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KILLER KARAOKE: Reality Television and the Death of the American Middle Class

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by Drew Gardner
March 22, 2013 8:35 AM
5 Comments
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There has only been one brief moment where the American middle class grew at all in the last thirty years: during the tech bubble of the late 1990s. Reality television as we know it began just after this anomalous growth spurt began reversing itself. Shows like Survivor, Big Brother and Fear Factor dramatized the new economic realities: vicious competition, humiliation, hard work for little reward, and winner-take-all ethics. These shows reflect the American economic policymakers' ideology, where policy is decoupled from ethics, as well as from common sense. As wealth is more and more shifted from the middle class to a small concentration of the upper classes, demand begins to shrink, and with it, the ability to recover from the cyclical crises that are part of our economic system. The middle class is the main consumer class of the United States, and consumption is two thirds of the US economy. As the middle class shrinks, consumption shrinks. As consumption shrinks, the time it takes to recover after recessions grows. Increasing income inequality also translates into increasing economic instability and slower growth. Since the 1980s the job market has taken longer and longer to recover after every bust. More than five years after the great recession of 2007, the job market still hasn't recovered, but the stock market is booming. Because of this, the wealthy are enjoying full recovery, while the middle and working classes are falling behind, largely because of high unemployment. Corporate profits are booming, but only during the Great Depression has the share of GDP going to salary and wages ever been lower. American workers are less and less part of American prosperity.

The new economy of reality television has helped American Idol become the most profitable show in the U.S. Its contestants represent legions of unpaid laborers. American Idol presents itself as an aspirational drama, but the perspectives of the show are very much those of the ruling elite. Success in this competition is about pleasing famous millionaires on their terms. Idol's Horatio Alger stories remain the mythic ideal, but the statistics point to a very different reality. In America, the chances of someone’s making it to the top or to the middle from the bottom are lower than in any other advanced industrial country. The essence of American Idol is not so much the performances of the singers as it is the dramatization of the unbridgeable class divide between the ruling elite panel sitting behind the desks and the average citizen contestants standing on stage.

The early rounds of American Idol feature inappropriate contestants with little or no talent who are intentionally let through the cattle call weeding process. This represents an ugly and compelling entertainment spectacle that allows viewers to enjoy the drama of a few elite upper class celebrities verbally torturing some unfortunate neurotic caught in their web. These early scenes are job interviews designed to go horribly wrong. The hopeless contestants seem to deserve this fate because their grotesquely delusional overestimation of their talents and complete lack of understanding of what is expected of them by their prospective employers violates some primal sentiment of self-preservation in us. What they are really being punished for is not a lack of talent. They are being punished for being socially maladapted. Sadistic spectators at a ritual enforcement of conformity, we enjoy watching these sickly deer being culled from the herd.

In the later rounds, when we root for the talented underdogs who have made it through the culling process, our sentiment shifts: now we’re thrilled at someone else's success. But we’re also connecting with our own desire to sell out. Can this person hold on to a vestige of their humanity and individuality while achieving the extreme-sports version of selling out? American Idol openly and engagingly celebrates the triumph of commercialism over art. As viewers, we are rooting for the corporate machine that manufactures these celebrities as much as for the contestants themselves.

Killer Karaoke breaks with this tradition. There is no panel. The contestants are judged only by the audience, according to whatever criteria they please, probably a mix of singing talent, courage, and how entertainingly they flip out. But winning is not exactly the point of the show. Something of an afterhtought, the anti-climactic final challenge involves singing while remaining balanced on a giant rotating turntable with two other remaining contestants. The point of the show is to see how winningly contestants can suffer humiliation and pain under objectionable working conditions. In contrast with American Idol, Killer Karaoke encourages the audience to sympathize with all the contestants from the beginning: though we're amused by their suffering, we're also rooting for them. We want everyone to succeed, in a situation where success comes down to freaking out in the most hilarious way.

