If you want to start an argument with someone, you have quite a few options. At one end of the spectrum, there’s aggression. You charge into the fray, unleashing a diatribe of righteous anger. It’s loud and memorable, and usually gets your point(s) across. Be careful, though – you may come across as a humourless drama queen. Now everyone hates you. A Pyrrhic victory. Then, at the opposite end, you have disdain. Play the cool card, and don’t even condescend to engage in debate. Infuriating and effective. If they counter-act, though, by deeming your silence evidence of a tongue tied and swanning off with the last word, you may as well have pulled your pants down and handed them a paddle. Between these extremes, you have a number of more moderate alternatives. And then, my favourite – the comedy option. You make a mockery of the whole thing, yourself included, and trust that the point will get made without you hammering it home.
Last month, I attempted to do just that when I wrote a short film in response to the continued use of ‘cabaret’ as a derogatory term on The X Factor. With the help of my cabaret colleagues, particularly my gifted partner Laura Corcoran (with whom I perform as Frisky and Mannish), the film has become somewhat viral, reaching over 25,000 views in one day. Gary Barlow thought it was “amazing,” and Lyn Gardner promptly wrote an article in The Guardian about how cabaret is currently attracting “some of our brightest, most entrepreneurial and most talented producers and performers.”
There seem to be two reasons that the film worked. 1) Every cabaret performer involved in the video is actually good. More than good. Weird, eccentric, inventive. And talented. 2) The video does not explicitly criticise The X Factor. We don’t burn effigies of Gary Barlow and Louis Walsh. Quite the opposite. We take their comments on board. We submit. We de-cabaret. We follow their implications through to the furthest, blandest, most colourless degree. It’s an apocalyptic vision.
Our film has already been misunderstood by some. One early comment was that “perhaps it would have been better to simply film the cabaret performers doing good quality cabaret,” to which I would reply, “we did.” Another viewer asserted that we had got it all wrong. “You’ve missed the point, guys. If you’re cabaret, you should go on Britain’s Got Talent.” Talk about missing the point, mate. A more insightful commentator observed that The X Factor is a talent show looking for a pop star, and therefore the judges are entitled to dismiss cabaret as not in keeping with their brief. Sounds reasonable enough. Although they’d probably end up dismissing crazily-costumed Lady GaGa as “too cabaret.” Or Bette Midler. Or Amanda Palmer. Or Freddie Mercury, David Bowie, Kate Bush. Anything other than a person aged between 16-28 singing an acoustic cover of a pop song. (He yawns.) Excuse me.
So what is the point that we intended to make? I think everyone involved in our video had slightly differing reasons for being there. One particular performer wanted Barlow’s testicles on a skewer. Others came hoping for bubbly wine. Most just saw it as a fun opportunity to get dressed up. Some of these people, including me, watch and enjoy The X Factor. Many of them don’t. On a Saturday night, when the programme is broadcast, most of us are on a stage performing, or in an audience cheering, or backstage drinking, and as long as we can make a living doing that, we’re fine.
For me, however, there is a serious point behind the spoof. I’m constantly inspired by the diverse range of professionals I meet on the cabaret scene. These people are their own agents, managers, producers, promoters, directors, writers, stylists, makeup artists, dressers… as well as consummate performers. Cabaret artists work tirelessly. They’re acutely intuitive of the mechanisms of performance. They have to be versatile, to negotiate numerous venues of differing sizes, to prepare in less-than-ideal dressing room situations, to marshal the attention of a rowdy crowd until you can hear a pin drop, and to bring a reluctant audience up to boiling point. And they do all this, never to become a household name or receive a massive pay cheque, but for the sheer love of the craft. They deserve respect. So when a well-known, well-paid celebrity on a widely-viewed television programme asserts that the genre of cabaret is populated by “tired,” “old,” “past-it” performers who aren’t “relevant,” thereby perpetuating an unfair stereotype, not to mention a misapprehension as annoying to me as the use of “gay” to mean “bad” – then I want to start an argument on behalf of my friends.