them.
Soviet Union, September 19, 1935: Alexei Stakhanov mines 227 tons of coal during his shift. This feat made Stakhanov a celebrity, not just in the USSR where he was made a Hero of Socialist Labour, but in the US too, where he appeared on the cover of Time magazine. His efforts birthed the Stakhanovite movement which encouraged Soviet workers to go above and beyond the call of duty. Workers were rewarded, given medals, hosted at Kremlin conferences and made the face of propaganda campaigns. Of course, much of the Stakhanov story is as fake as Britain’s Got Talent, but the point is of diverging priorities – that one society challenges the worker to be the best, and the other says the best thing a worker can do is down tools entirely.
Cowell exploits (and this isn’t hard to do) the meaninglessness of a nine-to-five job making spreadsheets and tea. Sob stories of contestants take up as much screen time as the acts. You’ll notice that these shows regularly feature contestants from South Wales, the North East, and other left-behind areas. This is because for so many there the only path to plaudits is not to excel at work, because there isn’t any or it’s not decent, but to escape it and make your way to the West End or the recording studios. Never mind Stakhanovism, we don’t even celebrate employee of the month.
Neither Stakhanovism nor Cowellism can change the reality that all societies are elitist. There will never be more people who make it in terms of amassing huge wealth and fame than people who don’t. We measure the value of everything, from immigration, to trade, to our own lives in mechanical monetary terms. So, we look to where the money is made. It’s in the City where you need an IQ of 150 or the right connections. It’s at the tech giants, where again, the mental demands exclude almost the entire population – that’s why they have to import so much labour from abroad. But everyone can sing, dance, or tell jokes, to varying degrees, and the value society places on artists who dominate these fields is our hope line to making it That’s what keeps us watching, voting, and applying to take part in talent shows.
But ‘making it’ could, should, and does have little to do with the accumulation of money, things or renown. Having children is one of the most fulfilling acts a human is capable of. In Hungary, mothers who have four or more children are exempted from tax, which is a material incentive but more importantly it telegraphs societal approval. In our culture, bearing children is seen as an impediment to making it, that babies are a drag anchor on women’s careers and a drain on both parents’ income. Our industry awards are centred on workers whose skills you’d see on talent shows – the Oscars, Baftas and Grammys lionise entertainers. And where there is variation, such as nurses’ awards shows, they are subsumed into the Cowellist paradigm. But we could celebrate workers for what they do, and how well they do it. We should have more Clarkson’s Farm and the Sun Military Awards – the latter no longer even a televised event. Surely it must be easier to make role models out of these people than of Sam Smith, the singer-songwriter who insists on the pronoun ‘they’.
A culture where work is a thing to escape from, something that 99 per cent of us will never do, is fated to disappoint. Pop Idol was an enterprise wholly concerned with the creation and worship of false idols. That’s what these talent shows are about. At a time when the minimum wage has become the maximum wage, and a promotion to supervisor means a 2p pay rise, it’s not surprising that we can be strung along by this crude televisual artifice, in search of meaning, idols and aspiration. Perhaps the best barometer of when we find those things is when we stop bothering to watch talent shows.