Wednesday 23 August 2017

Saga of 'the working-class hero' is the true opium of the masses

The only thing that matters is talent. Where it comes from ought to be beside the point, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Spare a thought for Domino's Pizzas. It's the one who puts up the cash each year to sponsor The X Factor on TV3, but it's Tesco who seems to be getting most of the corporate namechecks as former checkout worker Mary Byrne powers her way through the big ballads every week to put herself in contention for that coveted Christmas Number One.

In fact, anyone who doesn't know that Mary used to work the tills at her local supermarket must have spent the last few weeks down the same black hole as those Chilean miners, because the press never stop going on about it. Just as they love sprinkling those magic words "working-class single mother from Ballyfermot" like so much proletarian icing sugar on top of the massive publicity cake which The X Factor bakes each autumn.

Mary Byrne sings like a dream. She has character and integrity in spades. Audiences clearly love her. Why wouldn't they? Set the phone to redial and keep voting for her each weekend until she wins. But please, spare us the hackneyed salt of the earth, working-class hero stuff. If Mary had been born with a silver spoon in her mouth, the voice that comes out of it would still be all that matters, not the back story, however inspirational.

Which, fair enough, it is. Arthritis in both knees; seperated from the father of her baby in her 20s; confidence knocked; encouraged by friends who heard her sing in local pubs and clubs to go for the big time . . . sheesh, they've even got me at it now.

There's no point blaming the show for overdoing the clichés, since that's what The X Factor does best. Don't mess with a winning formula. This, as far as Simon Cowell is concerned, is Mary's Story, in the same way that Rebecca's Story is the one about the shy girl from Liverpool who doesn't know how talented she is, and Cher's Story the one about the annoying teenage girl with the sneering, pinched little face who has all the personality of a paper bag (or is that just how I see her?) Mary had to be the size 20 council estate resident now coming good after a life of disappointments. It makes each contestant memorable, gives the audience something to cheer. Such rags to riches sagas are a showbusiness staple.

It can get tedious -- sometimes you just want to sit on the sofa and listen to these people sing instead of having your heartstrings cynically tugged by yet another sob story -- but there's no harm in it as long as we realise it's only a marketing tool, and don't become seduced by the gimmick. Unfortunately, these story lines do seem to feed into a certain insidious idea that working-class experience is somehow more authentic, more worthy of admiration, than middle-class life, and that success born from adversity is more deserved as a result.

Even Elton John was trying to get a piece of the action last week, lambasting The X Factor for encouraging the notion that fame can be achieved instantly, when he had to spend years slogging round the club circuit, singing for peanuts, before he made it big. (Yeah, because Sir Elton's such a raw edgy performer, isn't he? The big platform shoes were nothing but a cunning front . . . )

After a while, this relentless quest for the kudos of poverty starts to resemble that Monty Python sketch where the smug north of England industrialists sit around with the brandy and cigars, competing to see who had the most deprived upbringing: "Lived in a cardboard box? You were lucky! All we had was a hole in the ground . . . "

In truth, every person's life is equally real to them; goosefeather pillow or bed of nails; Trinity College or School of Hard Knocks. The only thing that matters is talent. If you've got it, you've got it. Where it comes from ought to be beside the point.

Jedward suffered a little from this on last year's The X Factor. They were the posh kids from the fee-paying school with the nice house who had somehow cheated their way on to the show, thereby denying a chance of stardom to someone more "real", someone who "needed" it more than they did. The twins overcame that eventually by sheer energy and chutzpah to become the national treasures they are today, but it was touch and go for a while.

Had they come leaping out of Ballyfermot, people wouldn't have given them such a hard time. They'd have said fair play to them for going for it. Their antics would have been seen as working class audaciousness rather than eejitry.

As always, there's a political undertone at play here. The working class are adopted in popular culture so readily as symbols of triumph over the odds because they start out from the vantage point of victims, a role foisted on them by socialist sentimentalists. That's not a healthy self-image for any group of people to embrace for long, because it encourages defeatism. It merely makes the success stories of women like Mary Byrne seem like mysterious aberrations from the norm rather than examples that others could follow individually to better themselves. It makes it seem as if escaping disadvantage can only come about as a result of some statistical fluke -- by being plucked from obscurity at the hands of semi-mythical superheroes such as Simon Cowell and Louis Walsh, or winning the lotto -- rather than as a result of more prosaic hard work, persistence and determination.

There's the dilemma. Lionising the working class cuts both ways. It only keeps paying emotional dividends for the audience if the majority of the tame proles stay right where they are. Then the arc of success for the chosen few glitters more brightly.

If the working class was lifting itself up by the bootstraps all the time, the novelty would quickly wear off. Patronising the working class by gift-wrapping their histories as fatuous inspirational fables conspires against them every time, since they're being encouraged to embrace the very mindset which keeps them down. There's the true opium of the masses. What Karl Marx never stuck around long enough to see is that the masses would end up preferring that diet of comfort food to less exotic but ultimately more nutritious fare.

Sunday Independent

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