We have become the society of the spectacle. The car wreck. The plane crash. People who aren’t sated unless we see another less fortunate. We watch Cops not merely to chuckle at what we deem as being low lifes (although one could make the argument that we are no higher—socioeconomic status notwithstanding—than they, and perhaps even lower on the scale: we’re watching; they’re doing) but because we want to see them get slammed around. Wrestling with authenticity and a badge. We want to see when animals attack because they are ripping something to shreds. Feel the viscera. We watch the makeover programs not because we’re interested in the ostensible attractive individual that appears at the end, but because of the unattractive person at the start who must undergo what are evidently painful procedures. We don’t want to know these people. We simply want to watch. Heretofore the master at doing this sort of thing on television was Chuck Barris, not only permitting us to see the object of derision in the form of the “contestants” on The Gong Show—what would you win beyond heightened humiliation?—but also the painful agony of those who appeared on The Newlywed Game when seemingly obvious answers weren’t proffered: It became clear that those who made the mistakes would have either a truncated marriage or a lifetime of underlying misery. Watch the Wheel of Fortune spin for the shitheels. Watch them slip and end up with a foot in their mouth. We’re protected.
But we don’t admit this. We make claims its about something else. Interest. Entertainment. No, no, not about those who are the unfortunate. Something else. It is not a question of finding these people to be pathetic, because that would presume that we actually feel something for these people. We don’t. We feel only for ourselves. Our smugness.
And the entertainment industry knows this in spades. One could argue that J.G. Ballard should be the prevailing author of interest, given his clinical fictional analyses of scenes of dismemberment, death and destruction, but spectacle requires seeing. And we are now to the point where fictional renditions aren’t as good as bona fide flesh under the scalpel.
William Hung, the reject from American Idol who managed to become famous for being so awful with his rendition of “She Bangs,” is still another example of this morbid fascination. His handlers are milking his evident deficiencies with another song, “We Are The Champions.” The music video includes Hung vamping like Freddy Mercury, which is two-levels of the pain of others: The pain of Mercury’s actual demise; the pain of seeing an unwieldy individual acting out the moves of someone who had evinced a sense of smoothness. Horrible to witness. Which is why people watch.
The court jesters of old were said to tell a truth, a truth to power that no one else dared tell. The court jesters of today have no message, at least no message of truth. It is merely a message of consumption. Which is similarly horrible to behold if we were willing to watch.