“There’s been class warfare going on for the last twenty years and my class has won.” —Warren Buffett
“I’m about to get my ass kicked by crawfish.”—Steve-O
It doesn’t seem unreasonable to imagine that, at the brainstorming session where the phrase “Not Reality. Actuality.” was coined, one of the copywriters might have pointed out that these two words are synonyms. Apparently this observation was never made, or not with sufficient conviction, because this is now the official motto of Turner Broadcasting’s TruTV network, which specializes in reality programming. Viewers might anticipate a new threshold of lowered expectations for the shows featured on this network, based solely on its grammatically challenged motto, but one show on it, Killer Karaoke, was recently described by the New York Times as “the highest possible use of the medium and the most profound statement ever made about the human condition.” This statement may be a bit of ironic hyperbole, but it contains a kernel of truth. Killer Karaoke is a window on the shrinking opportunities and declining fortunes of the American middle class.
The show combines two popular reality TV game show formats, the singing competition and the stunt challenge. It is essentially a mash-up of American Idol and Fear Factor. Like most other new reality television shows, the producers go out of their way to avoid cluttering up the show with original ideas. It is based on Sing If You Can, the 2011 British singing competition that celebrates performing while being subjected to extremely distracting circumstances, including having snakes draped on your body and being blasted with a high-powered mechanical storm simulation. Most of the concepts for the stunts on Killer Karaoke are drawn directly from Sing If You Can.
The contestants on Sing If You Can are well-known singers playing for charities, showing viewers the spectacle of celebrities experiencing various states of stress and alarm. Like American Idol or The Voice, the set design is cavernous and ostentatiously expensive-looking, and like those shows, the overarching feel of the show is one of inaccessible wealth, a wealth the audience is meant to voyeuristically ogle. The celebrity contestants on Sing If You Can may be amusingly stressed in the face of their challenges, but the audience is still very much meant to register them as betters existing in an untouchable universe of privilege.
Killer Karaoke takes this class structure and turns it on its head. The set is modest and the contestants read as average middle class karaoke enthusiasts, enthusiasts who hunger to be seen on television. The deal they accept by appearing on the show is startlingly bad. They are promised a chance to win “up to” $10,000. But it’s clear that the final challenge of the show is designed to pay out an average closer to half that amount. The largest amount won so far is $7,800. Survivor offered the winning contestant one million dollars. Fear Factor offered $50,000. The deal has been getting worse and worse as reality shows have progressed.
The shows that exploded in the early aughts, starting with Survivor and Big Brother, represented a new historical relationship between reality TV actors and employers. Most reality shows today enjoy a spectacularly profitable exploitation of their actors. These shows are attractive to produce because creating the content and, ultimately, much of the show’s value requires them to utilize a class of unorganized low-paid laborer: the American reality contestant.
Capitalist economic systems require one central point of internal logic for them to function; in order to constantly expand profits, workers must be paid less than the value their work creates, ideally as little as possible, as little as the labor market will bear. In classical economic theory, new value only comes from one place, labor. In order to concentrate wealth for owners, shareholders and managers, this surplus value is then concentrated into financial instruments and forms of rent that charge the workers who created the value in the first place. It is a parasitic relationship.
Reality TV contestants are an excellent object for this kind of relationship, because they are a disposable, easily replaced group of workers. Because their working conditions are not regulated by the Screen Actor’s Guild, contestants can work unusually long hours, Some shows require a working day as long as 12-18 hours. Appearing on a show requires temporarily leaving, even risking, one’s job. Union pay for an actor on a scripted situation comedy is $25,000 per episode. Reality TV contestants are often paid nothing at all for their work, though some receive a modest stipend. Most agree to work for food and shelter during the time they are being filmed, in hopes that the exposure might lead to some future opportunity, if not just for the sheer narcissistic reward of appearing on television.
The worsening conditions for television workers with the advent of reality TV mirror the gradually worsening conditions of the American middle class over the past few decades. Since the early 1970s, business leaders and the pro-business lobby have orchestrated a massive wealth transfer from the middle class to the ruling elite through deregulation and changes in trade and tax policies that favor the upper classes at the expense of the working and middle classes. The Pew Research Center reports that the number of households earning two-thirds to twice the median income has shrunk from sixty-one percent of the US population in 1971 to fifty-one percent today, and that reduced middle class earns a lower percent of total national income. The 1972 adjusted gross wages for the average worker was $738 per week. In 2008 it was $598. In 1970 the average CEO made twice what the average worker made. Today that same CEO makes five hundred times what the average worker makes. The income of the richest one-percent has tripled since 1980, while at the same time the income of the bottom ninety percent has dropped by twenty percent. Bill Clinton and politicians from both sides of the aisles promised to create jobs with NAFTA in the early 1990s, but according to the Economic Policy Institute, NAFTA actually cost the United States nearly 700,000 jobs, mostly in manufacturing.