The host Steve-O (Stephen Gilchrist Glover), a graduate of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, went from working in a Florida flea market circus to being one of the most visible performers on Jackass, the MTV reality show featuring self-harming stunts. His role on that show was marked by the  extremity of his stunts, his oddly calm and polite demeanor, and his notorious struggles with drugs and alcohol. The inane and sublime poetics of Jackass inform Killer Karaoke to a significant degree. The qualities the now drug-free Steve-O brings with him from his former show—a particular combination of affability, masochism, encouragement, and sunniness in the face of pain and humiliation—help form much of the tone of Killer Karaoke and differentiate it from a host of other reality shows. He is a man dumb enough to consent to be choked unconscious six times in a row, and sensitive enough to tenderly French-kiss a giraffe. He helps steer the contestants to do their best to accept the challenges in the Jackass spirit, and some of them do seem to have fully embraced the idea that their suffering and fear are meant to bring joy to others.

Steve-O is consistently lucid and endearing on the show, even when the occasional shadow of substance-induced derangement briefly passes over his face. It's clear he is not really involved in the design of the stunts, which are extreme by game-show standards but lightweight compared to some of the activities featured on Jackass, which often veered closer to self-harm-oriented performance art than reality TV. Steve-O is very much a traditional game show host in this role on Killer Karaoke, an updated Bud Collyer. He stays out of the action and keeps to the role of explaining the stunts and drawing comments out of the contestants. In a recent interview about the show, he said, "Breaking bones and sticking things up my ass was not getting any easier." It's clear that he has a strong grasp of the economy of the show, and perhaps about reality TV in general: "It's about the misfortune of others and exploiting people's willingness to sacrifice their dignity and well being just to be on TV for a brief moment." Steve-O's host character is an expert on ill-advised activities who has happily gotten himself promoted to a upper management position.

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5 Comments

  • panger | April 2, 2013 5:43 PMReply

    Why is the audience left out of your critique? These programs need middle-class viewers, not just rich corporate overlords, to succeed.

  • Stewart | April 2, 2013 1:19 PMReply

    The economics the author subscribes to is dead. He's using the labor theory of value, which famously led Marx down his tragically wrong course that ultimately led to the murder or starvation of hundreds of millions.

    Value is subjective. An iPhone is more valuable to me than a bottle of water because I have plenty of water. Put me in the middle of the desert with nothing to drink and the equation changes. This is why most of the value in the world is created through exchange.

    It's good that the author notes that wealth inequality started skyrocketing in the 1970s. That's when the final vestiges of hard money were removed from America's currency system. The rich are getting richer because of our monetary policy. The Fed puts more money in the system via the financial sector. Rich people have much more access to that new money and they gobble it up.

  • Lucid | April 2, 2013 12:15 PMReply

    I doubt Drew Gardner is a communist, he is just confused about economics. Classical Marxist theory says that new value comes only comes from labor. Take land, add people, see how much food they produce. Now add capital, tractors, etc and they produce more with the same amount of labor. That new value came from capital. Now add knowledge, new ways to farm, production goes up again with same amount of labor. All inputs add value and all inputs, labor, capital etc can be over or underpaid.

  • Lucid | April 2, 2013 12:14 PMReply

    I doubt Drew Gardner is a communist, he is just confused about economics. Classical Marxist theory says that new value comes only comes from labor. Take land, add people, see how much food they produce. Now add capital, tractors, etc and they produce more with the same amount of labor. That new value came from capital. Now add knowledge, new ways to farm, production goes up again with same amount of labor. All inputs add value and all inputs, labor, capital etc can be over or underpaid.

  • D-man | April 2, 2013 11:55 AMReply

    "In order to concentrate wealth for owners, shareholders and managers, this surplus value is then concentrated into financial instruments and forms of rent that charge the workers who created the value in the first place. It is a parasitic relationship."

    Karl Marx could not have said it better himself.

    Go back to North Korea. Commie.

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