Tuesday, 9 January 2007

Observing pop culture

I’ve arrived here in the UK just at the start of the fifth season of “Big Brother,” a wildly popular reality series here in the UK which I believe existed in some form at some point in the US but never really caught on.

I’ve written about the show before, me and Pierce were perplexed by it when we visited London two years ago. The premise to the series is similar to many of our reality shows, a group of people is selected to live in a house and have every moment of their lives recorded. Each week the British public decides who they would like to “save” in the house. Whoever gets the least amount of votes has to leave. And the person who’s left wins some sort of cash prize.

Sounds fairly standard right? But here’s where it gets weird. There are not one, but two “live feeds” from the house, two channels that provide two different live broadcasts of whatever is going on in the house at that exact moment, which is usually people sitting around eating or sleeping. And people actually sit around and watch this, riveted!

What’s more, there are literally dozens of shows where people sit around and discuss what’s going on with the people on the show. One is Big Brother’s Big Mouth, in which people discuss who they like and who they don’t like, what they think people are going to do, etc. And people even pay to call in and have a little recorded sentence played on the air in which they say “I think Sarah is pretty” or “I don’t like Joe’s haircut”. Another show, Big Brother’s Brain, psychoanalyses the behavior and mental state of the contestants, inviting psychologists on to dispense their analysis.

The public’s near obsession with the program stretches beyond the boundaries of broadcast TV. Both the morning and evening tabloid papers feature front page headlines about what’s going on on the show, and today even The Independent had an article all about one of the more well-known contestants from a series past, Jade Goody, who rose to fame but uttering incredibly stupid comments such as saying people were making her an “escape goat” and thinking “East Angular” was a foreign country. The public absolutely reviled her, and through this, of course, she rose to fame and is now a huge celebrity here. She even has her own perfume which beat even Victoria Beckham’s and is said to be worth nearly £2 million, despite having no real talent for anything in particular (this all sounds quite familiar – Jessica Simpson anyone?). Anyway now they’ve put her back in the house and made some of the contestants serve her as a task, a demand several of the housemates couldn’t stomach and they walked out. The recent row has just added fuel to the public’s fascination with the Jade Goody phenomenon.

So with all of this detailed description it probably sounds like I too have fallen victim to this pop juggernaut eh? Perhaps you could make the argument, but my point is I feel able to do it here because I’m merely an observer. I don’t think it compromises my integrity to observe this phenomenon. Nor do I think all of this in any way indicates that the British public is more susceptible than anyone else to the lure of this kind of thing.

Of course it is undeniable that there has never been a reality show in the US that has commanded the kind of attention that Big Brother does here, grabbing front-page headlines every day and spawning not only separate TV shows analyzing it but even whole channels devoted to live feeds from it. But this is due more to the small size of the country that some sort of voyeuristic or sadistic tendency in the population. Media here is much more personalized. I mean in a country that revolves around just one city, if you live in that city you’re bound to actually see these Britain-only celebrities out and about. Whereas our popular culture is not really our own in America (beamed as it is to the rest of the world and thus owned by no country in particular), the UK has it’s own unique pop culture that is just its own. For people to participate in that, in an all-consuming, over-the-top way even, gives them a sense of belonging. And with fewer home-grown viewing options than Americans have, it’s no wonder one show can become so disproportionately omnipresent at any given time.

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