There has only been one brief moment where the American middle class grew at all in the last thirty years: during the tech bubble of the late 1990s. Reality television as we know it began just after this anomalous growth spurt began reversing itself. Shows like Survivor, Big Brother and Fear Factor dramatized the new economic realities: vicious competition, humiliation, hard work for little reward, and winner-take-all ethics. These shows reflect the American economic policymakers’ ideology, where policy is decoupled from ethics, as well as from common sense. As wealth is more and more shifted from the middle class to a small concentration of the upper classes, demand begins to shrink, and with it, the ability to recover from the cyclical crises that are part of our economic system. The middle class is the main consumer class of the United States, and consumption is two thirds of the US economy. As the middle class shrinks, consumption shrinks. As consumption shrinks, the time it takes to recover after recessions grows. Increasing income inequality also translates into increasing economic instability and slower growth. Since the 1980s the job market has taken longer and longer to recover after every bust. More than five years after the great recession of 2007, the job market still hasn’t recovered, but the stock market is booming. Because of this, the wealthy are enjoying full recovery, while the middle and working classes are falling behind, largely because of high unemployment. Corporate profits are booming, but only during the Great Depression has the share of GDP going to salary and wages ever been lower. American workers are less and less part of American prosperity.
The new economy of reality television has helped American Idol become the most profitable show in the U.S. Its contestants represent legions of unpaid laborers. American Idol presents itself as an aspirational drama, but the perspectives of the show are very much those of the ruling elite. Success in this competition is about pleasing famous millionaires on their terms. Idol‘s Horatio Alger stories remain the mythic ideal, but the statistics point to a very different reality. In America, the chances of someone’s making it to the top or to the middle from the bottom are lower than in any other advanced industrial country. The essence of American Idol is not so much the performances of the singers as it is the dramatization of the unbridgeable class divide between the ruling elite panel sitting behind the desks and the average citizen contestants standing on stage.
The early rounds of American Idol feature inappropriate contestants with little or no talent who are intentionally let through the cattle call weeding process. This represents an ugly and compelling entertainment spectacle that allows viewers to enjoy the drama of a few elite upper class celebrities verbally torturing some unfortunate neurotic caught in their web. These early scenes are job interviews designed to go horribly wrong. The hopeless contestants seem to deserve this fate because their grotesquely delusional overestimation of their talents and complete lack of understanding of what is expected of them by their prospective employers violates some primal sentiment of self-preservation in us. What they are really being punished for is not a lack of talent. They are being punished for being socially maladapted. Sadistic spectators at a ritual enforcement of conformity, we enjoy watching these sickly deer being culled from the herd.
In the later rounds, when we root for the talented underdogs who have made it through the culling process, our sentiment shifts: now we’re thrilled at someone else’s success. But we’re also connecting with our own desire to sell out. Can this person hold on to a vestige of their humanity and individuality while achieving the extreme-sports version of selling out? American Idol openly and engagingly celebrates the triumph of commercialism over art. As viewers, we are rooting for the corporate machine that manufactures these celebrities as much as for the contestants themselves.
Killer Karaoke breaks with this tradition. There is no panel. The contestants are judged only by the audience, according to whatever criteria they please, probably a mix of singing talent, courage, and how entertainingly they flip out. But winning is not exactly the point of the show. Something of an afterhtought, the anti-climactic final challenge involves singing while remaining balanced on a giant rotating turntable with two other remaining contestants. The point of the show is to see how winningly contestants can suffer humiliation and pain under objectionable working conditions. In contrast with American Idol, Killer Karaoke encourages the audience to sympathize with all the contestants from the beginning: though we’re amused by their suffering, we’re also rooting for them. We want everyone to succeed, in a situation where success comes down to freaking out in the most hilarious way.
The host Steve-O (Stephen Gilchrist Glover), a graduate of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, went from working in a Florida flea market circus to being one of the most visible performers on Jackass, the MTV reality show featuring self-harming stunts. His role on that show was marked by the extremity of his stunts, his oddly calm and polite demeanor, and his notorious struggles with drugs and alcohol. The inane and sublime poetics of Jackass inform Killer Karaoke to a significant degree. The qualities the now drug-free Steve-O brings with him from his former show—a particular combination of affability, masochism, encouragement, and sunniness in the face of pain and humiliation—help form much of the tone of Killer Karaoke and differentiate it from a host of other reality shows. He is a man dumb enough to consent to be choked unconscious six times in a row, and sensitive enough to tenderly French-kiss a giraffe. He helps steer the contestants to do their best to accept the challenges in the Jackass spirit, and some of them do seem to have fully embraced the idea that their suffering and fear are meant to bring joy to others.
