Thursday, 1 July 2010

Smiling your way to the stars

My friend Geoff has sent me a link to a book review: Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World by Barbara Ehrenreich. It challenges the assertion that a positive attitude can help you achieve almost anything you want, from good health to wealth and success, and if you don't succeed, it's because you weren't positive enough. While a positive attitude is no bad thing, it's clearly not a universal panacea. I have seen motivational speakers, and found their smug homilies about how a positive attitude got them through being shot, house repossessions, job losses, divorces, bereavements (I'm not making this up) and you can do the same. It seems we're no longer allowed to grieve for losses and setbacks in life.

Relating this to music, I've long thought that the American wannabe culture is responsible for the huge numbers of people who think that if they wish it hard enough, they will become pop stars via TV talent shows. I have occasionally watched episodes of X-factor and Pop Idol, and have been quite amazed at the utter mediocrity or even awfulness of some of the contestants, who are absolutely convinced, not only that they are brilliant, but also that this is the way to achieve their "life's dream". It seems to me that stating that something is your "dream" is enough to destroy any self-critical faculties you may possess, and X-Factor and its ilk is precisely designed to tap into that positive thinking delusion.

There is also a self regarding motive here: if you can become rich and famous by merely wishing hard enough for it, why spend years trailing up and down motorways in an old Transit for gigs in pubs and clubs: just go on X-Factor where you will be set on the road to instant fame and fortune. What else can explain the genuine tears after rejection? It's more than mere disappointment: it's the frustration that comes from feeling you were deprived of something you were entitled to. Listening to disappointed contestants talk after failing, it's clear that many of these people think success is their right. If not via X-Factor, they will become successful another way, they assert as they take their steps back into obscurity. It's all a sort of cheap pop version of the positive thinking scam that Barbara Ehrenreich has written about.

The commercial success of Girls Aloud is undoubtedly due to the length of their legs and corresponding skimpiness of their outfits, because their studio-enhanced, relentlessly unison singing is mediocre. I have written previously about the appalling Cheryl Cole, but I recently saw an item about her on a news website and was amused to see many readers comment about the mediocrity of her singing ~ except for one distraught fan who wrote that, okay she isn't a brilliant singer but she's pretty and dances well. As she is meant to be a pop singer, that says it all really. But the main point about Girls Aloud is that their commercial success, along with Ms Cole's "heart-warming" rags to riches story, is probably what continues to motivate loads of wannabes to try to repeat the trick: they only have to wish hard enough with the right positive attitude and the "dream" will be theirs for the taking. Of course their efforts always do lead to fame and fortune ... for Simon Cowell.

I have other complaints about shows like X-factor, and those designed to get lead singers for West End musicals, but in this posting I wanted to concentrate on the damage caused by this bastardised motivational claptrap which, by giving the likes of Simon Cowell excessive control over what gets in the charts, is converting pop music into insipid, safe muzak with a sugar coating of synthetic seductiveness.


  1. Thanks, Nev, and well put. There's another unpleasant angle to the "positive thinking panacea", though. The advocates of this view can turn rather nasty when their views are challenged. If they are confronted with evidence that their positive thinking techniques don't work for some (perhaps most) people, they dismiss it by saying that the people concerned weren't thinking positively enough. It's the secular equivalent of the way religious people condemn those who lose their faith as "backsliders" and "apostates". Just imagine being in a nazi concentration camp, or dying of cancer and being told that the cause of your suffering was the fact that you weren't thinking positively enough!

  2. Which of course would add a layer of guilt to your problems.

  3. There's always been pop music in my 40 years. Relax, enjoy the soundtrack and get the beers in. Sorry I missed u in the Guestie


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