Sunday, June 19, 2005

Why I Hate Dancing with the Stars

Sometimes you just have to give in to your irrational prejudices and let yourself loathe. As the saying goes, moderation in all things, including being reasonable.

The source of my spleen in this case is the popular TV show Dancing with the Stars. I can't stand it. And, like the Christian community trying to censor The Last Temptation of Christ, I haven't actually taken the trouble to watch it.

From what I can gather, it's a real-time reality TV show in which New Zealanders with some kind of celebrity status compete, performing choreographed dance routines which are scored by a panel of judges. Some are eliminated each episode, and we'll eventually get an overall winner. It's a version of a show which has been successful in other countries, beginning (I think) in Britain.

So far, so unobjectionable. I like dancing, both doing and watching it. I caught a performance of salsa a while back in a club in Cordoba, Argentina, which was some of the most mesmerising and inspiring entertainment I'd seen in a long time. I haven't watched a lot of competitive ballroom stuff, but am something of a fan of Winter Olympics-style ice dancing. Right now I'm pretty busy, so a show on competitive dancing is something that I would possibly watch if I was already in front of the TV, but would probably skip for other priorities.

If dancing is fine, the "with the stars" bit does seriously irritate me. Why is it the involvement of two-bit celebrities which makes the concept a goer? Why is it more compelling viewing becasue it involves a former reserve All Black hooker or a dilettante politican? In a celebrity-addled world, New Zealand is an extreme case, if only because our ubiquitous "stars" usually haven't even done much that's notable, apart from selling stories on their personal lives to the Womens' Weekly. They're endlessly recycled in the name of "entertainment", and I'd rather see (much) less of them, not more.

That's enough to produce an aversion to watching the show. But I wouldn't mind too much if it just stayed where it belongs, which is on TV in its assigned timeslot. What triggers the real simmering resentment is Dancing with the Stars' intrusion into every area of the public discourse. The overheard watercooler conversations at work can't be helped. But I can hardly pick up a newspaper, read a local magazine, or watch the TV news without being ambushed with an item about the show.

Now, when a TV channel runs a "news" item about a show on that same channel, in my view its news programme instantly loses credibility. But you can at least understand their self-promoting motivation for doing so. When a newspaper like the Dominion Post runs articles on a shows' "stars" or, as it did on Saturday, plasters them over the front page, it has no excuse but laziness and sycophancy.

Worse, a pub quiz in which I competed last Thursday included a question on Dancing with the Stars, a very specific question about who had been eliminated during a particular episode. You had to have watched that episode to answer the question. I was appalled that the content of a reality TV show could be considered "general knowledge". "This is a contrived media creation of no importance to history or culture!", I felt like shouting (fortunately, Jeremy was able to answer the question and help ensure our team's crushing victory).

Then this morning my flatmate Venessa was talking to her mother in Christchurch and had the speakerphone switched on. "Are you watching that show Dancing with the Stars?" asked her mother. Venessa replied that she wasn't (actually, at the moment we don't have a TV). "Oh, you should" said her mother. "It's really gripping".

Now, did I imagine it, or was there almost a moral weight to the "should" pronounced by Venessa's mother? There's something almost totalitarian about the grip of the media monopolies on our country's tiny fishbowl of of a public space. For me, there was a hint of the "did you watch our Beloved Leader's speech?" about the tone of Venessa's mother's question.

I am of course overreacting. My criticisms are unreasonable and disproportionate. People love the show; apparently about 700,000 viewers tune in each week. My contempt for the concept is elitist and anti-democratic. The audience likes the celebrity element because the contestants are familar to them and can be identified with; it adds to the drama of the competition.

The rest of the media are just reflecting the fact that the show is an immensely popular phenomenon - they print articles or show pieces on the "stars" because it's what people are interested in. And the poor quizmaster can't be blamed for putting in a question about what seems a current hot topic, nor Venessa's mother for recommending something she genuinely enjoys.

All of these points are undisputed. I do , however, reserve the right to go on feeling unreasonable antipathy towards Dancing with the Stars as long as it continues to intrude uninvited into my consciousness.


Anonymous said...

I totally agree, but your scorn of this prime example of "popular culture" makes you sound like your father.


Tim said...

There is a gargantum billboard advertising it in the city which I walk past every day. Apparently there is another series of pop idol coming out as well. I despise them both, though, like you, I have never actually seen either of them...

My solution to the problem has been getting rid of my TV; I haven't watched TV for more than a few minutes at someone elses house for about 3 years.

I find my RSS feeds give me a far better concept of what is going on in the rest of the world, and the best part is you get to choose what you read (other than the headlines). Generally I find that most of what is on the news is not really all that newsworthy and most of the stuff that is newsworthy is either heavily tarnished by the corporate lens, or not even there at all.

Simon Bidwell said...

Dad - ok, I agree I'm starting to sound a little like you there. But it's not "popular culture" as such that I'm objecting to. There are people who write off everything that is either very popular or on TV, but I would argue that they tend to be closed-minded in a way that exceeds my own bit of targeted close-mindedness here.

There are people who claim to be fans of drama and satire who refuse to watch The Simpsons because it's a massively popular TV show, or throw a glance at it and say "it's a cartoon full of horrid little people". They don't know what they're missing.

I on the other hand, have a pretty good idea what I'm missing. And anyway, it's not so much the product itself I find objectionable. I have nothing against "crap TV", as my ex-flatmate Avril called it, and even enjoy watching it sometimes (though I do much prefer crap comedy or drama to reality TV). It's the intrusion on the rest of my life that I resent. Since when did you see the plot lines of TV cop shows or sitcoms being treated as "news" by the mainstream media? You don't - they stay in their timeslots where they belong.

Yes, you could argue that there are other things which impose just as oppressively upon people who aren't interested in them. Rugby and the Lions tour, for example - you're probaby sick of hearing about it already. Now, I *am* interested in the rugby and I still get annoyed when it creeps onto the front page or human interest stories about players dominate the features section.

But there is an important difference. The Lions vs All Blacks series, for example, is a contest between the best players of two nations (ok, composite of nations in the Lions' case), which many people would be interested in regardless of whether it was on TV. A game is clearly an event of interest, and what happens in it is definitely newsworthy.

Dancing with the Stars, on the other hand, is not any kind of national, regional or local dancing contest. It's a totally contrived media creation. It's made only for TV, which in my view is where it should stay.

Tim - yes, I get most of my news from the internet as well and agree that local mainstream sources are mostly pretty pathetic. But having low expectations is still consistent with criticizing their worst excesses.

Jack Yan said...

Very well said, Simon. It's a worldwide phenomenon: losers from The Apprentice and American Idol wind up on various American morning news shows, and this godawful show encroaches on daily New Zealand life. The more news channels there are, the more ill-informed we become, as we realize only seven stories circulate the planet at any one time, and the rest—like Dancing with the Stars—is just plain filler.