Talent show novelty acts are certainly nothing new and though X Factor’s ‘Honey G’ may be the latest weird and wacky formulation, the concept and appeal of these characters is well established. X Factor indeed has its own history of such personas, from Rylan Clarke, who managed to get all the way to the Quarter-Final in 2012, Irish-twins Jedward and the nation’s favourite Wagner (no its V-agner Louis!). However, such characters are certainly not limited to X Factor: we only need to recall the days of Anne Widdecombe on Strictly Come Dancing, or bring to mind any of David Walliams’ golden buzzer acts on Britain’s Got Talent. But why exactly do such acts do so well? What is the appeal of the novelty act?
In one sense it’s their lack of talent, but simultaneously their lack of caring, that we seem to find inherently appealing. Let’s quickly recall Christian Spridon’s performance of ‘It’s Raining Men’ from the Britain’s Got Talent semi-final (yes semi final!) in 2014:
Now clearly Spridon’s talent is not in his singing ability, given that he somehow manages to sing the entire song out of tune. Yet the performance is simultaneously amazing because he doesn’t care about this and clearly has an incredible amount of fun anyway. To an extent, we do seem to be laughing rather cruelly at other people’s disillusioned ideas about their abilities, and that adds certain qualm to us finding entertainment at seeing the latest X Factor wannabe spectacularly fail before having their dreams shattered by Simon Cowell. This of course does raise separate questions about the morality of the entertainment industry and their instrumental use of the novelty act, but these worries aside for the moment, it allows us to understand the two core features that define our love of the novelty: firstly their lack of care in being ‘that novelty act’, but also secondly our natural inclination to get behind such figures because they’re giving it a shot anyway.
Given half the chance – and if our singing wasn’t so terrible in the shower – I’m sure that many of us would love to be on the X Factor stage or dancing on Strictly with Anton DuBeke, but we are too scared to do so. But these characters, aware everyone is better, throw caution to the wind. It’s because of this that we get behind them and enjoy their journey through the competition alongside them. We admired their ability to, despite their lack of talent, get up and give it a go anyway!
The other part of these novelty acts that we love is their natural – or sometimes constructed – humour and element of careless fun. Here we can simply turn to the latest in the canon: X Factor’s Honey G who has seen herself get through not just the audition stages and six seat challenge, but right through to the live shows.
Even if you don’t find yourself singing and dancing along to her performances, a lot of the population do as she has been voted through safely for at least the first three weeks of the competition. Part of that secret simply has to be because we find the whole thing inherently fun and entertaining; novelty singers are not going to give you some slow, tiresome ballad. They remove you from the standard monotony of life for a few minutes a week, and it’s why we love them. The same applies for the Tangos that aren’t Tangos on Strictly and the drag acts that are as convincing as the latest rugby social on Britain’s Got Talent. We love to laugh and these acts, while appealing us to an endearing level, simply entertain us. Why else would TV producers keep them?
But away from this diagnosis of the function of the novelty act, there are some more underlying concerns about the ‘use’ of such people as in instrumental form of entertainment, often exposing their weakness and vulnerability. For some, this is also to their benefit (Honey G is having a great time), but for others, especially those we see on audition rounds but get no further, all they get out of it is being the subject of amassed public humiliation. This is perhaps best seen from one of the most famous bad X Factor auditions in history, Ariel Burdett in 2008:
Though people find this humorous, it led to much media harassment both in terms of her lyrical capabilities but also her person (she was labelled as ‘insane’ and ‘vulnerable’ by several outlets). Equally, figures such as Rylan Clark received serious social media harassment and constant death threats. The question is: should producers be allowed to use such people in order to entertain us in a way that seems slightly disrespectful to them? Often people can believe they are talented and get angry when confronted, but should we find humour in their failures? I’m inclined to allow it – these people should understand what they are signing up for – but it’s certainly a topic that is hotly debated. I see the social media side as more a problem, and it does seem to some extent that producers are ‘setting up’ such acts for this type of harassment.
The novelty act, however, is not something we are likely to see leaving our screens any time soon. Honey G’s progression on X Factor is just the latest in a long-line of well established novelty acts that, as a nation, we have backed because they stand out not only for their entertainment value but their sense of, even if deluded, endearment. Worries about the ethics aside, we are a society that backs novelty. So ‘H to the O to the N to the E to the Y to the G its…’