Below Average

by: Alan McKee / Queensland University of Technology

Australian Idol 2006 was won by Damien Leith, a small, enthusiastic Irishman with a voice of extreme purity, a falsetto that could melt your heart, and a face like a robber's dog.

I was gutted. I was cheering for Dean Geyer. Dean's voice wasn't as strong, nor as clear as Damien's. He occasionally sang slightly flat. But he was a natural performer, integrating backflips into his act and throwing his guitar across the stage. And, most importantly, he was so beautiful as to drive a man insane. When he looked at the camera with those knowing, sad, beautiful eyes – and through the camera, straight into my soul – I cried. On more than one occasion.

Damien Leith Deen Geyer

Damien Leith (left) and Deen Geyer (right)

How could the people of Australia, faced with this man's beauty, soil themselves, and our country, by voting an Idol winner purely on the basis that he is a great singer with a wonderful voice, range, tone and expression? Once again, the masses, the mainstream of the viewing public, has proven themselves to be less superficial, less concerned with spectacle, and more committed to traditional values of what counts as art, than I am.

It’s a common experience.

Of course, we all write our philosophies (“theories”) of television based on our perspectives and pleasures. The theorists who write about the importance of state politics in the public sphere are people who are fascinated by state politics. Those who write bemoaning the lack of art on television are those who enjoy art. Our theories are the rationalizations that follow on from our own pleasures, justifying to others what we like, and explaining to them why our tastes are superior to their own. As a man with tastes that are middlebrow at best, and whose biggest pleasures include gossipy celebrity magazines with deliciously bitchy captions underneath photos of Paris Hilton caught unawares (under a photo of Paris holding a balloon: “Spot the difference: both full of hot air and tend to go down at parties”), I was never going to write books that condemned the masses for failing to understand what is truly important in culture. Rather, my own theories are relentless optimistic – simply because I look around me at a world where, on every criterion that intellectuals traditionally use to judge cultural worthiness, I am below average. The masses outstrip me.

I am amazed, for example, by how much interest your average citizen takes in news about national and international politics. I would claim, of course (we all justify our own pleasures) that I am indeed fascinated by politics – but my realm of expertise is that world of cultural politics where, for example, I noted with interest that in the magazine coverage of David and Elton's wedding around the world the ceremony was universally referred to as a “marriage”, although the civil partnership laws in Britain explicitly make it illegal to describe it in such terms in any formal context. That's an important political point, I say, and someone has to take note of it. The masses know this, and pay attention. But as well as this, also take more interest in international politics than I do. I'm humbled and delighted by this fact. Whenever I turn on the television news (only ever on commercial channels, and rarely at that), I'm impressed by how much more international news the programs cover than I would do were I in charge of programming.

Elton John and David Furnish

Elton John and David Furnish

And don't even get me started on “quality” drama. I really can't take The Sopranos. It's nasty, and disturbing, and I find it slightly sick. It’s true that I did enjoy the few episodes of Six Feet Under that I saw, but I knew that it wasn’t for me and quickly stopped watching. When a friend recently told me how depressing the final episode had been, I just shook my head in that “I told you so” kind of way, and reminded him that it's best to stick to television shows that have happy endings, or dancing, or preferably both. I even find that the complex narrative structure of Lost is too avant garde for my tastes.

I'm just delighted that we've got another season of The Amazing Race currently showing in Australia. Sometimes, when strangers are kind to the contestants, it makes me cry.

And sometimes it even has dancing in it.

Image Credits:
1. Damien Leith
2. Deen Geyer
3. Elton John and David Furnish

Please feel free to comment.


  • Straight to the point!

    One of the bravest articles I ever had to read! Although, I am still left wondering if it is possible, for a recent graduate, to get a job in TV Studies, while being publicly on record, dissing “The Sopranos”, “Six Feet Under” and “Lost”.

  • middlebrow

    I have similar television experiences, in part because I cannot afford cable, and in part because I really can’t see myself following the complex plotlines that drive so many of these shows. I don’t want to have to watch every week to enjoy them. This is why I had to abandon “Desperate Housewives,” and part of why I love “House.” Sure, there may be some ongoing information related to character drama, but I’m fairly confident that any given week, I can tune in and see some crazy medical problem diagnosed and treated. It’s trite, it’s formulaic, it grossly misrepresents modern medicine, and it is, for viewers like me, the best thing on television.

  • Stephen Harrington

    Discerning Viewers

    Another fine article Alan!

    The one aspect you touch on here that really hit home for me was your comment that ‘the viewing public [seems] more committed to traditional values of what counts as art, than I am’, which reminds me of Australia’s first encounter with the notoriously low-brow Big Brother back in 2001. The more vocal public commentators found themselves outraged over Andy – a female housemate who was a proud dominatrix and swinger, and who voiced her intention to sleep with every male housemate – and the fact that her flaunting of ‘respectable’ values was going to be seen every weeknight in prime time. Two weeks later though, the outrage subsided as Andy (who was, in reality, the person most likely to provide the producers with gratuitous nudity) was voted out of the BB house… before she had the chance to bed even one fellow contestant. Viewers of this show, who are regularly put down for being voyeuristic and enjoying promoting bad behaviour and promiscuity (etc.), have usually been quick to evict those who lie or cheat their way through the game. The BB viewers, it seems, have actually been upholding traditional values after-all.

    So, I guess, this is point of my comment are these questions that get riased by this piece: why are people so critical of these ‘low-brow’ shows when they are so often a finger on the pulse of the viewing public? Why should scripted (that is, ‘UNreal’) drama be valued for its quality so much more than ACTUAL unscripted drama in reality TV? Are the current standards by which we so often judge ‘quality’ in TV out of sync, or is it just me?

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