Steve-O is consistently lucid and endearing on the show, even when the occasional shadow of substance-induced derangement briefly passes over his face. It’s clear he is not really involved in the design of the stunts, which are extreme by game-show standards but lightweight compared to some of the activities featured on Jackass, which often veered closer to self-harm-oriented performance art than reality TV. Steve-O is very much a traditional game show host in this role on Killer Karaoke, an updated Bud Collyer. He stays out of the action and keeps to the role of explaining the stunts and drawing comments out of the contestants. In a recent interview about the show, he said, “Breaking bones and sticking things up my ass was not getting any easier.” It’s clear that he has a strong grasp of the economy of the show, and perhaps about reality TV in general: “It’s about the misfortune of others and exploiting people’s willingness to sacrifice their dignity and well being just to be on TV for a brief moment.” Steve-O’s host character is an expert on ill-advised activities who has happily gotten himself promoted to a upper management position.
One particularly telling challenge has the contestants singing while taking on the job of a waiter, serving Steve-O a five-course meal while being shocked by multiple electric collars attached to various parts of their bodies. This tableau of this challenge perfectly mirrors the increasingly debased working conditions in the United States. Before the performance, Steve-O briefly zaps himself on the neck with the shock collar set on full-strength, partly to associate himself with the contestant, and partly to imply that the singer is participating in the equivalent of a Jackass stunt. It is clear, though, that Steve-O is no longer engineering pain for himself but organizing it for others. Following the inevitable logic of career self-advancement, he has gone from being the exploited to being the manager of other people’s exploitation.
The genuine class anxiety-fueled schadenfreude of American Idol isn’t really a part of Killer Karaoke. Just before the stunts, Steve-O always says something to the effect of “You can do this, we’re all rooting for you,” even when it’s obvious that the contestant is about to get considerably more of a challenge than they are prepared for. This is a show where everyone is supposed to enjoy the pain together. Even when one contestant completely loses all traces of composure and stops singing entirely, Steve-O smiles and said afterward, “Nobody comes here to see everything go well.” Instead of notes from a panel of wealthy authority figures, the contestants, rather, get one line of instruction: “No matter what happens, do not stop singing.” All that is expected of them is to remain committed to the performance of the song in absurdly unacceptable circumstances. This mirrors being middle class in a country where a middle-class lifestyle has increasingly been an unsustainable performance that is only possible to continue though reckless borrowing. Is it that much of stretch to imagine a similar electric shock system being utilized on Amazon.com warehouse workers when the GPS units they’re forced to carry indicate they’re not moving fast enough? Currently these warnings come in text messages.
All the contestants can sing, but at its root Killer Karaoke is not really a singing show. It’s the interruption of the singing that counts. Most performers do not even get to the chorus of their chosen songs before their voices begin to lurch and jump into moans, screams, disconcerted verbal objections, fragments of melodies, and awkward gaps of silence. One particular challenge always seems to set off the most dynamically cacophonous additions to the songs. The challenge involves lowering the singer into a tank of cold water and then gradually filling the tank with larger and larger snakes. The physical discomfort combined with primal fear has produced some amazingly original variations in song interpretation. These musical ideas are accidental, but they are also compelling. The result is that Killer Karaoke is the only place where it is possible to hear avant garde music on television. If played outside the context of the show, some of these songs could easily rival early 1970s Yoko Ono recordings like “Unfinished Music,” for use of extended vocal technique, edginess and genuine expressiveness unsullied by commercial compromise. These are the primal screams of the disappearing American middle class.
Killer Karaoke’s DNA can be traced back to one of the earliest reality shows, Beat the Clock. Beat the Clock, hosted by Bud Collyer, began airing in 1950, and featured contestants competing for money as they attempted timed stunts. Killer Karaoke, like Beat the Clock, is structured as a series of tasks: in other words, work. And it does something that TV is particularly good at: showing a person’s immediate, visceral response. Killer Karaoke doesn’t go farther into the contestant’s backstory than their name and what song they’ve chosen. Their reactions are their story.
What is relevant to viewers’ lives in Killer Karaoke is the purging, through laughter, of the stress of increasingly difficult and unrewarding work conditions. Its contestants have little to gain. The show exists in a world where the pretense of social mobility is almost totally gone. It’s taken for granted that the terms of work are bad. The show is about how well and how entertainingly the singers go through their ordeals, reflecting the increasingly shrinking opportunities and humiliating work conditions now facing the majority of the American workers, where one can expect little from working hard and playing by the rules. Maybe one day someone will make a show about how to actually change these conditions that is this much fun to watch.
Drew Gardner’s books include Chomp Away (Combo, 2010), and Petroleum Hat (Roof Books, 2005). He tweets at @chompaway and lives in New York City.