There’s something absolutely fascinating about the video footage of the Madden Brothers (formerly of Good Charlotte) playing an acoustic version of ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’ for the cricket on Invasion Day. This performance coincided with their KFC Good Times endorsement – the Madden brothers’ involvement in which raised a lot of questions about their former punk vegetarianism and support for PETA. It’s stunningly void of self-awareness, the trait that keeps the ‘real’ in reality nearly twenty years after the genre’s explosion.
Reality television (or participation in it) functions by allowing us to communicate our values – exactly which Real Housewife you find the most endearing reveals a lot about your morals, or even your political leanings. Some viewers would think it’s okay to call another woman ‘a wog bitch’ and Real Housewives of Melbourne gives you the opportunity to debate that. But because reality TV’s value is defined by reaction and immediacy, it’s less likely you’ll be able to talk through the minutiae of Australian Idol season six than a re-run of The Sopranos.
Netflix’s Queer Eye demonstrates how far representations of queerness have come since the early 2000s, and the importance of interrogating ideas of masculinity. The most affecting episode centres on the squad supporting a gay man through his struggles in coming out to his stepmother after the death of his conservative and homophobic father. Cameras and IKEA renovations aside, it gives us the impression that we are witnessing something real, vital and transformative. Queer Eye is a display of empathy and empowerment. A focus on personal growth and confidence in the revamped version of a reality stalwart shows the potential for complexity within the genre.
Entertainment that is all artifice or imagination comes across as more enduring than structured reality, whether in TV, music or writing. I’ve described nonfiction as the reality TV of literature. The material is abundant, the impact rarely lasting, but these are my favourite literary and entertainment media formats. We love to feast on abundant emotion, which is present in the work of writers cannibalising themselves for material, or a Bachelorette contestant’s sudden emotional breakdown about how they’ve been hurt before. It gives us the impression that we are witnessing something unrepeatable.
Australian Bachelorette and former Madden brother-dater Sophie Monk has a history and affinity with the reality format that makes her engagement with the public seemingly genuine. This allows an emotional connection to take place on a different level to your early reality TV shows such as Big Brother or Australian Idol. The audience is aware of the artifice involved in the show: so is Monk. Her first television appearance was at age twelve on Channel 10’s New Faces, and she was a Marilyn Monroe impersonator at Movie World on the Gold Coast before her music career kicked off from her stint in Pop Stars. She put contestants at ease with the cameras, and frequently pointed out the difference between her public and private personas. She wanted to find someone to love introvert Sophie without the makeup or hair extensions. Fittingly for the bizarre public-private blend this produced, her chosen beau discovered he was dumped at the same time as the rest of us, via Instagram.
Reality-literacy is what’s now required to make an impact on an audience. ‘Sophie’s so real,’ was the praise for her season of The Bachelorette. It’s reminiscent of Lana Del Rey’s public denouncement after it was discovered her persona was a music industry product as much as anything else – she wasn’t some lone vintage filter genius living in a trailer park. Del Rey has somehow produced a distinctive style out of reference, homage, and common chord progressions. ‘On Monday they destroy me, but by Friday I’m revived.’ She knows how the industry works.
An alternative to demonstrating a mastery of the reality format is authenticity rooted in tragedy. Think the video package about a talent show contestant’s personal loss, or the narrative around albums like Mount Eerie’s ‘A Crow Looked At Me’, or Annie Hardy’s ‘Rules’. In the current media landscape, criticism has increasingly given way to straight description or promotion – outlining what a thing is, rather than what it attempts, and how successful it is in this regard. This makes authenticity attractive as an irreducible value: it sees an insight into truth in things that otherwise might be dismissed as too scrappy. The tragedy is inseparable from the art(efact) itself – it becomes an integral part of the story that sells it.
Even early Good Charlotte would make reference in interviews to the difficult environment they grew up in. In ‘The Young and the Hopeless’, the title track from the album that ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’, Good Charlotte position themselves as the arbiters of the real. ‘These critics and these trust fund kids try to tell me what punk is/But when I see them on the street, they got nothing to say.’ It’s a long way from the KFC endorsement, and it makes me wonder: do flat pronouncements of realness cheapen growth and change over time, do they reveal how seldom we live up to our own ideals?